The links between personality traits and risky behaviours


A new study has looked at the links between teenagers’ personality traits and risky behaviours like drink and drugs. Professor Ian Walker looks at the implications of what they discovered.

The prevalence of “risky” behaviours in terms of health and young people in the UK – drinking alcohol, taking drugs, unprotected sex – is higher than in other similar countries.

For example, British children aged between 16 and 24 years are likely to drink more than double the daily recommended amounts on their heaviest drinking day in the last week, and their frequent drug use is much higher than for older people. 

Abortion and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) rates peak in adolescence and 16 to 24-year-olds account for more than half of new STIs diagnosed in the UK.

It is obviously important for individuals and their health, but also for the UK as a whole. In 2006/07, smoking-related illness costs on the NHS were £3.3 billion, alcohol costs £3.3 billion, overweight and obesity costs £5.1 billion. In England and Wales in 2003/04, drug use was estimated to impose economic and social costs of £15.4 billion.

We wanted to find out how much personality (rather than other factors such as cognitive abilities and family background) has to do with risky behaviours – the kinds of traits that can be shaped and influenced from an early age. 

We looked in particular at evidence of sense of control (people with an “external locus of control” believe that what happens in life is largely determined by events beyond their control, while those with an “internal locus of control” believe that life events are caused by their own decisions and behaviours); self-esteem (perception of their own value); and attitudes to work.

Using large sets of data for English children born in 1990, we tracked the progress of 5,000 young people from 2004 until 2011 (from age 14 to 19/20). The information comes from self-completion questionnaires, in order to minimise the risk of misreporting on sensitive topics. 

The findings take into account other factors that might influence behaviour, in order to isolate the effects of personality more specifically, such as gender, ethnicity, and parents’ education.

Personality has a notable effect on some risky health behaviours, and particularly cannabis and drug use, unprotected sex and low levels of physical activity. 

Having a limited sense of control increases the risk of taking cannabis, having ever had unprotected sexual intercourse, or being younger than 16 at first sexual intercourse by about 15 to 16 per cent compared with the average, and has a stronger negative effect on the chances of trying other drugs (plus 40 per cent). 

These negative effects of external locus of control are not surprising, as external individuals tend to think that their choices have less impact on their future, which they believe are mostly driven by luck and external circumstances. As a consequence, they also seem less cautious in engaging in various risky health behaviours. Personality traits, however, do not seem to have a relevant effect on drinking habits.

Young people with low self-esteem face an increased risk of taking drugs (plus 50 per cent) and cannabis (plus 30 per cent), engaging in early or unprotected sexual activity (around plus 18 per cent), and having a low level of physical activity (plus 20 per cent). 

High levels of work ethic seems to decrease chances of engaging in risk-taking behaviours, such as cannabis or drug use (minus 25 to minus 30 per cent), early or unprotected sex (results between minus 13 and minus 16 per cent), and low levels of physical activity (minus 30 per cent). 

As might be expected, children with low self-esteem seem to underestimate the consequences of their risky health behaviours and, possibly because they struggle to see themselves as valuable, they are less cautious with respect to their health. On the other hand, children with a strong work ethic are more likely to carefully evaluate the consequences of their actions and to have a proactive orientation towards the future.

Generally, children who were less healthy at birth or had a disability or a special need are less likely to engage in risky behaviours. Boys seem more likely to experiment with cannabis, drugs, excessive drinking and risky sexual behaviour, and so are children who grew up in a single-parent family or have older brothers and sisters. 

Ethnic minorities (and especially children with an Asian background) seem less likely to engage in risky behaviours, and a higher level of maternal education increases the chances of taking drugs or cannabis or being a heavy drinker (possibly because of higher income and less supervision). 

Children who perform better in test scores at age 11 also have slightly increased chances of trying cannabis, drugs or being heavy drinkers, but the size of the effect is marginal.

Given this evidence, there is potential for initiatives at school level to help shape changes in personality to promote positive health choices later in life. 

Public policies focused on improving outcomes for children and adolescents have traditionally been centred on educational outcomes, such as increasing the number of years of schooling, or improving school attainments, as education is a strong predictor of labour market participation, future wages, and occupational choices. 

However, the role of softer skills in promoting positive economic and social behaviours and human capital investments has recently received increased attention from economists and policy-makers. Public policies focused on young people are gradually moving away from simply improving education outcomes or access to higher education for students from low socio-economic status, and towards fostering a variety of non-cognitive skills and emotional literacy.

A variety of interventions have been suggested that exploit the early malleability of personality to improve long-term outcomes. Selective personality-targeted interventions that focus on specific personality traits as risk factors for alcohol and substance use have recently been shown to be more effective than universal prevention programmes aiming at increase general knowledge about the harms of alcohol and substance misuse. 

The PreVenture Program has been implemented for children between 13 and 15-years-old in Canada and the UK since 2001 and includes tailored interventions based on screening results for four personality dimensions that have been linked to increased risk for alcohol and drug use. Subsequent evaluations showed that students in the intervention groups showed significantly lower use of alcohol and drugs than their peers in the control groups.

In the UK, an example of these policies is SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning), a voluntary programme designed to develop the social and emotional skills of all school pupils in the areas of self-awareness, managing feelings, empathy, motivation and social skills. SEAL is currently being implemented in around 90 per cent of primary schools and 70 per cent of secondary schools. 

Various evaluations of SEAL have been conducted. One concluded that primary SEAL “had a major impact on children’s wellbeing, confidence, social and communication skills, relationships, including bullying, playtime behaviour, pro-social behaviour and attitudes towards school”.

In the USA, the programme “Second Step” focuses on core social-emotional skills such as empathy and communication, emotion management, and problem-solving and has been implemented for students from kindergarten to middle school.

Evaluations of middle school Second Step have shown positive effect of the programme on social competence, pro-social skills and behaviours, and a decrease in depression and anxious behaviours.

Previous research has discussed the importance of parental investments, education and interventions to promote positive changes in personality, highlighting the effectiveness of interventions targeting younger children and specifically focusing on improving self-control and positive behaviour. 

The well-known Perry Preschool programme, consisting of pre-school sessions and home visits did improve important later-life outcomes through personality and is thought to have worked primarily through socio-economic channels.

The evaluations of a number of existing policies have shown that changing personality is possible and interventions are useful, especially when they target young children and adolescents. 

We believe that our study shows some of the ultimate benefits of these programmes, which span a wide range of health-behaviours, and might have important long-lasting consequences on individuals’ lives and society as a whole.

  • Professor Ian Walker is from the Management School at Lancaster University. Visit:

Further information
This research report is entitled The Effect of Non-Cognitive Traits on Health Behaviours in Adolescence and has been authored jointly by Prof Walker and Silvia Mendola from the University of Wollongong, School of Economics in Australia. It is due to be published soon.


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