How does personality affect the way people manage type 2 diabetes?

ACBRD PhD candidate Ralph Geerling discusses why he is interested in understanding more about the relationship between personality traits and type 2 diabetes self-care

By Ralph Geerling

Personality has a strong influence on the way we think, feel and behave, including how we view ourselves and the world around us. A great deal of research has gone into understanding personality. One of the most widely accepted approaches has identified five broad traits, commonly referred to as “The Big 5”. These include Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism, or OCEAN. We can think of each of these as a spectrum or continuum, with the idea being that all people possess each trait to some degree. In health research, it has been identified that personality traits may have a protective effect in relation to certain conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, and can influence how we live with them on a day-to-day basis.

One such study by Prof Tim Skinner and colleagues (2014), involved 1313 adults with type 2 diabetes (mean age 66 ± 11 years; 53% men) in Freemantle, Australia. They studied the associations of these OCEAN personality traits with self-care behaviours, such as self-monitoring of blood glucose and taking medications. They also measured body mass index (BMI – the ratio of a person’s weight compared to their height) and whether or not they smoked.

The study found that participants who scored higher on Conscientiousness were less likely to have a BMI in the obese range, and to smoke, and more likely to self-monitor their blood glucose levels and take their medications as recommended.

The researchers discussed how these results can translate into improved diabetes self-management. A key facet of Conscientiousness is impulse control, for which there is evidence of various training protocols being effective, such as motivational incentives and mindfulness. Given the individual nature of a person’s personality, the researchers also proposed that individualising treatment based on personality assessment is worthy of further exploration.

This is just one of the studies that has inspired me to focus my PhD on the relationship between personality and self-management of type 2 diabetes, particularly weight management. For the first study of my PhD, I am planning to bring the existing studies together in a systematic literature review. This will enable me to gain a comprehensive understanding of what has been researched previously and how my PhD program of research can build upon this evidence to generate new knowledge.

Skinner TC, Bruce DG, Davis TME and Davis WA. Personality traits, self-care behaviours and glycaemic control in type 2 diabetes: The Freemantle Diabetes Study Phase II. Diabetic Medicine, 2014; 31(4): 487-492.