Psy-Q: How can social support mediate the relationship between personality traits and physical functioning in Black adults?


Lijing Ma

Answer: Social support can mediate the relationship between certain personality traits and physical functioning, according to a study by Clark et al in the Journal of Black Psychology (see the update). In this two-wave longitudinal study, data from a national probability sample of African American adults (n = 312) and telephone surveys assessed the Big Five personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism) at baseline and 2.5 years later. T2 social support mediated the relationship between T1 personality traits and T2 physical functioning for 4 of the 5 traits: conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, but not for the trait of openness to experience.

Co-author Lijing Ma, a doctoral candidate in experimental psychology at Saint Louis University, shared insights about the study with Psycom Pro.

Psycom Pro: Was it surprising that T2 social support mediated the relationship between T1 personality traits and T2 physical functioning for all traits except openness to experience? What do you think it was about that trait that was different?

Ma: Yes, this was surprising to the research team because openness to experience was the only variable that did not show a significant mediation result. Also, it was surprising because T1 openness significantly predicted T2 social support, and T2 social support significantly predicted T2 physical functioning. Maybe social support was not a good explanation of why high-openness people had better physical functioning, and there might be other factors that influence the relationship between T1 openness and T2 physical functioning.

Psycom Pro: Another interesting note in the discussion was that the social support mediation results for the extraversion–physical functioning and neuroticism–physical functioning associations were “unusual.” Can you talk about what made them unusual in relation to other personality traits studied?

Ma: The results were unusual because either the direct effect or the indirect effect between personalities (ie, extraversion and neuroticism) and physical functioning was not statistically significant, suggesting that T1 extraversion and T1 neuroticism did not predict physical functioning at T2. However, the indirect effects could still be tested when the predictor variable did not predict the outcome variable.

Psycom Pro: What areas or topics should be studied in future research to build on this paper’s findings?

Ma: It would be interesting to study different types of personality other than the Big Five and to look at different types of social support (eg, family, friends, a church). In addition, future studies could investigate other health factors, such as emotional well-being.

Overall, we suggest that mental health professionals could pay attention to the roles of personality and social support during interventions. Mental health professionals could train clients to have better social skills and help them to develop conflict-management skills.

Last Updated: Sep 23, 2021