How personality traits affect our health

Jon Puleston

Vice President, Innovation, Lightspeed Research

As a result of the immoral actions of Cambridge Analytica, which gathered and used personality data from millions of people on Facebook without their consent in an attempt to manipulate voting behaviour in the 2016 US election, personality measurement has been in the shadows of late.

What Cambridge Analytica did was wrong, but it would be unfair to single out the specific research techniques they used—in this case, personality measurement—as some sort of black sheep methodology. All forms of research can be used in unethical ways.

Instead of stepping back from personality measurement, we should work to better understand how to use it in positive ways, particularly in the realm of healthcare. Our personalities determine so many aspects of our behaviour and decisions, which can directly or indirectly impact both our physical and mental health.

Conducted ethically, measuring and understanding personality more effectively could be key to developing a range of more effective health- and prevention-related communication strategies. For a long time, we have been aware of how our lifestyles impact our health. But perhaps it is more important to understand how our personalities impact our health.

Our personalities determine how we process information, the way we make decisions, how open-minded we are to solutions, how we feel and react in different situations, our propensity to act upon different types of information, whether or not we worry about things, how impulsive we are in our decision-making, how much we think and plan for the future, how much control we feel we have on our lives, how much we engage with other people, how we respond to opportunities and challenges, our attitude towards taking risk…all of these can impact our health.

People with unique cocktails of personality traits can face some very particular healthcare challenges. Extroverts with an open mindset are more vulnerable to weight gain, less conscientious people with a more fatalistic outlook on life are less likely to visit a doctor for treatment and so on.

People with different personalities and cognitive-thinking styles need to be persuaded in different ways to look after their health, seek treatment, comply with treatments and change their behaviour.



For example, persuading people to give up smoking. Some personality types might respond to messages about the dangers of smoking, while other personality types might respond better to a message pitching an opportunity to be healthier.

By tailoring marketing communication ‘treatments’ to different individual personality types, we can ensure greater resonance and impact of these strategies. As marketers, we are in the business of communication, persuasion and facilitation of behaviours. We should be focusing right now on how to do these tasks more effectively to better understand the intimate relationship between our personalities and our health.

We should be developing better ways of measuring people’s personalities. At Kantar, we have recently made some real breakthroughs in this by using more innovative approaches to survey design. We are also exploring the links between certain personality traits and certain health-related conditions at scale across our panel. We are working closely with the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Change, which is at the very forefront on this thinking, to research, test and devise more effective tailored-communication strategies to engage people with different personalities and cognitive thinking styles. We are also working with GroupM to identify more refined ways of targeting audiences with these messages by linking the personality attributes that our research respondents share with wider polls of digital audiences.

It is my belief that, mirroring the development of medical treatments, the future of healthcare marketing communication is going to be all about personalisation.