By David DiSalvo
Does personality stay the same from birth for the rest of your life, or can it be changed? A new study tapping into 50 years of data suggests that it’s quite possibly a blend of both.
For decades personality was considered as unmalleable as concrete – who you were at 15 is who you’d be at 75. But within the last 20 or so years, as cognitive and behavioral science have revealed dynamic insights about the human brain and corresponding behaviors, we’ve come to see personality as at least marginally changeable, and possibly much more so.
The latest study tracked personality changes over five decades, and the results suggest that while certain personality elements remain stable over time, others change in distinct ways. In other words, personality is both relatively stable and changeable, and the degree of change is specific to each person.
The good news from the research is that for those of us who experience significant personality change, the shift is mostly in a positive direction.
“On average, everyone becomes more conscientious, more emotionally stable, and more agreeable,” said lead study author Rodica Damian, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston.
At the same time, people who were especially considerate, agreeable and emotionally stable at a young age were also more likely to be so later on.
“People who are more conscientious than others their age at 16 are likely to be more conscientious than others at 66,” said Damian.
The study mined data from the Project Talent Personality Inventory, a repository of personality data on more than 400,000 people (in total) gathered over a 50-year period. The value of the findings comes from the expansive timespan, which allows researchers to measure changes in personality traits like conscientiousness, extroversion and neuroticism over time.
As to what influences personality stability or malleability, both genetics and environmental factors play lead roles, with previous research suggesting that each contributes equally to the outcome. The relatively new wrinkle in this understanding is epigenetic influence, in which genes for certain factors may be “switched on” by environmental influences.
The study also found that while some personality elements seem more gender-specific, women and men change at pretty much the same rates over their lifespans. Neither has an edge on “personality maturity” over time.
A big takeaway from the findings, the researchers emphasized, is that when it comes to personality change, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Your especially likable and gregarious friend in middle school is still probably going to be more likable and gregarious than most people you know in mid-life, so don’t let the social mirror draw you into a comparison. What matters is how much you’ve changed – and that, according to this study, is very much a person-specific evaluation.
The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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