You’ve almost certainly seen at least one of those tests that attempts to predict how long you’re going to live. They are usually based on lifestyle choices and heredity – are you a smoker? Do you exercise? What is your diet? How old did your parents and relatives live?
While imperfect, these tests can give you some insight into the potential health challenges you face. But another test also has proven to be a good predictor of longevity, and the questions have more to do with personality characteristics then genetics or how much you work out. In fact, the most accurate predictor in this study has to do with your friends’ perceptions of your personality – while you are in your 20s.
A study co-authored by Madeleine Leveille, an adjunct faculty member in the Psychology Department at Southern, and her husband James Connolly, who previously has taught as an adjunct at Southern, shows that how your five closest friends perceive your personality is a key forecaster of your longevity. Leveille and Connolly were among five co-authors of the study.
For men, the most predictive personality trait was conscientiousness. Those whose friends rated them highly enough to place among the top 25 percent of participants with regard to this characteristic lived an average of 10 to 12 years longer than those who were ranked in the bottom 25 percent.
“The difference is roughly the equivalent of that between smokers and nonsmokers,” Connolly says.
Openness (to ideas and experiences) also was a predictive quality for men with an average of 3 to 4 years difference in longevity between those who scored among the highest and lowest quartile in this category.
For women, emotional stability was the most important personality trait with a 3- to 4-year differential between those in the top and bottom 25 percent. And agreeableness was the second most important quality for women, with an average gap of 2 years.
Now, you might be thinking that this test sounds like something from a bygone era – particularly with how women are judged. And in some ways, it is. The data for the study were collected between 1935 and 1938 by the late psychologist E. Lowell Kelly. About 300 engaged couples – most of whom were residents of New England with an average age of 25 — were interviewed separately from their betrothed. Their friends, as identified by the participants as individuals who knew them well enough to provide accurate assessments, were questioned. Most of the participants named five friends, although the number ranged from three to eight, and most were members of their wedding party.
“This was in an era before the long-term employment of women became the norm,” Connolly says. “Would the personality characteristics change among later generations? It’s possible, but we won’t know conclusively for some time.”
All participants were scored in five personality characteristics – conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness, emotional stability and extraversion.
Leveille and Connolly, who have their own psychology practice in Waterford, followed up the data from the study several years ago. The results were published in a recent edition of the prominent journal “Psychological Science.”
“If you think about it, the results of the study make sense,” Leveille says. “Who knows you better than your friends? And when you look at the key personality traits involved, men who are conscientious are less impulsive and less likely to take unnecessary risks. And those who are open-minded were more likely, for example, to give up cigarette smoking after the scientific evidence mounted in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s that it is harmful to your health.
“As for the women, you have to keep in mind that these individuals grew up in the 1920s and 30s. Being agreeable back then probably meant being a good housewife and having a close network of friends.”
The study also looked at how individuals perceived their own personality characteristics. Some correlation between self-perceived personality traits and longevity existed among men. In other words, men who gave themselves high marks for conscientiousness and openness tended to live a little longer, but it was not as much of a factor as their friends’ perception. Among women, self-perception was not a factor at all.
How would your closest friends evaluate you?