Neuroticism may not reflect emotional variability

Elise K. Kalokerinos*, Sean C. Murphy, Peter Koval, Natasha H. Bailen, Geert Crombez, Tom Hollenstein, John Gleeson, Renee J. Thompson, Dimitri M. L. Van Ryckeghem, Peter Kuppens, Brock Bastian

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Neuroticism is one of the major traits describing human personality, and a predictor of mental and physical disorders with profound public health significance. Individual differences in emotional variability are thought to reflect the core of neuroticism. However, the empirical relation between emotional variability and neuroticism may be partially the result of a measurement artifact reflecting neuroticism’s relation with higher mean levels—rather than greater variability—of negative emotion. When emotional intensity is measured using bounded scales, there is a dependency between variability and mean levels: at low (or high) intensity, it is impossible to demonstrate high variability. As neuroticism is positively associated with mean levels of negative emotion, this may account for the relation between neuroticism and emotional variability. In a metaanalysis of 11 studies (N = 1,205 participants; 83,411 observations), we tested whether the association between neuroticism and negative emotional variability was clouded by a dependency between variability and the mean. We found a medium-sized positive association between neuroticism and negative emotional variability, but, when using a relative variability index to correct for mean negative emotion, this association disappeared. This indicated that neuroticism was associated with experiencing more intense, but not more variable, negative emotions. Our findings call into question theory, measurement scales, and data suggesting that emotional variability is central to neuroticism. In doing so, they provide a revisionary perspective for understanding how this individual difference may predispose to mental and physical disorders.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9270-9276
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number17
Publication statusPublished - 28 Apr 2020


  • neuroticism
  • negative emotion
  • emotional variability
  • personality
  • experience sampling
  • MOOD


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