Researchers in the United Kingdom have found that peoples’ personality traits change over long periods of time, much like their physical appearance. The study, published in Psychology and Aging, is the longest personality study of all time.
“Personality” can be a very generic term to describe a person’s overall demeanor and how they act. So before delving into the results, I should clarify what the researchers mean by “personality.” In the report, they use David C. Funder’s definition: “Personality refers to an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, together with the psychological mechanisms — hidden or not — behind those patterns.”
The researchers started with data gleaned from a Scottish survey conducted in 1950 in which teachers were asked to rate their 14-year-old students on six personality traits. The traits were self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality and desire to excel. The teachers ranked the students on a 5-point scale, ranging from “severely lacking” to “strongly displaying” the trait. They researchers then combined the numbers to create a single rating of “dependability.” They rated a total of 1,208 students.
Fast forward 63 years. The researchers were able to track down 635 of the students who were still alive. The authors reached out to all of them, now age 77, and 174 agreed to retesting. The difference this time was that the participants were asked to rate themselves on the six personality traits. A family member or close friend also ranked the participant.
The findings differed from past research that suggested overall personality stability throughout a person’s life. The authors write, “there were no positive correlations strong enough to achieve significance between adolescent and older-age characteristic ratings or dependability.” They note that previous studies displayed stable personality traits in people “over as much as 40 or 50 years, from childhood to middle age…early to late adulthood…and from middle age to older age.”
The researchers also state that a major difference between their study and previous ones was the age of the participants. The other studies were conducted with middle-to-late-aged adults rather than those in old age. They write that the seeming lack of personality stability shown by their research may be due to “the impact of changes in life circumstances, and declines in physical and cognitive abilities common in older age.” However, they also note that previous studies suggest relative personality stability over short periods in old age and periods of 30 years or more from middle age to old age.
The findings of this report are by no means definitive. For instance, we’re given a very small sample size because only 174 of the original 1,208 participants took the second survey. Personality theory has also evolved drastically over the past six decades. The study’s findings are interesting, but it is hard to draw any concrete conclusions.
Nevertheless, the idea that a person’s personality can change so drastically from adolescence to old age — that we become an entirely “different person” — could be disconcerting to some. That is one way to look at it. But, at the same time, isn’t it also important to mentally evolve and to mature? Whether we stay the same or gradually change is still up for psychological debate. Nevertheless, this study is another important piece added to the proverbial puzzle.