Study: How Personality Affects Coping with Food Allergy

A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Otago’s Department of Psychology and the Department of Food Science investigated the challenges that adults with food allergies face managing their condition in daily life, and whether certain personality traits made these challenges even greater.

Lead author Dr Tamlin Conner said “This paper addresses this question by investigating whether individual differences in the ‘Big Five’ personality traits are related to food allergy-related problems in everyday life.”

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The Big Five refers to a model used by psychologists to evaluate five core aspects of an individual’s personality. Also known as the Five-Factor Model (FFM), the traits are defined as:

  • Openness to Experience – associated with characteristics that include having broad range of interests and willing to try out even most unusual ideas;
  • Conscientiousness – associated with the tendency to be self disciplined, dutiful and prefer planned behavior to spontaneity;
  • Extraversion – associated with the tendency to be action-oriented, enthusiastic, visible to people, and are capable of asserting themselves;
  • Agreeableness – associated with the tendency to be trustworthy, helpful, kind, considerate, generous and do not hesitate to compromise their interests with others;
  • Neuroticism – associated with the tendency to experience anger, depression, anxiety and other forms of negative emotions.
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For two weeks, 108 adult participants with a physician-diagnosed food allergy completed a daily online survey that queried the occurrence of 25 food allergy issues each day and their stress and mood. The results went against the research team’s initial hypothesis.

“We were surprised that neuroticism did not lead to more frequent allergy issues or poorer mood on days with more allergy issues. Instead, higher openness to experience was the biggest predictor of more issues, which included going hungry because there is no safe food available, problems finding suitable foods when grocery shopping, anxiety at social occasions involving food, being excluded, and feeling embarrassed and poorly understood about their food allergy.”

“It appears the demands of coping with a food allergy – requiring caution, routine and consumption of known foods – might be in direct conflict with the open personality that craves exploration, variety and novel experiences”, Dr Conner adds.

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She hopes the findings will help people understand how their personality affects the way they cope and manage their food allergy.

“For example, ‘open’ people could try to channel their desire for variety in other directions instead of food, like music or film. They could also have ‘back-up food’ available in case they wanted to do something spontaneous. Our findings might also help parents understand how their child with a food allergy may be being impacted. For example, open children might be more likely to want to try new foods, which could put them at risk. Knowing their child’s personality, a parent could look to mitigate those impacts to reduce their frequency.”

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