I was born in the mid-late 1970s, part of a cohort of former preemies who have entered fully into adulthood and even middle age. Although it seems that many studies of preemies focus on the childhood years, a few studies assess the long-term outcomes of now-adults who were once born very premature, or at low birth weight. One such study made headlines in 2015, and came to my attention about a year ago.
Time magazine splashed the article with the title Premature Babies are More Likely to Develop this Personality Type,” so as a former preemie, of course, I paid attention. Preterm birth before 32 weeks gestation, or a very low birthweight (see definitions here), predisposed adults in the study to what the researchers called a:
“socially withdrawn personality; these people scored higher on traits of introversion, neuroticism and autistic features, while scoring lower on risk taking and agreeableness.” (source)
Being of a rather… I don’t want to say obsessive nature, but I do tend to research something until I’ve researched the heck out of it, let’s just say… and being unafraid of jargon and difficult reading, I went to the original article, published by the Archives of Disease in Childhood – Fetal and Neonatal Edition.
I realized I’d need to make sure I understood what the researchers were saying. I could’t assume, for example, that the words “socially withdrawn” and “neuroticism” meant what I assumed they mean.
So I did a little more looking. These personality traits refer to what psychologists call the “Big 5,” which Wikipedia suggests can be remembered with the acronym OCEAN. Based on descriptions on sites like Wikipedia and Verywell.com, here are some tendencies that are often associated with the Big 5:
- openness to experience – people scoring high on this one tend to be creative, big-picture thinkers interested in new ideas and abstract concepts, while those who score low tend to resist change, new ideas, or abstract concepts.
- conscientiousness – people who are conscientious tend to be thoughtful, have good impulse control and work well towards goals, as well as being detail-oriented.
- extraversion – former preemies tend to score low on this, which comes as no surprise to me as an introvert (no surprise there!). Those scoring low on extraversion expend energy on socializing, rather than gaining energy from being around people. Introverts feel exhausted by socializing, find starting conversations and making small talk difficult, prefer to think before they speak, and prefer not to be the center of attention. All of this sounds very (very) familiar.
- agreeableness – those high in this trait are interested in other people, care for them, feel empathy and concern for them, and enjoy contributing to the happiness of others, whereas those who score low on this trait range from not caring much for the welfare of others to outright belittling of others.
- neuroticism – individuals scoring high on this trait experience greater “sadness, moodiness, and emotional instability.”
Former preemies, according to this study, have lower agreeableness and lower openness. We’re introverted, withdrawn, and less pleasant. Well, I thought, that doesn’t sound very nice.
Not to mention the words with which the authors conclude the overview of their study:
“VP/VLBW birth poses an important risk for a global withdrawn personality, as indicated by being less socially engaged (introversion), low in taking risks, poor in communication (autistic features) and easily worried (neuroticism). Defining a general personality profile and understanding its aetiology are important because this higher order personality factor may help to partly explain the social difficulties [prematurely born] individuals experience in adult roles, such as in peer and partner relationships and career.” (source)
Looked at from a certain perspective, I can see all of these traits in myself. To give them a positive spin, we adult former preemies are like steaming mugs of coffee: complex, sometimes dark, with hidden warmth in our depths.
I’m definitely an introvert (that’ll deserve it’s own post or three); I’m not a huge risk-taker, at least not compared to some people I know, and if I’m not generally a bad communicator, I’m … selective. Introverted. I have a small circle of friends, and prefer quality over quantity when it comes to friends. If I don’t communicate as widely or as fluidly with as many people, that doesn’t mean I don’t care… it just becomes hard to keep all the communicative balls in the air, so to speak. And worries, well, that’s also a given. Anxiety is what I’ve usually been diagnosed with until it seemed that the non-diagnosis of preemie neurodiversity probably has something to do with it.
If this sounds like former preemies are getting the raw end of the personality deal, take heart: the researchers noted that prematurity seemed to account for only 11% of study subjects’ personality! I’m not a statistician, so I’ll just have to go with my gut sense that there’s quite a lot of life that affects personality outside of prematurity. For me to claim that this description fits, in any way, flies in the face of that tiny number —
— and yet, on those days when I have yet again neglected to set up a playdate for my child, am starting to freak out about the slight twinge I just noticed in one part of my body or another, barely look up to greet a colleague as I walk past her in the halls (because my mind is too deeply wrapped in thought about the wording I’ll use for this blog post, and I just thought of how I wanted to end it, and don’t want to forget, so I tweak it over and over in my mind), and am worrying about taking one daughter to a birthday party where I don’t know if I’ll know any of the other parents, much less if I’ll get lost on my way to the party or forget I’d actually met one of the parents at the last classmate’s birthday party … and yet, on days like that, it fits.