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The impact of childhood lead exposure on adult personality: Evidence from the United States, Europe, and a large-scale natural experiment


Schwaba, Ted; Bleidorn, Wiebke; Hopwood, Christopher J; Gebauer, Jochen E; Rentfrow, P Jason; Potter, Jeff; Gosling, Samuel D (2021). The impact of childhood lead exposure on adult personality: Evidence from the United States, Europe, and a large-scale natural experiment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 118(29):e2020104118.

Abstract

Childhood lead exposure has devastating lifelong consequences, as even low-level exposure stunts intelligence and leads to delinquent behavior. However, these consequences may be more extensive than previously thought because childhood lead exposure may adversely affect normal-range personality traits. Personality influences nearly every aspect of human functioning, from well-being to career earnings to longevity, so effects of lead exposure on personality would have far-reaching societal consequences. In a preregistered investigation, we tested this hypothesis by linking historic atmospheric lead data from 269 US counties and 37 European nations to personality questionnaire data from over 1.5 million people who grew up in these areas. Adjusting for age and socioeconomic status, US adults who grew up in counties with higher atmospheric lead levels had less adaptive personality profiles: they were less agreeable and conscientious and, among younger participants, more neurotic. Next, we utilized a natural experiment, the removal of leaded gasoline because of the 1970 Clean Air Act, to test whether lead exposure caused these personality differences. Participants born after atmospheric lead levels began to decline in their county had more mature, psychologically healthy adult personalities (higher agreeableness and conscientiousness and lower neuroticism), but these findings were not discriminable from pure cohort effects. Finally, we replicated associations in Europeans. European participants who spent their childhood in areas with more atmospheric lead were less agreeable and more neurotic in adulthood. Our findings suggest that further reduction of lead exposure is a critical public health issue.

Abstract

Childhood lead exposure has devastating lifelong consequences, as even low-level exposure stunts intelligence and leads to delinquent behavior. However, these consequences may be more extensive than previously thought because childhood lead exposure may adversely affect normal-range personality traits. Personality influences nearly every aspect of human functioning, from well-being to career earnings to longevity, so effects of lead exposure on personality would have far-reaching societal consequences. In a preregistered investigation, we tested this hypothesis by linking historic atmospheric lead data from 269 US counties and 37 European nations to personality questionnaire data from over 1.5 million people who grew up in these areas. Adjusting for age and socioeconomic status, US adults who grew up in counties with higher atmospheric lead levels had less adaptive personality profiles: they were less agreeable and conscientious and, among younger participants, more neurotic. Next, we utilized a natural experiment, the removal of leaded gasoline because of the 1970 Clean Air Act, to test whether lead exposure caused these personality differences. Participants born after atmospheric lead levels began to decline in their county had more mature, psychologically healthy adult personalities (higher agreeableness and conscientiousness and lower neuroticism), but these findings were not discriminable from pure cohort effects. Finally, we replicated associations in Europeans. European participants who spent their childhood in areas with more atmospheric lead were less agreeable and more neurotic in adulthood. Our findings suggest that further reduction of lead exposure is a critical public health issue.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Institute of Psychology
Dewey Decimal Classification:150 Psychology
Scopus Subject Areas:Health Sciences > Multidisciplinary
Language:English
Date:20 July 2021
Deposited On:26 Aug 2021 08:15
Last Modified:14 Jun 2024 03:42
Publisher:National Academy of Sciences
ISSN:0027-8424
OA Status:Closed
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2020104118
PubMed ID:34253605
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