Chapter 8 – Individual Characteristics and their Influence upon Health

Lecturer PowerPoint
Lecturer Lesson Plan
Additional Case Study
3 Papers
3 Websites
3 Media Articles
Learning Tasks Discussion
Issues you may have considered in relation to the Learning Tasks in the book…

Learning Task 1: Individual characteristics and health

In doing this exercise, you are likely to have considered a range of possible influences on health which are determined by the factors listed. The following ideas are examples of the kinds of things you might have considered. This is not an exhaustive consideration and you will no doubt have thought of many more!

Foetal development: Examples include things which will impact on foetal development. These could be factors to do with the mother (such as nutrition and stress) or with the wider environment (such as secondary smoke).

Age: Examples may include any aspect or dimension of health which is affected by age and the ageing process. For example, as we reach older age, our physical health tends to deteriorate which, in turn, affects our concepts of health. Younger people tend to take more risks with their health as they perceive themselves to be relatively invulnerable to harm.

Sex (as biologically determined): Examples may include factors to do with biological differences such as the reproductive system.

Gender (as sociologically constructed or determined – see Chapter 4 to remind yourself what this is about if you need to): Examples may include how men and women may differ in their concepts of, and approaches to, health, help-seeking, responding to symptoms and diagnoses as determined by socially defined normative behaviours attributed to femininity and masculinity.

Hereditary and genetic factors (you may like to reflect on your own family history here): Your answer to this is likely to be highly individual although you may spot some similarities with my reflection on my own family history. This includes a predisposition to cardiovascular disease, asthma and depression/anxiety.

Personality: There are many aspects which you may have considered here as being influential on health, such as motivation and personality type.

Learning Task 2: The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children

Your answer to this question will depend on what you got out of this exercise in relation to the information on both websites. However, this is an example of the kind of thing you may have come across: a link between depression in mums and the likelihood that a child will develop problems.

Learning Task 3: Personality and motivation

Your answer to this will be highly individual. It will depend on the importance which you attribute to being physically active the value which you place on health, plus what you think makes you happy.

The central point here is that we need to try to understand what motivates people and why people do the things they do (or, conversely, don’t do things). Everybody is different and it is important to start where people are at.

Learning Task 4: The nature/nurture debate and individual differences

You should have appreciated that the key argument here is that we are either a product of our upbringing and environment or we are programmed to be the way that we are through nature and biology (heredity). The ‘nature’ debate proposes that the way that we behave is driven by our genetic predispositions whilst the ‘nurture’ debate proposes that we think and behave the way that we do because we are ‘taught’ to do so (see here for further explanation).

This debate is relevant to most areas of this chapter. The most striking one is the discussion between sex (‘nature’ – biologically determined) and gender (‘nurture’ – socially determined). Among other things, this debate can help us to better understand the influence of our social environment on experiences of health.

Multiple Choice Quiz

1. According to Dahlgren and Whitehead’s model, which of the following would NOT be described as an individual characteristic which influences health?
a. Personality
b. Age
c. Biological sex
d. Physical environment


The correct answer is d. All of the other answers are seen as being individual characteristics which impact on health as depicted by Dahlgren and Whitehead’s model. The impact of the physical environment on health is taken into account in the outer ring of the model.

2. ‘Teratology’ refers to the study of what?
a. The effects of secondary smoke on foetal development.
b. Birth defects and the problems which can result from environmental influences on the foetus during pregnancy
c. Birth defects arising from physiological abnormalities
d. The impact of socio-economic circumstances on foetal development


The correct answer is b. The other answers may be related to foetal development, but they do not represent a definition of teratology.

3. Which of the following terms is also referred to as The Barker Hypothesis?
a. Physiological programming
b. Foetal resistance
c. Foetal programming
d. Physiological resistance


The correct answer is c. The Barker Hypothesis is about foetal programming. The other answers have been made up for the purposes of this question.

4. Which of the following can be understood as a social construct which impacts on individual health experience?
a. Biological sex
b. Gender
c. Age
d. Foetal Development


The correct answer is b. Gender is a social construct which is fluid and transient and is influenced by social relations and social understandings. The other three answers are viewed as being relatively stable constructs which cannot be changed – characteristics which we are born with or things that cannot be altered very easily.

5. Which of the following is an example of how biological sex can influence individual health experience?
a. Reproductive health problems
b. Diagnosis of mental illness
c. Help-seeking behaviours
d. Lifestyle factors


The correct answer is a. Reproductive health problems are directly linked to our biological sex and physiological make-up. The other three are linked to social constructs of gender and normative femininity/masculinity.

6. Which of the following is NOT an example of how personality impacts on individual health experience?
a. Help-seeking behaviour
b. Sensation seeking
c. Coping mechanisms
d. Biological sex


The correct answer is d. Biological sex is the only example on which personality has no influence. Personality impacts on all of the other three in some way or other but it cannot have a direct impact on biological sex. On the other hand, gender, as a social construct, does have an impact on the other three and has been shown to influence all of these types of behaviour which are seen as being linked to personality.

7. Which of the following statements most accurately describes the concept of ‘self-esteem’?
a. When someone thinks other people like them
b. When someone does not like themselves
c. How much value people place in themselves
d. Whether someone feels they can do something


The correct answer is c. The other three answers may be linked to notions of self-esteem but they do not accurately capture what self-esteem is essentially about.

8. The ‘nature/nurture’ debate is concerned with:
a. the influence of environment on health
b. the influence of environment and genetics on health
c. the influence of genetics on health
d. the influence of biology on health


The correct answer is b. The nature/nurture debate is about the influence of environment and genetics on health, not just one or the other, nor just biology.

9. Resilience is associated with which individual characteristic?
a. Sex
b. Gender
c. Personality
d. Age


The correct answer is c. Resilience is seen as being centrally associated with personality rather than sex, gender or age.

10. Which of the following is a limitation of focusing solely on individual characteristics in order to explain health experience?
a. Does not take into account the impact of age and lifespan on health
b. Does not take into account personality factors and their influence on health experience
c. Does not take into account wider environmental influences on health experience
d. Does not take into account the influence of biological sex on health experience


The correct answer is c: environmental influences are not really taken into account within explanations that focus on individual characteristics.

Additional Case Study: Individual differences and the experience of mental illness

This case study considers mental illness and the relationship between this and some of the individual characteristics discussed in this chapter in terms of differential health experience.

Heredity and genetic factors: Certain types of mental illness appear to have a genetic or heredity component. For example, if a person has a family history of mental illness then the research appears to show that they will have an increased risk of developing a mental health problem themselves.

Age: Some studies seem to show that the risk of depression increases as people get older. This could be for a number of reasons, not least that the older we get the more likely we are to be exposed to stressful and difficult life events including bereavement and ill-health.

Biological sex and gender constructs: There appears to be evidence that men and women experience different patterns of mental illness. Some of these may be due to biological differences (for example, women are at risk of post-natal depression whilst men are not). However, some of these are due to the ways in which men and women are socialized into reacting and responding to symptoms and to getting help. Thus we see differences in help-seeking and outcomes: women are more likely to visit their GP with anxiety and depression whilst men are more likely to successfully attempt suicide.

3 Papers

Sebert, S., Salonurmi, T., Keinänen-Kiukaanniemi, S., Savolainen, M., Herzig, K.H., Symonds, M.E. and Järvelin, M.R. (2019) Programming effects of FTO in the development of obesity. Acta Physiologica, 210, 58-69. LINK
This paper explores the relationship between early-life nutritional, metabolic and environmental factors on the early onset of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

La Roi, C., Meyer, I.H. and Frost, D.M. (2019) Differences in Sexual Identity Dimensions Between Bisexual and Other Minority Individuals: Implications for Minority Stress and Mental Health. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 89 (1), 40–51. LINK
This paper explores sexual identity dimensions and mental health disparities.

Bagby, S.P., Martin, D., Chung, S.T., Rajapakse, N. (2019) From the Outside In: Biological Mechanisms Linking Social and Environmental Exposures to Chronic Disease and to Health Disparities. Etiology Science, Supplement 1, 109 (51), S56-S63. LINK
This paper discusses how, in at-risk populations, environmentally activated disease-promoting pathways can contribute to a biologically based disease-susceptibility.

3 Websites

1. Fetal Health Foundation
Contains a great deal of information about foetal development and the wide range of factors which can influence this. It includes discussion about environmental factors as well as maternal factors.

2. Very Well Mind
Explores how different personality traits might impact on health experience.

3. Health Age Calculator
Contains a survey which you can complete which gives you immediate feedback about your ‘health age’. It asks a number of questions which require you to reflect on a range of individual factors discussed within this chapter.

3 Media Articles

1. Do you have a healthy personality? Researchers think they can tell you
What are the most psychologically healthy personality traits? Researchers explore this question in a recent study using a contemporary trait perspective.

2. Can a pregnant woman’s experience influence her baby’s temperament?
This blog explores many aspects of development science, drawing on research on parenting and children’s development.

3. Mental health: One in four young women struggling
This BBC article discusses how nearly one in four young women has a mental illness, with emotional problems such as depression and anxiety being the most common in England.