Study Shows Men and Women Face Illness Differently

photo_Vasileios Interview with:
Dr. Vasileios Zikos
Assistant Professor
Research Institute for Policy Evaluation and Design (RIPED) and School of Economics
University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC)
Bangkok, Thailand

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Zikos: Economic studies that look at subjective well-being typically focus on how and why life circumstances affect an individual’s life satisfaction. While such studies provide valuable insights on the average effects of life changes, they often find substantial variability in the way individuals react to life events. In this study we take a step toward identifying sources of individual heterogeneity by focusing on the link between physical or mental illnesses and health satisfaction and asking whether gender and personality can explain how people cope with becoming ill.

Earlier studies in psychology suggest that personality traits might be relevant to health and health-related behaviors. This allows us to hypothesize what could be the specific role of personality traits when people confront being ill. Our study is based on data collected in the British Household Panel Survey, a national longitudinal data set from the United Kingdom. The survey asked people about their happiness and satisfaction with aspects of their life. It also asked about their physical and mental health and about their personalities, among other things. Our study separates people into three groups: with physical illness only, with mental illness only and with both physical and mental types of illness. Because earlier studies found evidence of personality differences between genders, we conduct our analysis separately for men and women.

We found that illness implies a strong negative effect on the individual’s health satisfaction. Men are less affected by a single-symptom illness than women, but are more affected when more than one symptom is present. The number of symptoms doesn’t change how women are affected. Moreover, women with one of two distinct personality types are less affected by mental illness than all other personality types. The first personality type, high levels of agreeableness, experience high quality relationships in their lives. The second type, women with low levels of conscientiousness, have little need for achievement, order or persistence. For men, however, we did not find statistical evidence that personality affects how they cope with illness.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Zikos: Our findings suggest that individual heterogeneity may be important for understanding how an individual’s subjective well-being reacts to illness. From an applied perspective, health professionals should be more aware that patients with certain gender and personality traits may need greater support in coping with their illnesses. Also, men and women faced with an illness are likely to report how they feel about their health differently. We tend to train clinicians to respond to patients in a rather standardized way, but it is perhaps also worth recognizing that responses should be more tailored to individual needs.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Zikos: Future research should examine if gender and personality might be important for the speed of a patient’s recovery.


Dusanee Kesavayuth, Robert E. Rosenman, Vasileios Zikos, Personality and health satisfaction, Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, Volume 54, February 2015, Pages 64-73. Interview with: Dr. Vasileios Zikos (2015). Study Shows Men and Women Face Illness Differently 

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