An Economic Perspective on Personality Traits and Alcohol Misuse: Evidence from the Health and Retirement Study

TitleAn Economic Perspective on Personality Traits and Alcohol Misuse: Evidence from the Health and Retirement Study
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsKessler, AS, Maclean, JCatherine
JournalJournal of Mental Health Policy and Economics
KeywordsEmployment and Labor Force, Health Conditions and Status, Public Policy

Background: Recent economic work suggests a role for personality traits in determining socioeconomic outcomes. Much of this work has considered labor market outcomes, human capital accumulation, and, to some extent, health outcomes. No economic studies have explored the role of the Big Five taxonomy in alcohol use and misuse. Given defining characteristics of the Big Five, they are plausibly linked with these outcomes. Alcohol misuse is associated with large social costs through healthcare costs, traffic fatalities, violence, and reduced labor market productivity. Thus, understanding risk factors for such use is warranted. Aims of the Study: To investigate the associations between the Big Five, and measures of alcohol use and alcohol misuse. Methods: We obtain data on older adults 50 years and older from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). Our outcomes include one measure of use (any use) and two measures of misuse (heavy drinking and binge drinking). Comparing across different measures of alcohol consumption can shed light on whether the Big Five are related to moderate alcohol use that need not impose social costs or alcohol misuse that may indeed impose such costs. A randomly selected sub-set of respondents completed a self-administered questionnaire developed for the Midlife Development Inventory in either the 2006 or 2008 round of the HRS. We use information collected in this instrument to generate our independent variables of primary interest: agreeableness, openness, extraversion, neuroticism, and conscientiousness traits. Results: We find that the Big Five personality traits are linked with measures of both alcohol use and alcohol misuse. We observe substantial heterogeneity in the associations by personality traits. Specifically, agreeableness is associated with increased risk for alcohol use/misuse while extraversion and openness are negatively associated with risk for these patterns of alcohol consumption. We find no evidence that neuroticism or contentiousness predict alcohol use and misuse. We identify heterogeneity in the associations across demographic characteristics. Discussion: We find associations between the Big Five and our measures of alcohol use and alcohol misuse. Our findings are subject to several data limitations, however. Although the Big Five personality taxonomy is well utilized, it has known limitations. Even in a survey as rich as the HRS, it is likely that we are unable to control for all important variables leading to omitted variable bias. Because we focus on a sample of older adults, the generalizability of our findings to other demographic groups is not clear. Implications for Healthcare Provision and Use: Agreeableness is significantly associated with alcohol use and misuse, which could lead to greater utilization of healthcare services and thus increased costs to the healthcare system. Implication for Health Policies: Healthcare providers should consider aspects of personality when developing and communicating treatment options. Moreover, psychology and economic work documents that interventions can alter aspects of personality even among older adults. Further research on and implementation of effective interventions may be warranted. Implications for Further Research: Future studies should examine the implications of personality for a broader range of outcomes. Survey administrators could consider including validated measures of personality in surveys to facilitate such research.


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Endnote Keywords

personality traits/Big five/labor Market/alcohol use/midlife Development Inventory/public Policy

Endnote ID


Citation Key8211