Why Do We Call Some People 'Type A'?

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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."

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

Now Ear This: A New App Can Detect a Child's Ear Infection

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iStock.com/Techin24

Generally speaking, using an internet connection to diagnose a medical condition is rarely recommended. But technology is getting better at outpacing skepticism over handheld devices guiding decisions and suggesting treatment relating to health care. The most recent example is an app that promises to identify one of the key symptoms of ear infections in kids.

The Associated Press reports that researchers at the University of Washington are close to finalizing an app that would allow a parent to assess whether or not their child has an ear infection using their phone, some paper, and some soft noises. A small piece of paper is folded into a funnel shape and inserted into the ear canal to focus the app's sounds (which resemble bird chirps) toward the child’s ear. The app measures sound waves bouncing off the eardrum. If pus or fluid is present, the sound waves will be altered, indicating a possible infection. The parent would then receive a text from the app notifying them of the presence of buildup in the middle ear.

The University of Washington tested the efficacy of the app by evaluating roughly 50 patients scheduled to undergo ear surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The app was able to identify fluid in patients' ears about 85 percent of the time. That’s roughly as well as traditional exams, which involve visual identification as well as specialized acoustic devices.

While the system looks promising, not all cases of fluid in the ear are the result of infections or require medical attention. Parents would need to evaluate other symptoms, such as fever, if they intend to use the app to decide whether or not to seek medical attention. It may prove most beneficial in children with persistent fluid accumulation, a condition that needs to be monitored over the course of months when deciding whether a drain tube needs to be placed. Checking for fluid at home would save both time and money compared to repeated visits to a physician.

The app does not yet have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and there is no timetable for when it might be commercially available. If it passes muster, it would join a number of FDA-approved “smart” medical diagnostic tools, including the AliveKor CardiaBand for the Apple Watch, which conducts EKG monitoring for heart irregularities.

[h/t WGRZ]

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