Have you ever heard someone describe themselves as ‘Type A’ and then wondered what on earth they were talking about? This is a reference to a popular personality theory that is often used in recruiting and management and that has been shown to successfully predict a number of facets of an individual’s personality and behaviour – particularly their likelihood of developing heart disease. It’s a controversial theory that isn’t that highly regarded by the wider scientific community these days but it’s nevertheless an interesting subject to look at and particularly seeing as it has become such a well-known theory. Here we’ll see what it gets right and why people are still sceptical.
As you might imagine, Type A and Type B personality theory essentially attempts to divide people into one of two categories. ‘Type A’ personalities are described as being ambitious, driven, impatient, competitive, prone to taking on more than they can handle, proactive, workaholic and straight forward.
On the other hand, Type B personalities are generally described as being more withdrawn, steady, laid back, introverted, creative, reflective and generally more relaxed.
History and Criticisms
The original Type A personality was described in the 1950s by two cardiologists named Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman. They looked at the personality type specifically with regards to its role in heart disease and found in a study of people aged 35-59 that these personality traits were indeed related to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease – though not necessarily mortality. The likely explanation is that Type A personalities are more likely to experience high blood pressure and stress and thus will place more strain on their hearts. Criticisms were levelled against the original study which failed to take into account potential confounding variables such as diet and exercise, but a subsequent trial by Friedman and cohorts accounted for these factors and still found a correlation. Further they found that providing ‘Type A personality counselling’ would help to reduce the risk of recurrence in post myocardial infarction patients.
Since then the concept has gained popularity, likely largely due to its relative simplicity compared to many other personality theories, and partly due to its close ties with health.
Despite this, the theory has nevertheless come under considerable fire and its effectiveness is a controversial subject. Some subsequent studies have failed to replicate the findings of Friedman et al, and there is evidence that some of this may be due to funding from tobacco companies. The accusation here is that tobacco companies – known to have been interested in Type A personality theory for a number of decades – actually funded a lot of the research and encouraged particular results. The hope here being that researchers would that way be able to ‘prove’ that smoking was more likely to correlate with heart disease rather than cause it – simply because Type A personalities would be more likely to be smokers. Furthermore, this would then provide a new variable in the study of heart health which could be used to discredit previous studies demonstrating the link between heart health and smoking (because they would not have accounted for personality type).
A recent study from 2012 looked at many previous studies on Type A personality and drew these conclusions – seriously undermining previous findings. Of thirteen etiologic studies reviewed, only three had positive findings and all of these were linked in some way to the tobacco industry.
An Evaluation of the Type A/Type B Personality Theory
So does this mean that this personality theory is without merit? Not at all. While some of the previous studies may be questionable, there have nevertheless been some studies with positive findings that do not have any connection to the tobacco industry.
Furthermore, the effects of stress are well known to be far reaching and profound when it comes to our health and it’s certainly true that some types of people are more prone to stress than others. Even if the correlation isn’t quite as clear cut as some studies would make out, that’s not to say that there isn’t an important relationship here to examine.
It’s also possible that another relationship exists here entirely. Studies have shown for instance that there may be a third factor responsible – that being the role of magnesium. Studies show that Type A personalities are more likely to experience stress and to produce more catecholamines in response. This can then lead to intracellular loss of magnesium, which in turn can increase the likelihood of cardiovascular problems. Early studies in this area are so far promising.
If nothing else, this is just a fun way of looking at your own personality and learning about yourself. While this personality theory may be a little ‘black and white’, it’s nevertheless interesting to ask yourself which category you fall into and how that may be harming your health.