Why surgeons are better than mere mortals

College study gives them top marks but shows they become increasingly neurotic

There is such a thing as a surgical personality, and yes, they are different from the rest of us, according to an analysis by the Royal College of Surgeons.

The UK study of almost 600 British surgeons and about 400,000 mere mortals has found that surgeons score the highest for conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness.

But they are also much more neurotic than the average person.

Further analysis shows that women surgeons have different personality profiles from the men and that surgeons, in general, become more neurotic as they age.

The results support the notion of a surgical personality, the authors say.

β€œThe elevated levels of neuroticism β€” the tendency to exhibit negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, depression and vulnerability β€” might not immediately resonate with the popular conception of a surgeon, but they do reinforce previous research, which has shown that surgeons are more prone to burnout and mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety,” they write in the Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Why surgeons become more neurotic as they age is still unclear, but it is hypothesised that the high-stakes nature of the work, the long hours and the constant exposure to mortality may increase their susceptibility.

Perhaps one of the most interesting findings from the study is that women surgeons are significantly more extroverted and agreeable than the men, relative to the non-surgical population.

The authors say there are many possible explanations for this. 

One might be that there is still a substantial gender disparity in the surgical workforce, and whatever selection pressures have been responsible for this gender imbalance are also likely to have caused this differential in personality profiles between the genders.