Associations Of Positive Personality Characteristics With Psychophysiological Response To Stressors: Literature Review


Positive personality characteristics (e.g. hardiness) are important predictors of lower stress. However, it is not clear how positive personality characteristics affect physiological response to stressors. The purpose of this study is to review the existing evidence about how different positive personality characteristics, such as optimism, affect physiological response to psychosocial and physiological stressors in humans. Systemic analysis of empirical articles published1996-2016 in PubMed, Sciencedirect, Medline, Health sources databases was performed. A search was conducted in abstracts of articles by keywords: stressor* AND physiolog* AND respon* AND trait*. Results revealed that positive personal characteristics, such as hardiness, self-esteem, social affiliation, ego resiliency, altruism, straightforwardness, optimism and spirituality predicted better response to psychosocial stressors. Altruism and straightforwardness predicted better response to physiological stressors. Optimism, psychological, emotional and social well-being does not predict better response to physiological stressors whereashardiness, self-esteem, social affiliation, ego resiliency, altruism, straightforwardness, optimism and spirituality predict better response to psychosocial stressors. Altruism andstraightforwardness predict a better response to physiological stressors unlike social, emotional, psychological well-being and optimism.Further research is needed to confirm importance of the specified positive personal characteristics for physiological and psychological response to different types of stressors..

Keywords: Personalitytraitsresponsephysiologicalpsychosocialstressors,


According to the World Health Organization, “The proportion of deaths due to non-communicable

disease is projected to rise from 59% in 2002 to 69% in 2030” (Mathers & Loncar, 2006, p. 1) and

cardiovascular diseases (CVD) will be the biggest contributor of that rise (Mathers & Loncar, 2006).

Traditional factors (e.g. smoking, low physical activity) cannot fully explain why burden of CVD is

rising, so there is a need to look for alternative factors which may help to stay healthy (Sapranaviciute-

Zabazlajeva, 2015). It is believed that only comprehensive (biopsychosocial) approach to non-

communicable diseases can help reduce morbidity (Von Kanel, 2008), so there is a need to consider not

only risk factors, but also factors which help to stay healthy, i.e. salutogenic factors (Antonovsky, 1996).

One of possible factors which can help to stay healthy is positive personality characteristics (Peterson,

Park, Seligman, 2006).

Problem Statement

Positive personality characteristics according to C. Peterson and M. Seligman (2004) are:

creativity (originality, ingenuity), curiosity (interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience), open-

mindedness (judgment, critical thinking), love of learning, perspective (wisdom), bravery (valour),

persistence (perseverance, industriousness), integrity (authenticity, honesty), vitality (zest, enthusiasm,

vigour, energy), love, kindness (generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, altruistic love, “niceness”),

social intelligence (emotional intelligence, personal intelligence), citizenship (social responsibility,

loyalty, teamwork), fairness, leadership, forgiveness and mercy, humility/modesty, prudence, self-

regulation (self-control), appreciation to beauty and excellence (awe, wonder, elevation), gratitude, hope

(optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation), humour (playfulness), spirituality (religiousness, faith,

purpose). Self-esteem, resilience, hardiness are also regarded as positive personality characteristics

(Peterson, Seligman, 2004).

It is suggested (Pressman & Cohen, 2005) that positive personality characteristics can affect illness

trough levels of stress hormones (e.g. positive personality characteristics predict lower levels of stress

hormones) or trough change of response to stress (e.g. positive personality characteristics prevent the

acute response from becoming to chronic) (Pressman & Cohen, 2005). It is also believed that positive

personality characteristics relates with better coping with stress (Nes & Segerstrom, 2006).

However, it is not clear how positive personal characteristics affect not only cognitive coping

(stress coping strategies) but physiological reaction to stress (stressors) as well. For example optimism

does not relate with better response to pain (Pecina et al., 2013) and physical stressor (cold water), but

predicts better response to social stressor (public speaking) (Terrill, Ruiz, & Garofalo, 2010). Some

findings indicate that the interaction of high optimism and high discrimination predicts worse response to

stressors as compared with only high discrimination (Richman, Bennett, Pek, Siegler, & Williams, 2007)

which in fact suggests that optimism may not always have a positive impact upon one’s health. It is

possible that other positive personality characteristics may also relate not only with positive but with

negative health outcomes as well.

So the aim of study is to analyse the links between positive personality characteristics and

physiological response to stressors.

Research Questions

The study is aimed at answering the research question how different positive personality

characteristics affect human’s physiological response to psychosocial and physiological stressors.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of study is to review the existing evidence about how different positive personal

characteristics, such as optimism, altruism, straightforwardness affect physiological response to

psychosocial and physiological stressors in humans?

Research Methods

Systematic literature analysis included empirical articles which studied links between positive

personality characteristics physiological response to stressors and were published from 1996 through

2016. Other criteria included accessibility to article and language: only articles in English. Data search

was conducted in „PubMed“, Sciencedirect, Medline, Health source databases which generated 582

results, 7 from ahead were selected as matching the analysis criteria. The search was conducted by the

following combinations of keywords: stressor* AND physiolog* AND respon* AND trait*. The search

was conducted in abstracts of articles. Excluded articles were the ones which investigated physiological

reactions not in humans (200), not physiological reactions (16), which investigated not positive

personality traits (78), which investigated other phenomena than personality traits (34), literature reviews

(13) and articles not in the English language (3).


B. Turan (2015) investigated the importance of self-esteem to the amount of cortisol before

expected, psychosocial stressor in 77, undergraduate students. Mean age of participants was 21. Exclusion

criteria used were diseases of endocrine system, depression, anxiety, oncological diseases, use of

corticosteroids, use of drugs and tobacco. Results revealed that higher self-esteem related with lower

anticipatory cortisol reactivity in second session. However, at the first session (when public speech

stressor actually happened) self-esteem did not affect the link between anticipatory cortisol and amount of

cortisol during stressor, but higher self-esteem related with lower amount of anticipatory cortisol (in both

sessions). The authors did not find the relationship between depression, fear of negative evaluation does

not relate with cortisol reactivity during second session. According to these findings self-esteem did not

affect cortisol reactivity during the stressor, and suggested that higher self-esteem decrease anticipatory

reactivity of cortisol, and lower anticipatory cortisol reactivity is known to be beneficial for health (Turan,


E. Childs, T. White and H. de Wit (2014) assessed importance of positive and negative

emotionality for physiological response to psychosocial – public-speech stressor in 125 individuals (56

males and 69 females). Participants mean age was 21; body mass index was between 19 and 29.

Exclusion criteria were smoking more than 20 cigarettes per week, serious medical conditions, currently

or at least a year ago diagnosed Axis-1 mental disorder, addiction disorder (including nicotine), abnormal

electrocardiogram, use of prescribed medication, work at night shift and extra exclusion criteria for

women was the use of oral contraceptive. The results showed, that higher tendency at social affiliation (as

a form of positive emotionality) predicted lower peak cortisol increase and lower general cortisol increase

as well as lower mean arterial blood pressure increase. However, higher tendency at social domination

predicted higher general cortisol increase. Authors suggest that a tendency to social affiliation can be

regarded as protective, and a tendency at social domination can be viewed as a risk factor for greater

physiological response to psychosocial stressors. Authors did not evaluate the importance of coping

strategies and regarded it as a limitation of the study.

M. Pecina et al. (2013) assessed how features of personality related with the self-assumed pain

during placebo. Forty seven (19 males and 28 females) healthy participants entered the study. Mean age

of participants was 26 years. A left-handed and smoking participant was removed from study. The study

analysed psychological characteristics such as emotional, psychological and social well-being, optimism,

satisfaction with life, ego-resiliency, altruism, straightforwardness. The results revealed that higher ego-

resiliency, altruism and straightforwardness predicted better response to placebo and higher opioid system

activation – i.e. participants with higher ego-resiliency, altruism and straightforwardness experienced

lower pain because of a better reaction to placebo. Other psychological characteristics (optimism and

well-being) did not affect the response to pain or opioid system activation. Authors suggest that stable

personality characteristics could predict a better response to placebo and suggest replication of the results

in clinical samples.

A.L. Terrill, J.M. Ruiz and J.P. Garofalo (2010) assessed how optimism affected the response to

different types of stressors in 90 (46 males and 44 females) undergraduate students. Participants mean age

was 20. Results showed that optimism did not predict physiological response to physical (cold water)

stressor. However, higher optimism related to lower mean arterial pressure reactivity when imagining

personally disgraceful moments of life, also optimism predicted faster systolic and mean arterial blood

pressure recovery after self-disclosure task, but not during self-disclosure task. Authors suggest that

optimism does not affect the response to physical, but affect the response to psychosocial stressors.

Students’ sample, alcohol and tobacco using were mentioned as limitations of the study.

E.E. Labbe and A. Fobes (2010) assessed the importance of spirituality to physiological response

to psychological load task. Eighty (26 males, 54 females) students participated in the study. Participants’

mean age was 18,50. Results revealed that spirituality predicted lower respiration rate before and during

stress, but spirituality did not predicted skin conductance and heart rate. Low age of participants is

mentioned as a limitation of study.

L.S. Richman, G.G. Bennet, J. Pek, I. Siegler and R.B. Williams (2007) assessed the links between

discrimination, optimism and cardiovascular system response to stressors in 165 (71 white race and 94

black race) participants from community. Mean age of participants was 33,89 years. The exclusion

criteria were any physical and mental disorders and use of medication. Results revealed that participants

which perceived his/her discrimination and optimism as high demonstrated higher diastolic blood

pressure reactivity during psychosocial (anger-recall) stressor, i.e. their response to stressor was worse as

compared with participants which were less optimistic. Laboratory setting was considered as a study


A.M., Sandvik, P.T., Bartone, S.W., Hystad, T.M., Phillips, J.F., Thayer, and B.H., Johnsen (2013)

assessed links between hardiness and immunological response to stressors. Twenty two cadets from

Royal Norwegian Navy participated in the study. Results revealed that participants with balanced

hardiness profile (high scores in commitment, control, challenge) as compared to participants with

misbalanced hardiness profile (high in commitment and control, but low in challenge) demonstrated more

stable amount of InterLeukin-12. The levels of InterLeukin-4 decreased during stressor in the balanced

group, but increased in the unbalanced group. In the unbalanced group of hardiness levels, InterLeukin-10

increased when the level of stress was high. Hardiness balanced group also showed increasing levels of

neuropeptide Y when levels of stress increased. The results show that balanced hardiness response to

stressors is more adaptive as compared to hardiness in an unbalanced group. The study limitations were

small sample and homogenous group of military personnel.

Generalised results of review are presented in table 01 .

Table 1 -
See Full Size >


Hardiness, self-esteem, social affiliation, ego resiliency, altruism, straightforwardness, optimism

and spirituality predict better response to psychosocial stressors.

Ego resiliency, altruism, straightforwardness predict better response to physiological stressors.

Social, emotional, psychological well-being and optimism do not predict better response to

physiological stressors.


I would like to thank my doctoral advisor Loreta Gustainienė for help of preparing manuscript.


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Cite this article as:

Šmitas, A. (2019).  Associations Of Positive Personality Characteristics With Psychophysiological Response To Stressors: Literature Review. In Z. Bekirogullari, M. Y. Minas, & R. X. Thambusamy (Eds.), Cognitive - Social, and Behavioural Sciences - icCSBs 2017, January, vol 20. European Proceedings of Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 226-231). Future Academy.