The Five Factor Model of Personality (also known as The Big Five) refers to the traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Of these, neuroticism, which refers to emotional instability, is linked to cognitive failures such as inattentiveness. New research published in Psychological Reports found that reduced mindfulness accounts for the relationship between neuroticism and cognitive failures.
Neuroticism has the most associations with health complications such as vulnerability toward anxiety, eating disorders, and alcohol and drug use. Neuroticism also tends to peak in late adolescence/early adulthood making college students a particularly vulnerable group to the negative effects of high neuroticism. Importantly, too, for college students is that neuroticism is linked to cognitive failures, such as errors in routine activity, memory lapses, and difficulty concentrating.
One way to address the relationship between neuroticism and cognitive failures is the application of mindfulness-based practices. Mindfulness, which is the nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment including one’s thoughts and feelings, has been linked to lower neuroticism and lower cognitive failure scores.
Thus, Anthony J. Kondracki and colleagues were interested in exploring the relationships between self-reported scores of neuroticism, cognitive failures, and mindfulness in college students. They were also interested in whether sex affected these relationships.
The researchers recruited a final sample of 1,003 participants from the undergraduate pool at Florida International University. Trait neuroticism was measured using a personality questionnaire. Cognitive failures were measured using a questionnaire designed to assess one’s likelihood of erring in the completion of everyday tasks and one’s propensity to lapses in perception, memory, and motor function. Mindfulness was measured using a self-report questionnaire assessing one’ general tendency to be mindful in everyday life.
Results show that higher neuroticism was associated with lower mindfulness and more cognitive failures. Lower mindfulness was also associated with more cognitive failures. After splitting the sample by biological sex, higher neuroticism was associated with more cognitive failures only in females. However, the high neuroticism-low mindfulness and low mindfulness-more cognitive failures relationships were seen in both sexes. Ethnicity did not affect any of these relationships.
Importantly, the direct effect of neuroticism on cognitive failures disappeared when mindfulness scores were added to the statistical analyses indicating that mindfulness mediated (or explained) the relationship between neuroticism and cognitive failures. In other words, high neuroticism was related to low mindfulness, which was then related to cognitive failures.
One explanation of these results is that the non-judgmental attention to the present moment (i.e., mindfulness practices) can reduce one’s perceived stress which then might reduce the likelihood of cognitive failures.
“We demonstrated statistically that proneness to cognitive failures in college students in relation to higher neuroticism scores could be linked to lower mindfulness and that higher mindfulness could potentially benefit both neuroticism and cognitive failures,” the researchers concluded.
The researchers caution some limitations of this study. First, although all the measures they used were validated in previous research, measures were will heavily reliant on self-report, which might be subject to some error. Second, there is some debate that some measures of mindfulness get at similar, but distinct constructs such as trait vs. state mindfulness and general emotion regulation.
Lastly, there is a chance that some unmeasured variable is accounting for the changes in the observed relationships. “It is possible that in our study a third-variable problem exists, where some other observed variable (e.g., anxiety/depression) causes both the predictor and outcome leading to a mistaken causal relationship.”
The study, “The Link Between Neuroticism and Everyday Cognitive Failures is Mediated by Self-Reported Mindfulness Among College Students“, was authored by Anthony J. Kondracki, Michael C. Riedel, Katharine Crooks, Patricio Viera Perez, Jessica S. Flannery, Angela R. Laird, and Matthew T. Sutherland.