The University Record, April 8, 1998

Early death is linked to the tendency to 'catastrophize,' according to U-M study

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Service

The tendency to "catastrophize" about bad events, projecting them across many realms of life, foreshadows an untimely death decades later.

That is one of the findings of a U-M analysis exploring the link between mortality and the way a person habitually explains the cause or significance of bad events.

The analysis of the connection between explanatory style and early death is based on data from 1,182 subjects in the famous Terman Life-Cycle Study, started in 1921. Conducted by psychology Prof. Christopher Peterson and colleagues, including Howard Friedman at the University of California, Riverside, the analysis appears in the March issue of Psychological Science.

When the subjects were young adults, they were asked a series of questions about the bad events they had experienced so far, including any major disappointments, failures, losses, serious personal faults or character flaws.

Their answers were analyzed and coded to reflect any tendencies toward self-blame, fatalism and catastrophizing--the three major explanatory styles identified by the researchers.

After obtaining death certificates or information about the cause of death from relatives, the researchers analyzed the association between explanatory style and mortality from various causes.

Only the tendency to catastrophize--to see the bad that happens to you as part of a pervasive pall of evil and pain that happens to everyone, everywhere--was linked to an increased risk of dying before the age of 65.

"Males with a tendency to catastrophize were at the highest risk for early death," Peterson says. "They were 25 percent more likely to die by age 65 than men with other explanatory styles, and they were at especially high risk for deaths by accident or violence."

According to Peterson, the findings suggest that catastrophizing about bad events might be hazardous because of its link with poor problem-solving, social estrangement and risky decision-making in diverse settings.

"Deaths due to accident or violence are often not random," Peterson says. "'Being in the wrong place at the wrong time' may be the result of a pessimistic lifestyle. And a lifestyle in which you're less likely to avoid or escape potentially hazardous situations is one route from pessimism to an untimely death."

The current analysis is one of a series of studies on the psychosocial predictors of health and longevity, based on data derived from the Terman Life-Cycle Study. The analyses are being conducted by Peterson, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman, Friedman, Karen H. Yurko of Children's Hospital of Michigan, and Leslie R. Martin of La Sierra University and University of California-Riverside.