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Two key personality barriers to new product uptake among physicians

May 18th, 2022

The pharmaceutical industry typically spends over 25% of its revenues each year on research and development (1). However, despite the repeated emergence of new products, physicians often stick with existing, sometimes inferior treatments. While factors including therapy area and patient characteristics may partially explain this behaviour, there is another, often overlooked factor that can help us to better understand and predict behaviour across the board: the unique personality make-up of physicians.

Recent studies have shown that physicians’ personalities are significantly different from the general public (2). In particular, the most extreme difference comes on the “Conscientiousness” trait – where physicians score significantly higher. Given those scoring highly on this trait are typically responsible, organised, hard-working, and goal-directed, this should overall be a good thing! However, physicians’ higher levels of conscientiousness may also be a barrier to new product uptake, in two specific ways:

1. OVER-CAUTIOUSNESS: People at the higher end of the conscientiousness scale may be at risk of perfectionism (3). While this can lead to workaholism and burnout, it can also manifest itself in other ways. In particular, those high on conscientiousness are typically less likely to be flexible and spontaneous, often adopting a more cautious approach. This is likely to contribute to low uptake of new products.

2. OVER-CONFIDENCE: Those scoring highly on “Conscientiousness” also have strong confidence in their ability to reach their goals and be successful (4). While a good dose of self-confidence can help physicians to feel effective, too much may be dangerous. If physicians are over-confident, it may lead to them unduly dismissing potentially valuable new products in favour of previously used, yet perhaps inferior, products.

In general, understanding key personality traits of physicians can help us in two ways. First, we can create informed hypotheses relating to potential key behavioural barriers we might wish to test for in primary research. Alternatively, if we don’t have any budget for research, we are still able to predict key behavioural barriers that marketing communications is likely to need to tackle.

Further, while this article focuses solely on the high relative “Conscientiousness” of physicians compared to the general population, research also shows two further interesting differences. First, physicians are also both more extroverted, and less likely to worry than the general public – while surgeons’ scores here in particular are significantly different, not only to the general public but also to physicians in general (2).

Chris Harvey
Founder, Activate Research