Do personality traits predict post-traumatic stress?: A prospective study in civilians experiencing air attacks

Article (PDF Available)inPsychological Medicine 35(5):659-63 · June 2005with80 Reads
DOI: 10.1017/S0033291704004131 · Source: PubMed
Abstract
Previous studies have suggested an association between personality traits and post-traumatic stress. These studies either focused exclusively on military veterans or assessed personality traits after the traumatic event. This study investigates to what extent personality traits as assessed before the traumatic experience predict post-traumatic stress in civilians experiencing air attacks at the end of the exposure to stressful events and 1 year later. The revised version of the NEO Personality Inventory was administered to 70 students in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. In 1999, 1 or 2 years after the assessment, all students were exposed to air attacks for 11 weeks. At the end of the attacks and 1 year later post-traumatic stress was measured on the Impact of Event Scale. Pre-trauma personality predicted 13% of the variance of intrusion scores 1 year after the attacks. There was no significant correlation between personality traits and subsequent avoidance scores at any point of time. Personality traits that are assessed before a traumatic event can, to a limited extent, predict intrusive symptoms in a non-clinical sample of civilians. Pre-trauma assessments of personality might be less strongly associated with post-traumatic stress than personality traits obtained after the traumatic event.
Do personality traits predict post-traumatic stress?: a
prospective study in civilians experiencing air attacks
GORAN KNEZ
ˇ
EVIC
´
1
,
2
, GORAN OPAC
ˇ
IC
´
1
,
2
,DANKASAVIC
´
1
AND STEFAN PRIEBE
3
*
1
Psychosocial Centre and Centre for Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, International Aid Network, Belgrade,
Serbia and Montenegro;
2
Department of Psychology, University of Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro;
3
Unit for Social and Community Psychiatry, Barts and the Royal London School of Medicine,
Queen Mary, University of London, UK
ABSTRACT
Background. Previous studies have suggested an association between personality traits and post-
traumatic stress. These studies either focused exclusively on military veterans or assessed person-
ality traits after the traumatic event. This study investigates to what extent personality traits as
assessed before the traumatic experience predict post-traumatic stress in civilians experiencing air
attacks at the end of the exposure to stressful events and 1 year later.
Method. The revised version of the NEO Personality Inventory was administered to 70 students in
Belgrade, Yugoslavia. In 1999, 1 or 2 years after the assessment, all students were exposed to air
attacks for 11 weeks. At the end of the attacks and 1 year later post-traumatic stress was measured
on the Impact of Event Scale.
Results. Pre-trauma personality pred icted 13% of the variance of intrusion scores 1 year after the
attacks. There was no significant correlatio n between personality traits and subsequent avoidance
scores at any point of time.
Conclusions. Personality traits that are assessed before a traumatic event can, to a limited extent,
predict intrusive symptoms in a non-clinical sample of civilians. Pre-trauma assessments of per-
sonality might be less strongly associated with post-traumatic stress than personality traits obtained
after the traumati c event.
INTRODUCTION
In the search for factors that predict response
to traumatic events, various studies have in-
vestigated the relationship between personality
traits and post-traumatic stress. They suggest
that personality traits influence the response to
traumatic events and predict the level of post-
traumatic stress (e.g. Sutker et al. 1991, 1995;
Bramsen et al. 2000; Lecic-Tosevski et al. 2003).
More post-traumatic stress symptoms have
been found in patients with higher scores of
neuroticism alone (Breslau et al. 1991; Hyer
et al. 1994) or in combination with introversion
(Davidson et al. 1987 ; McFarlane, 1988b;
Fauerbach et al. 2000) and negativism
(McFarlane, 1988a), and with low agreeable-
ness (Talbert et al. 1993). The findin gs on which
personality factors are associated with post-
traumatic stress have not been entirely consist-
ent, which may be due to differences in the
instruments used to assess personality. The
amount of variance of post-traumatic stress
explained by personality factors has been low to
moderate.
Most studies in the field have serious metho-
dological shortcomings, most notably that
personality was assessed after the event when
ratings may be influenced by psychological
sequelae of the traumatic experience. One
* Address for correspondence : Professor Stefan Priebe, Unit for
Social & Community Psychiatry, Academic Unit, Newham Centre
for Mental Health, London E13 8SP, UK.
(Email: s.priebe@qmul.ac.uk)
Psychological Medicine, 2005, 35, 659–663. f 2005 Cambridge University Press
doi:10.1017/S0033291704004131 Printed in the United Kingdom
659
exception is a study on the sequelae of World
War II combat (Lee et al. 1995), in which,
however, personality was not directly measured
with established and validated methods. Three
other studies evaluated personality tests at the
age of 15 years, entrance to undergraduate
school or at selection for the Army, and linked
the results to symptoms of post-traumatic stress
after combat or peacekeeping missions respect-
ively. In these studies, the interval between per-
sonality assessment and traumatic events varied,
as did the time between combat experience and
assessment of post-traumatic stress. The interval
between assessment of personality and post-
traumatic stress ranged between several years
and more than two decades. Schnurr et al.
(1993) and Bramsen et al. (2000) reported an
association between personality as assessed
on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality In-
ventory and post-traumatic stress symptoms,
whilst Card (1983) did not find any predictive
value of personality traits for post-traumatic
stress many years later. The impact of some
personality traits on post-traumatic stress held
true when the influence of exposure to traumatic
events was controlled for.
This study investigated the impact of person-
ality factors on post-traumatic stress in civilians
who experienced air attacks in Belgrade,
Yugoslavia. The attacks lasted for 78 days in
spring 1999 and resulted in civilian casualties. In
contrast to the aforementioned prospective stu-
dies, personality was assessed just 1 or 2 years
before the events, all subjects wer e exposed to
the same air attacks over a confined period of
time, and post-traumatic stress was consistently
assessed at the end of exposure and 1 year later.
METHOD
All subjects were psychology students at the
University of Belgrade. They had filled in the
NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI; Costa
& McCrae, 1992) as part of a cou rse in their
second year, 1 or 2 years before spring 1999.
Seventy students were contacted at the end
of the air attacks in June 1999 (62 women, 8
men; age : mean=22
.
4 years,
S.D.=1
.
6) and
rated post-traumatic stress on the Impact of
Event Scale (IES ; Horowitz et al. 1979 ; Sundin
& Horowitz, 2002). At that time they also filled
in a 37-item checklist of stressful experiences
relating to the air attacks that reflects the nature
and degree of personal exposure to stressful
events such as witnessing the death of and in-
juries to nearby persons, being close to powerful
explosions or being in a bombed building
(Gavrilovic et al. 2002). Fifty-four students re-
rated the IES 1 year later. Written informed
consent was obtained from all participants.
Pearson’s correlation coeffici ents were calcu-
lated to test the association of personality traits
and degree of exposure to stressful events with
scores of intrusion and avoidance at the end of
the attacks and 1 year later. The five pre-trauma
personality traits were entered blockwise as
predictors in multiple regression analyses
with intrusion and avoidance scores as depen-
dent variables. In a second step, the degree of
exposure was also entered as a predictor to
analyse the combined predictive power of
personality traits and degree of exposure, and
to test whether personality factors interact with
degree of exposure in predicting post-traumatic
stress.
RESULTS
Mean scores and standard deviations on NEO-
PI were 78
.
8(
S.D.=21
.
7) for neuroticism, 117
.
8
(
S.D.=18
.
1) for extraversion, 132
.
8(S.D.=16
.
2)
for openness, 115
.
2(
S.D.=16
.
2) for agreeable-
ness and 118
.
8(
S.D.=20
.
2) for conscientious-
ness. Intrusion scores on IES at the end of the
attacks were 11
.
04 (
S.D.=7
.
15) and 4
.
67 (S.D.=
5
.
56) 1 year later (t test for dependent samples;
t=6
.
57, df=53, p<0
.
001). Avoid ance scores
were 11
.
96 (
S.D.=6
.
99) at the end of attacks and
6
.
38 (
S.D.=6
.
06) 1 year afterwards (t=4
.
81,
df=53, p<0
.
001). Intrusion scores at the two
points were significantly correlated (r=0
.
39, p=
0
.
003), whilst avoidance scores were not (r=
0
.
19, p=0
.
187). At the end of the attacks, 10 out
of the 54 students who were interviewed twice
had an IES total score of > 34, which has been
suggested as a threshold for clinically relevant
symptoms (Neal et al. 1994) equivalent to a di-
agnosis of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, al-
though a diagnosis cannot be made on the basis
of the IES alone. After 1 year, only two students
had total IES scores above that threshold.
Table 1 shows how pre-trauma personality
traits and degree of exposure to stressful events
during attacks were associated with intrusion
660 G. Knezˇevic
´
et al.
and avoidance scores at the end of attacks and 1
year later.
A higher degree of exposure to stressful
events during the attacks tended to be correlated
with higher intrusion scores at the end of at-
tacks, but this correlation failed to reach stat-
istical significance (r=0
.
20, p=0
.
094). Degree
of exposure did not significantly predict in-
trusion after 1 year or avoidance at any point of
time. With respect to personality traits, higher
scores of neuroticism were associated with more
intrusion symptoms at the end of attacks and
1 year later wi th the correlation coefficients just
failing to reach statistical significance. Openness
was moderately correlated with intrusion after
1 year. Other correlations were not significant.
In multiple regression analyses with all five
personality traits and degree of exposure as
predictors, there was no significant prediction of
intrusion scores at the end of air attacks, or of
avoidance scores at any time. Yet, when all
personality traits were considered as predictors,
intrusion scores 1 year after the air attacks were
significantly predicted. The explained variance
was 13% (R=0
.
45, R
2
=0
.
21, adjusted R
2
=
0
.
13; F=2
.
483, df=5, 48, p=0
.
044). In the re-
gression function openness was identified as a
significant predictor [b=0
.
39, t(48)=2
.
833,
p<0
.
001], whilst the predictive value of neur-
oticism failed to reach statistical significance
[b=0
.
28, t(48)=1
.
885, p=0
.
06]. The additional
inclusion of the degree of exposure to stressful
events as a potential predictor did not increase
the amount of explained variance in intrusion
scores 1 year after air attacks [R=0
.
46, R
2
=
0
.
21, adjusted R
2
=0
.
11; F=2
.
137, df=6,
47, p=0
.
066; degree of exposure b=0
.
10,
t(47)=0
.
729, p=0
.
47]. There were no significant
interaction effects between personality factors
and degree of exposure.
DISCUSSION
To our knowledge, this is the first prospective
study to investigate the impact of personality
traits on post-traumatic stress that used the
NEO-PI to assess personality traits, which may
be regarded as one of the best-established in-
struments for that purpose at present. The study
is also unusual in other respects : as a prospec-
tive study it is the only one that (a) invest igated
civilians and not military veterans, ( b ) had a
mixed gender sample in fact a predominantly
female one, ( c ) assessed personality traits and
post-traumatic stress at fixed points of time in
relation to the stressful experience and a short
period of time before and after it, and (d)
obtained post-traumatic stress scores at two
points of time, i.e. immediately after the end
of exposure and 1 year later. In line with re-
commendations by Schnurr & Vielhauer (2000)
the study followed the ideal non-experimental
design [with] multivariate statistical proce-
dures, pre-traumatic personality measures and
multiple posttraumatic assessments’. Moreover,
the sample was homogeneous with respect to
age, educational background, current occu-
pation as well as the nature and duration of the
stressful events . Thus, these potentially influen-
tial factors cannot have substantially con-
founded the findings.
Methodological weaknesses of the study are
the small size and selective nature of the sample.
The small sample size was due to the inevitably
Table 1. Associations of pre-trauma personality traits as assessed on the NEO-PI and degree of
exposure to stressful events during air attacks with IES scores for intrusion and avoidance at the end of
attacks (n=70) and 1 year later (n=54)(Pearsons’s r and two-tailed p values)
Neuroticism Extraversion Openness Agreeableness Conscientiousness
Degree of
exposure
Intrusion at 0
.
23 x0
.
12 0
.
19 0
.
08 x0
.
07 0
.
20
the end of attacks (0
.
057) (0
.
338) (0
.
123) (0
.
499) (0
.
565) (0
.
094)
Avoidance at the 0
.
15 x0
.
10 x0
.
04 x0
.
10 0
.
03 0
.
12
end of attacks (0
.
206) (0
.
401) (0
.
753) (0
.
403) (0
.
815) (0
.
305)
Intrusion after 0
.
20 x0
.
06 0
.
30 0
.
14 x0
.
04 0
.
16
1 year (0
.
072) (0
.
331) (0
.
014) (0
.
151) (0
.
393) (0
.
124)
Avoidance after 0
.
18 x0
.
06 0
.
11 x0
.
03 0
.
17 x0
.
03
1 year (0
.
193) (0
.
680) (0
.
448) (0
.
859) (0
.
221) (0
.
843)
Do personality traits predict post-traumatic stress? 661
opportunistic nature of the study (exposure to
traumatic events is difficult to anticipate in civi-
lians) and has clearly limited the statistical
power of the analysis.
When post-traumatic stress was assessed di-
rectly at the end of the 78-day period of attacks,
acute stress reactions and post-traumatic stress
may have overlapped in influencing IES ratings.
This overlap at the end of the atta cks and a
favourable spontaneous course of post-trau-
matic stress are likely to have contributed to the
significant decrease of intrusion and avoidance
scores between the end of the attacks and the
1-year follow-up.
The only other significant result in univari -
ate and multivariate analyses was that open-
ness was a predictor of intrusion after 1 year.
The predictive value of openness has so far not
been reported in other studies. A higher degree
of openness might increase the vulnerability to
develop stress symptoms following a traumatic
event. It might also interfere with denial as a
successful coping mechanism, both processes re-
sulting in a higher level of intrusion symptoms.
Supposing that openness might decrease as a
result of post-traumatic stress, the association
found in this prospective study would not
necessarily be identified in cross-sectional stud-
ies after the trauma. Also, the level of openness
in the sample of this study was relatively high
(Card, 1983). The impact of openness on de-
veloping post-traumatic stress might follow-
ing a nonlinear association be stronger at
higher levels.
In general, the predictive power of personality
variables in this study appears low. Avoidance
scores were not predicted at all, and the variance
of intrusion scores explained throu gh person-
ality traits did not exceed 13%. Most tested
correlations were not significant, and adjust-
ment for multiple testing of correlations would
have made all significant resul ts disappear. Even
taking into account the limited statistical power
of the study, the findings suggest that person-
ality traits although of importance are not
the main determinants of post-traumatic stress
response. They appear to predict intrusion rather
than avoidance. In this study, avoidance scores
were less stable over time than intrusion, which
might indicate a low reliability of the rating. A
low reliability of the dependent variable, i.e.
avoidance, makes it more difficult to identi fy
significant predictors. It remains unclear to
what extent the results are specific to the sample
and the nature of the potentially traumatic
events. The level of exposure to stressful events
was measured, but is difficult to compare with
levels of exposure to other types of events of
samples in other studies. The level of stressful
events did not predict post-traumatic stress,
possibly because the nature and degree of ex-
posure was relatively similar across the sample.
Moreover, there was no significant interaction
between personality traits and degree of ex-
posure, as ha s been found in a study that inves-
tigated a similar sample with a retrospective
design (Lecic-Tosevs ki et al. 2003).
The amount of explained variance is similar
to the findings of Bramsen et al. (2000) in a much
larger sample. Some cross-sectional studies with
post-trauma assessments of personality suggest
a much stronger association between person-
ality and post-traumatic stress than found in the
few prospective investigations (Lauterbach &
Vrana, 2001). One may speculate as to whether
studies with pos t-trauma personality assess-
ments tend to overestimate the association be-
tween personality traits and post-traumatic
stress because of post-traumatic personality
changes or biases influencing all ratings done
at the same time. This possibility should be
considered in future studies on factors de-
termining post-traumatic stress, many of
which will for various practical and ethical
reasons not be in a position to use pre-trauma
assessments of personality.
DECLARATION OF INTEREST
None.
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Do personality traits predict post-traumatic stress? 663
    • "Therefore, the adverse effects of stress may surface most readily in individuals at increased risk for PTSD. Previous research has indicated that level of neuroticism contributes to vulnerability to PTSD symptoms [46,47]. According to the biopsychosocial model of psychopathology, mental disorders result from the interaction of biologically based dispositional vulnerabilities and traumatic experiences . "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Background: While numerous studies have explored relevant factors of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, there have been few joint investigations of trauma severity and trait neuroticism on the development of PTSD symptoms. This study aims to assess the involvement and interrelationship of trauma severity and neuroticism in the expression of PTSD symptoms among adolescents exposed to an accidental explosion. Methods: Six hundred and sixty-two adolescents were recruited from a junior middle school closest to the 2013 pipeline explosion site in China and were assessed using the Explosion Exposure Questionnaire, the NEO Five Factor Inventory-Neuroticism Subscale (FFI-N), and the PTSD Checklist-Civilian (PCL-C). A battery of hierarchical multiple regression analyses and two-way ANOVAs were performed to examine the effect of trauma severity and trait neuroticism on adolescent PTSD symptoms. Results: Eighty-seven adolescents (13.1%) showed PTSD symptoms after the pipeline explosion. Correlation analysis showed that all the factors of explosion exposure and trait neuroticism were positively associated with adolescent PTSD symptoms. Being male and younger was linked to lower risk for PTSD symptoms. The regression models identified explosion exposure and neuroticism as independent risk factors for PTSD symptoms, and the interactions between trait neuroticism and trauma exposure (personal casualty, degree of influence, total traumatic severity) were related to PTSD symptoms. Conclusions: The results highlight the role of trauma exposure and trait neuroticism as risk factors for PTSD symptoms. Therefore, the combination of these two factors should be investigated in clinical settings due to an augmented risk for more severe PTSD symptoms.
    Full-text · Article · Mar 2015
    • "Likewise, both studies that examined hostility found that it was a significant predictor of PTSD symptoms. In terms of neuroticism, two of the three studies that examined neuroticism found that it was a predictor of PTSD symptoms (Knezevic et al., 2005; Parslow et al., 2006). For the remaining personality factors, significant effects were found between PTSD symptoms and high hostility , trait anger, trait anxiety, harm avoidance, and trait dissociation. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: As it has become clear that most individuals exposed to trauma do not develop PTSD, it has become increasingly important to examine pretrauma risk factors. However, PTSD research has overwhelmingly relied on retrospective accounts of trauma, which is beleaguered by problems of recall bias. To further our understanding of PTSD's etiology, a systematic review of 54 prospective, longitudinal studies of PTSD published between 1991 and 2013 were examined. Inclusion criteria required that all individuals were assessed both before and after an index trauma. Results revealed six categories of pretrauma predictor variables: 1) cognitive abilities; 2) coping and response styles; 3) personality factors; 4) psychopathology; 5) psychophysiological factors; and 6) social ecological factors. The results indicated that many variables, previously considered outcomes of trauma, are pretrauma risk factors. The review considered these findings in the context of the extant retrospective PTSD literature in order to identify points of overlap and discrepancy. Pretrauma predictor categories were also used to conceptualize variable risk for PTSD. Limitations and directions for future research are discussed.
    Full-text · Article · May 2013
    • "Neuroticism had the strongest association with total PtsD symptoms and its three symptom clusters. scores on extraversion and intellect/imagination had negative but minor correlations with total PtsD symptoms, which was also reported by Fauerbach, et al. (2000) and Knezević, et al. (2005) , respectively. scores on agreeableness and conscientiousness had trivial correlations with total PtsD symptoms and two symptom clusters, avoidance and hyperarousal. "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: The present purpose was to validate the Mini-IPIP scale, a short measure of the five-factor model personality traits, with a sample of Chinese earthquake survivors. A total of 1,563 participants, ages 16 to 85 years, completed the Mini-IPIP scale and a measure of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. Confirmatory factor analysis supported the five-factor structure of the Mini-IPIP with adequate values of various fit indices. This scale also showed values of internal consistency, Cronbach's alphas ranged from .79 to .84, and McDonald's omega ranged from .73 to .82 for scores on each subscale. Moreover, the five personality traits measured by the Mini-IPIP and those assessed by other big five measures had comparable patterns of relations with PTSD symptoms. Findings indicated that the Mini-IPIP is an adequate short-form of the Big-Five factors of personality, which is applicable with natural disaster survivors.
    Full-text · Article · Oct 2012
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