afew years doing research at the SalkInstitute in La Jolla, California, afamously magniﬁcent structure
perched on the edge of a cliff overlookingthe Paciﬁc. Next door was a hang-glidingcenter, the denizens of which would oftenglide past the windows of my upper-ﬂoorlab. For some reason, I had decided thatthe sport was idiotic, its practitioners abunch of irritating cowboys. One morn-ing, as I glanced up from perhaps my thou-sandth pipetting of the day, my eyes brieﬂylocked with those of a passing hang glider.It occurred to me in that instant that weboth were thinking the same thought:“No way in hell would I like to be in yourshoes, buddy.”One person’s pleasure, another’s poi-son. The fool had paid good money toglide around the cliffs; I would pay tospend sixteen hours a day working on myscience (please don’t tell
they’re hardenough to pry funds out of as it is). Andfor each of us, the other’s activity wouldprobably count as a stressful misery.As it is with life’s peak experiences, soit is with the everyday challenges—trafﬁc jams, mortgage payments, deadlines, rela-tionship problems and the like. Depend-ing on who you are, such stressors mayrepresent profound psychological bur-dens—or triﬂes you barely notice. But therepercussions of those individual differ-ences in attitude resound far beyond theborders of your emotional realm. Amongother things, there are good reasons tothink they help determine your patterns of disease: which illnesses afﬂict you andhow quickly you recover from them.In recent decades study after study hasborne out the immensely important factthat people whose personalities fall intocertain reasonably well established cate-gories face an unusually high risk of devel-oping some stress-related diseases. A bur-geoning cottage industry has grown up instress physiology and health psychology,exploring just what those personality typesare and how they are linked to bodilyhealth. Surprises abound. On inspection,correlations that everyone has taken forgranted can change or even vanish over-night; new ones can appear. Recently anunsuspected and paradoxical stress-pronepersonality type has turned up in one of the last places most psychologists wouldhave thought to look for it.
-disposed to stress-related diseases share aphysiological peculiarity. Their blood-streams carry higher than normal levels of chemicals such as glucocorticoids andadrenaline—the so-called stress hormones.In a crisis, those hormones mobilize theﬁght-or-ﬂight response, a brief but power-
ful reaction that helps you deal with acutestress. But if something triggers your bodyto start secreting them chronically, you canbecome prone to a variety of maladies,some as severe as heart disease or adult-onset diabetes, with stigmata that includehigh blood pressure, irritable bowels, in-fertility and insomnia. Even your brain canbe affected: a spate of recent research hasshown that long-term exposure to stresshormones can wither the nerve cells in thehippocampus, a part of the brain that is keyto learning and memory.For people with certain personalitytypes, what triggers that cascade of dam-age is psychological stress—stress to whichthey are unusually vulnerable. Why aretheir bodies working differently from thebodies of most people? An important cluemay lie in something else such vulnerablepeople tend to have in common: a mis-match between the stressors that pummel aperson and the style of that person’s copingresponse, or strategy for regaining physicalor psychological equilibrium.
monamong people with depressive, passivepersonalities, is not to cope at all. Facedwith stressful challenges, many depressivesgive up without a struggle; if they happento stumble onto an effective coping re-sponse, they don’t recognize it for what itis. It has been known for decades that de-pressives are likely to have elevated stresshormone levels in the bloodstream.At the other end of the spectrum of maladaptation lie people with anxiety dis-orders. For them life is ﬁlled with threatsaround every corner. Their response is aconstant hypervigilance, an endless, skit-tering search for safety, a feeling of dreadthat the rules are constantly changing.A similar variety of psychologicaloverkill turns up, with a twist, in so-calledtype A personalities. Type A was ﬁrst de-scribed in 1959 by the cardiologists MeyerFriedman, now director of the MeyerFriedman Institute, which is afﬁliated withthe University of California, San Francisco,and Raymond H. Rosenman, now retired.It is probably the best-established and mostwidely studied disease-prone personalitytype. As Friedman and Rosenman de-scribed them, type A people are immense-ly competitive, overachieving, time-pres-sured, impatient and hostile. The key traiton the list is hostility. Give type A peoplean unsolvable puzzle, have them role-playan interpersonal conﬂict, team them up ona task with a research confederate who (un-beknownst to them) deliberately botchesthe job, and they quickly come to a boil.They see every frustration as a malevolentaffront. Their bloodstreams ﬁll with stresshormones; their blood pressure soars. Overa lifetime such a corrosive discrepancy be-tween stressor and response can exact ahefty cardiovascular price.Hypertension also stalks a lesser-knownpersonality type, one driven by whatSherman A. James, an epidemiologist atthe University of Michigan–Ann Arbor,calls John Henryism. The name refers tothe hero of an American folk song, who,hammering a six-foot-long steel drill,tried to outrace a steam drill tunnelingthrough a mountain. John Henry beat themachine, only to fall dead from the super-human effort. As James deﬁnes it, JohnHenryism involves a predisposition totake the hard way out, to approach high-ly stressful circumstances with a maximumamount of personal effort. On question-naires, people rated as John Henrysstrongly agree with statements such as“When things don’t go the way I wantthem to, it just makes me work even hard-er” or “Once I make up my mind to dosomething, I stay with it until the job iscompletely done.” In psychological jar-gon, such people are said to have an in-ternal locus of control: they think that,with enough effort and determination,they can regulate all outcomes.
The Price of Propriety
For the Martha Stewarts of the world, life may be so perfect it makes them sick
On Human Nature
ROBERT M. SAPOLSKY