Personality Changes Throughout Life
NewScientist.com news service
May 11, 2003
People's personalities are not set in stone by the age of 30, contrary to popular and
professional beliefs, new research suggests.
In fact, the old adage about people becoming wiser with age may hold some truth,
according to the US study, which examined five major personality traits.
Sanjay Srivastava and colleagues surveyed over 130,000 people on key personality traits
known as the "Big Five": conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism (emotionality),
openness and extraversion. These traits are not dependent on factors like mood, says
Srivastava, now a psychologist at Stanford University, California.
Many psychologists believe these five key characteristics are fundamentally genetic and
do not change or change only slowly after 30. But the research suggests that not only do
people continue to change after this milestone, but in some ways they change more.
"We found a mixture of different patterns of how people change, "Srivastava told New
Scientist."ťOn average people were getting better at dealing with the ups and downs of life.
In particular, they were more responsive and more caring [with age]."
Work and family
The team assessed the five key traits in people aged between 21-60 on the Internet using
standard psychological tests. These included personality tests such as "Find your Star
Wars twin." They compared results to other non-Internet studies in college students to
ensure that their results were representative.
The team found that neuroticism (emotionality) decreased with age for women but not
men. Openness also declined slightly with age for both sexes.
They also found that people tended to show a spurt in conscientiousness - which involves
the ability to deal with tasks and organization - in their twenties. Agreeability, which
encompasses affection and warmth, improved on average in
most people's thirties.
Srivastava, who led the study while at the University of California, Berkeley, said the team
thought changes in conscientiousness and agreeability might map onto changes in work
"In their twenties people are typically entering into the world and rapidly advancing, also
they are making commitments in their personal life," he said. "Agreeability coincides with
when people are having families."
Chicken and egg
However, the way in which this happens presents a chicken and egg scenario, says
Srivastava. "There could be socially prompted changes where a person changes to keep
up with the world around them. Or you could also imagine people's personalities
developing to allow them to take on those roles."
For this reason, he says it is difficult to establish the balance between nature and nurture
in developing personality.
Srivastava's team is now planning further work to follow the development of personality in
individuals over time.
© Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (VOL 84 p 1041). All Rights Reserved.