Between our teenage and adult years, we all go through a range of changes – unfortunate haircuts, jobs and relationships come and go. But what about who you are at your core? As you grow older, does your personality change?
Personality is the pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviours unique to a person. People tend to think of personality as an aspect of a person that is unchanging. But according to psychologists, that is not how it works. “Personality is a developmental phenomenon. It is not just a static thing that you are stuck with and cannot get over,” an expert psychologist says.
That is not to say that you are a different person each and every day. In the short term, change can be nearly imperceptible, according to a study that surveyed the personalities of participants regularly over many years. This suggest suggests that our personality is actually fairly stable on shorter time scales.
In one study, researchers analysed the results of 152 longitudinal studies on personality, which followed the participants ranging in age from childhood to their early 70s. Each of these research papers assessed trends in the Big Five personality traits. This cluster of traits, which usually includes agreeableness, openness to experience, neuroticism, extroversion, and conscientiousness, are a mainstay of personality research. The researchers found that individuals’ levels of each personality trait, relative to other participants, tended to remain consistent within each decade of life.
That pattern of consistency begins at around the age of 3, and perhaps even earlier, said experts. When psychologists study children, they do not measure personality traits in the same way they do for adults. Instead, they look at temperament – the intensity of a person’s reactions to the world. We all come into the world with unique temperaments, and research suggests that our temperaments as children – for example, whether we are easy going or prone to temper tantrums, eager or more reluctant to approach strangers – correspond to adult personality traits. A shy 3-year-old acts a lot different from a shy 20-year-old. But there is an underlying core.
Earlier temperament seems to affect later life experience. For example, one study published in the 90’s followed children from the age of 3 until the age of 18. The researchers found, for instance, that children who were shyer and more withdrawn tended to grow into unhappier teenagers.
But those decades add up. Throughout all those years, our personality is still changing, but at a snail’s pace. Experts often say, “it is something that is subtle,”. You do not notice it on that five to ten-year time scale, but in the long term, it becomes noticeable. In the 1960s, psychologists surveyed over 440,000 high school students – around 5% of all students in the country at that time.
The students answered questions about everything from how they reacted to a range of emotional contexts to how efficient they were at getting work done. 50 years later, researchers tracked down around 2,000 former students and gave them the same survey. The results found that in their 60s, participants scored much higher than they had as teenagers on questions measuring calmness, self-confidence, social sensitivity, and leadership.
Again, longitudinal studies have discovered similar results. Personalities tend to get “better” over time. Psychologists call it “the maturity principle.” As people grow older, they tend to become more emotionally stable, agreeable, extraverted, and conscientious. Over a long period of time, these changes add up to big personality shifts.
Overall, there are sizeable bodies of work that suggest that the older we get, the better we get at socially desirably traits. For those who struggle with emotional instability now, look forward to the possibility of a more balanced emotional response to future situations.