Why Do We Call Some People 'Type A'?


We all have at least a few Type A people in our lives, and we might have even butted heads with one or two of them. The highly competitive, angry, impatient, perfectionist sort of person who strives to be the best at everything is a familiar type, whether you consider them models of success or workaholics with tunnel vision.

"I tell my students, they call it Type A, not Type B, for a reason," Susan Whitbourne, a psychologist based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, tells Mental Floss. "You want to be Type A-plus, if you're Type A."

The phrase Type A wasn't just born out of the ether: It was created as a way to identify people with certain patterns of behavior prevalent among those with coronary heart disease. In the 1950s, a pair of American cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, were sharing an office in San Francisco when an upholsterer repairing their waiting-room furniture made an odd remark. He was surprised by the wear pattern on their chairs, he said, in which only the front edges of the seats were worn, rather than the back. Patients were literally waiting on the edges of their seats for their name to be called—rather than reclining comfortably toward the back.

At first the pair were too busy to take much note of the upholsterer's comments. But in the mid-1950s, they began looking at the literature around coronary heart disease and wondering if something other than diet (then painted as the most significant culprit) might be playing a part. In a 1956 study of San Francisco Junior League members, they found that diet and smoking didn't seem like adequate explanations for the different rates of heart disease they were seeing in women and men, since husbands and wives tended to share the same food and smoking habits. Female hormones were dismissed as a factor, since black women were suffering just as much heart disease as their husbands. They discussed the issue with the president of the Junior League, who responded, "If you really want to know what is going to give our husbands heart attacks, I'll tell you … It's stress."

That's when Friedman and Rosenman remembered the upholsterer's remarks, and began researching the link between stressed-out, achievement-driven behavior and heart disease. In 1959, they identified a type of behavior pattern they called Type A—highly competitive, very concerned with time management, and aggressive—and found that patients with this behavior pattern had seven times the frequency of clinical coronary artery disease compared to other groups.

The pair also created a Type B label, which basically encompassed behaviors and attitudes that weren't defined as Type A. People with Type B behavior were easy-going and enjoyed lower levels of stress, and while they may have been just as ambitious and driven, they seemed more secure and steady. The pair wrote a popular 1974 book about their research, Type A Behavior and Your Heart, which helped spread their ideas in the general consciousness. And while their initial emphasis was on behavior patterns, not entire personalities, the public quickly began referring to Type A and Type B personality types.

Over the next few years researchers began accepting that there could be a link between Type A behaviors, especially hostility, and lethal heart failure. The picture of the fuming man with high blood pressure who succumbs to a rage-induced heart-attack isn't just a cliché, Whitbourne says. (In fact, some modern studies have supported the idea of an increased risk of heart attack after a bout of intense anger.)

But as time went on, researchers began to notice quite a few problems in the Type A/Type B paradigm. In part this was because our understanding of coronary heart disease improved, and doctors and physiologists began to better understand how diet, physical activity, genetics, and the environment relate to blood pressure and cholesterol. As the decades went on, it became apparent that aggressive personality alone was severely limited in its ability to predict heart disease.

Outside the implications for human health, psychologists also began to critique the Type A/Type B system of personality labeling as reductionist, arguing that it lumped together many different traits and folded them under one of two extremely large umbrellas. Many psychologists now feel that human behavior is too complex and intricate to be described in such a binary way: People might be driven and organized, but not necessarily hostile and prone to angry outbursts. People might also be irritable or impatient, but perhaps rarely cross the threshold into hostility.

"It's not that we don't believe in it anymore," Penn State University psychologist John Johnson tells Mental Floss. "It's just that it's run its course. Type A does have a lot of components, but those are components that can be better explained in other ways in personality psychology."

One prominent newer system for describing personality and behavior is the Five Factor Model, developed in 1961 but not reaching academic prominence until the 1980s. The Five Factor Model assesses personality through five domains: openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness. Johnson likens its impact in personality psychology to the Periodic Table of Elements for chemistry.

Many Type A traits, Johnson says, are probably better described under the Five Factor Model. For example, striving for achievement, a big part of Type A personality behavior, would easily fall under high conscientiousness. Type As might also score high on extraversion, but low on agreeableness, since they're less attuned to see others as collaborators.

But although many psychologists feel the Type A and B model has outlived its usefulness, they say it has an important legacy in modern psychology. "The study of Type A and related personality traits really revolutionized behavioral medicine and behavioral health," Whitbourne says. "There are many psychologists that look at behavior and health hand-in-hand," and much of this work has a foundation in what Type A pioneered, according to Whitbourne.

So if many psychologists (not to mention cardiologists) feel the framework is outdated, why do we still call people Type A? According to Johnson, one of the biggest reasons probably has to do with how easy it is to recognize. "We all know people who are very driven and single-minded about achieving something, but they don't treat other people very well," he says. "It's a familiar thing to most of us."

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too

There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.