Trust Your Friends? They May Know How Long You'll Live

I don't know whether to be delighted -- scared-- but supposedly your friends know how long you'll  live. 

That's according to a new study by Washington University in St. Louis.  Apparently, close friends  may have a better sense of whether you'll live a long life, suggests new research on personality and longevity.

“You expect your friends to be inclined to see you in a positive manner, but they also are keen observers of the personality traits that could send you to an early grave,” says Joshua Jackson, PhD, assistant professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, at

The study demonstrates that your personality at an early age (20s) can predict how long you will live across 75 years and that close friends are usually better than you at recognizing these traits.

Male participants seen by their friends as more open and conscientious ended up living longer. Female participants whose friends rated them as high on emotional stability and agreeableness also enjoyed longer lifespans, the study found.

Oh, no.  Is this the old positive thinking thing?  I remember being told when I was treated for cancer that my thoughts were very important, and any negative ones would make the treatment not work.  

“Our study shows that people are able to observe and rate a friend’s personality accurately enough to predict early mortality decades down the road,” Jackson says. “It suggests that people are able to see important characteristics related to health even when their friends were, for the most part, healthy and many years from death.”

I'm starting to think this is more on the scary side.  

It’s no secret that a person’s personality traits can have an impact on health, researchers say. Traits such as depression and anger have been linked to an increased risk of various diseases and health concerns, including an early death.

But it's not really as mystical as all that.  Men who are conscientious are more likely to eat right, stick with an exercise routine and avoid risks, such as driving without a seat belt. Women who are emotionally stable may be better at fighting off anger, anxiety and depression, Jackson suggests.

While other studies have shown that a person’s view of his or her own personality can be helpful in gauging mortality risk, there has been little research on whether a close friend’s personality assessment might also predict the odds of a long life.

I kind of hate to give that much power to other people.  

But peer ratings of personality were stronger predictors of mortality risk than were self-ratings of personality, the study showed.

“There are two potential reasons for the superiority of peer ratings over self ratings,” Jackson says.
“First, friends may see something that you miss; they may have some insight that you do not. Second, because people have multiple friends, we are able to average the idiosyncrasies of any one friend to obtain a more reliable assessment of personality. With self reports, people may be biased or miss certain aspects of themselves and we are not able to counteract that because there is only one you, only one self-report.”

Well, anyway. 

This was interesting: the study also revealed that men’s self-ratings of personality traits were somewhat useful in predicting their lifespans, whereas the self-reports of women had little predictive value.

Jackson suggests this gender difference in self-reporting may be a function of the era in which the study began, since societal expectations were different then and fewer women worked outside the home.

Young women seen as highly agreeable and emotionally stable may have increased odds for a long and happy life since their personalities were well suited for the role of a supportive and easy-going wife, which would have been the norm in the 1930s. It is likely that fewer gender differences would arise in more modern samples if we were able to wait 75 years to replicate the study, he says.

“This is one of the longest studies in psychology,” Jackson says. “It shows how important personality is in influencing significant life outcomes like health and demonstrates that information from friends and other observers can play a critical role in understanding a person’s health issues"

All the same, I think I'll stay away from my friends for a while.  


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