Personalities do change throughout the lifespan


Most people have an aspect of their personality they’d like to change, but without help it may be difficult to do so, according to a study led by a University of Arizona researcher and published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

Contrary to the once-popular idea that people’s personalities are more or less set in stone, research has proven that personalities do change throughout the lifespan, often in line with major life events.

For example, there is evidence that people tend to be more agreeable and conscientious in college, less extroverted after they get married and more agreeable in their retirement years.

While it’s well-established that personalities can change in response to life circumstances, researcher Erica Baranski wondered if people can actively and intentionally change aspects of their personalities at any given point simply because they desire to do so.

She and her colleagues studied two groups of people: approximately 500 members of the general population who ranged in age from 19 to 82 and participated in the research online; and approximately 360 college students.

Both groups completed the 44-item “Big Five Inventory,” which measures five key personality traits: extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience and neuroticism, also referred to as emotional stability.

The participants were then asked whether they desired to change any aspect of their personality. If they answered yes, they were asked to write an open-ended description of what they wanted to change.

Across both groups, most people said they desired to increase extroversion, conscientiousness and emotional stability.

The college students were surveyed again six months later, and the general population group was surveyed again a year later.

Neither group had achieved the personality goals they set for themselves at the beginning of the study, and, in fact, some saw change in the opposite direction.

“In both samples, the desire to change at ‘time one’ did not predict actual change in the desired direction at all at ‘time two,’” said Baranski, a postdoctoral psychology researcher in the University of Arizona Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance.

“In the general population sample, we didn’t find that personality change goals predicted any change in any direction.”

College Students Saw More Change

While the general population group exhibited no change in personality traits between the first and second rounds of data collection, the college student group did show some changes; however, they were either in the opposite direction than desired or were for different personality traits than the one the person intended to change.

Specifically, college students who expressed the strongest desires to be more conscientious actually exhibited less conscientiousness six months later.

That could be because those individuals exhibited low levels of conscientiousness to begin with, putting them at a disadvantage from the outset, Baranski said.

In addition, students who said they wanted to be more extroverted showed increases in agreeableness and emotionally stability rather than extroversion in the follow-up. Baranski said that perhaps as part of their effort to become more social and extroverted, they actually focused on being friendlier and less socially anxious – behaviors more directly related to agreeability and emotionally stability, respectively.

Baranski said college students may have exhibited more change than the general population because they are in such a transformational period in their lives. Still, the changes they experienced didn’t align with the goals they set for themselves.

“College students are thrown into this new environment, and they may be unhappy and may look within selves to become happier and change some aspect of their personality,” Baranski said.

“But, meanwhile, there is a bombardment of other things that they’re told they need to achieve, like doing well in a class or choosing a major or getting an internship, and those goals might take precedence.

Even though they know more sustained and introspective change might be better, the short-term effort is more attractive and more necessary in the moment.”

It’s not true that people never change, but it’s very hard to change an aspect of your personality simply because you want to, research suggests.

Overall, Baranski’s findings illustrate how difficult it can be for people to change aspects of their personality based on desire alone. That doesn’t mean people can’t make the changes they want.

They just might need outside help doing so – from a professional, a friend or maybe even a mobile app reminding them of their goals, Baranski said.

Baranski intentionally did not interact with study participants between the first and second rounds of data collection.

That approach differs from that of another researcher, Southern Methodist University’s Nathan Hudson, who in several other separate studies assessed personality change goals over a 16-week period but followed up with participants along the way.

In that research, which Baranski cites, experimenters assessed participants’ personality traits and progress toward their goals every few weeks. With that kind of interaction, participants were more successful in making changes.

“There is evidence in clinical psychology that therapeutic coaching leads to change in personality and behavior, and there is recent evidence that suggests that when there’s a lot of regular interaction with an experimenter, personality change is possible,” Baranski said. “But when individuals are left to their own devices, change may not be as likely.”

Future research, Baranski said, should look at how much intervention is needed to help people achieve their personality goals, and which types of strategies work best for different traits.

“Across all the studies that have been done on this topic over the last several years, it’s clear that most people want to change an aspect of their personality,” Baranski said. “If left unattended, those goals aren’t achieved, so it would be helpful for people who have those goals to know what is necessary for them to accomplish them.”

Individual views on aging are central psychosocial variables in the aging process–what people think about older people and their own aging influences how they age themselves [13]. Views on aging encompass a variety of different constructs, such as age stereotypes (socially shared beliefs about the process of aging and about older people as a group), subjective age (the age people feel like), and self-perceptions of aging (expectations and evaluations of one’s own aging).

The latter has also been termed attitudes toward own aging in the literature [43], and in recent years, research on views on aging in general and attitudes toward own aging in particular has flourished. There is abundant evidence that attitudes toward own aging impact developmental processes and outcomes in mid- and later life.

For instance, as people get older, those with better attitudes toward aging show less negative affect, better health behaviors, better health and decreased mortality, better cognitive functioning, and lower risk of dementia compared to people with more negative attitudes toward their own aging, e.g. [511].

Despite this evidence, what might drive the characteristics and development of attitudes toward aging has been researched to a lesser degree.

Variables that seem to influence attitudes toward own aging across adult life are psychological and physiological resources, such as objective and subjective health and well-being [1213], or personality factors such as rigidity [14]. Another variable that has received some attention is personality conceptualized as the Big Five personality traits (e.g., [15]).

It has been found that personality traits and attitudes toward own aging are related (e.g., [16]), however, studies that include large samples in broad age ranges with several measurement occasions across a considerable observation interval are rare, leaving the developmental dynamics of attitudes toward own aging little understood. Our study thus aimed at investigating the developmental co-dynamics of attitudes toward own aging and personality in mid and later adulthood.

Traditional argument: Personality influences attitudes toward own aging

Some research on the antecedents of attitudes toward own aging has followed approaches of classical attitudinal research in social psychology. The assumption is that personality, i.e. the Big Five, as a fundamental trait characteristic can be conceived as the basis of attitudinal variables [17].

Consequently, studies show that personality traits predict what people think about old age and their own aging. Most recently, targeting individuals aged 60 and above, Bryant and colleagues [16] found that Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Agreeableness were prospectively related to attitudes toward own aging (measured with the Attitudes to Aging Questionnaire; [18]) 10 years later: People higher in Neuroticism had less positive attitudes toward aging as a time for psychological growth, whereas both Extraversion and Agreeableness were negatively related to the perception of age as a time of social losses.

Besides, lifespan developmental psychology also provides a theoretical rationale for the possible influence of personality traits on attitudes toward own aging. As people move through the lifespan and their own aging process, their attitudes toward aging are assumed to develop and change among others as a function of experiences that are somehow related to age (e.g., [191]).

Personality influences the selection of certain situations and environments and consequently, the acquisition of experiences (e.g., [20]). People with specific personality characteristics might thus be predisposed to make (or avoid) certain experiences related to age.

For example, older persons high in Openness to Experience might more readily engage in a senior activity program and thus experience less boredom and loneliness in old age, which in turn might impact their attitudes toward aging.

Furthermore, personality characteristics also shape the way people interpret experiences and the situations they arise in. For example, people with higher Neuroticism tend to focus on negative aspects of a situation and thus interpret the situation in a more negative light (e.g., [21]).

Several studies that investigated the relationship between personality and views on aging build on this theoretical basis. Cross-sectionally, Moor, Zimprich, Schmitt and Kliegel [22] found that Neuroticism and attitudes toward aging were negatively related. Using longitudinal data from the same study, Miche and colleagues [4] supported this finding within a 12-year time span for participants aged 42–46 at baseline.

In another longitudinal study Shenkin, Laidlaw, Allerhand, Mead, Starr, and Deary [23] used a different, multidimensional measure and found that, controlling for a number of other factors, all Big Five traits were longitudinally related to attitudes toward aging as psychosocial loss (Neuroticism positively, all others negatively) and that attitudes toward aging as physical change and psychological growth were predicted by high Extraversion, Agreeableness, Openness and Conscientiousness.

The respective relations were strongest for Neuroticism (psychosocial loss), Extraversion and Openness (physical change), as well as Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness (psychological growth).

Relatedly, Rupprecht, Dutt, Diehl and Wahl [24] recently found that higher Neuroticism was related to the awareness of more age-related losses, whereas Openness and Conscientiousness were related to the awareness of age-related gains.

Taken together, previous research supports the assumption that personality might influence the development and characteristics of views on aging. This direction of influence makes also sense considering the fact that personality in adulthood is assumed to be relatively stable, having developed over decades and providing a coherent and consistent frame of reference across life [25].

The new plasticity argument: Do attitudes toward own aging also influence personality?

Nevertheless, there is recent evidence for personality plasticity and change even in advanced old age (e.g., [2627], hence, personality stability seems to decrease again as people grow older [28]. Considering this plasticity as well as the strong impact of attitudes toward own aging on a variety of developmental outcomes described previously it seems plausible that attitudes toward own aging might also influence personality.

Established lifespan developmental theories support this direction of influence. They assume that people’s expectations and wishes and the ensuing motivational implications turn them into active agents in their own development (e.g., [29]).

This assumption of self-directed development has recently also received attention in research on personality development [30]. More concretely, goals and values have been shown to influence the direction in which the Big Five characteristics develop (e.g., [3132]); however, this line of research has thus far not been combined with views on aging research.

This is an important omission since especially people’s attitudes toward their own aging influence goal selection and behavior and thereby set the pattern for further development (e.g., [33]), which might also affect personality traits.

For example, individuals driven by the view that old age is a time of leisure and pleasure might wish to stay socially active in old age and engage in more activities, which in turn might keep up or even increase their levels of extraversion.

In contrast, individuals with more negative expectations regarding social life in old age might also act accordingly and reduce their activities and social lives, contributing to the documented decrease in Extraversion in older age (e.g., [2734]).

Along these lines, Diehl and colleagues [1] argue that views on aging in general play a central role in self-regulation and self-consistency in older age, which might also have implications for personality development in the realm of the Big Five traits.

As an important indicator that views on aging influence self and personality related variables, several studies found that what people think of older persons in general becomes integrated into their self-concept and self-descriptions over time, especially when age-related experiences and changes are still expected [3537].

Views on aging also influence action and behavior selection in the face of age related changes which might have an impact on personality. For example, in stressful situations in which people may also become aware of actually having grown older, having the mindset that a person becomes calm and even-tempered in older age might lead to matching behavioral responses, e.g., reacting level-headed and considerate (cf. [38]).

This might be interpreted as being more relaxed than in younger years. When repeatedly faced with similar situations and concurrent behavioral responses, this might result in actual personality change in the direction of more Agreeableness or less Neuroticism (cf. [39]).

Such a mechanism is also in the interest of self-consistency, i.e. the maintenance of a coherent self even in the light of developmental changes and losses. Self-consistency is a central prerequisite for the maintenance of well-being and integrity and thus adaptation in older age (e.g., [40]).

Rationale for the current study

The current study aims at integrating previous research and as a consequence providing a more comprehensive test of the relationship between personality and attitudes toward own aging with a strong developmental focus.

To address this research challenge, a longitudinal study is needed that assesses both variables at several time points, preferably in a large sample of middle-aged and older adults, for whom aging processes and therefore attitudes toward own aging are (becoming) relevant and imminent. The Interdisciplinary Longitudinal Study on Adult Development (ILSE, [4142]) offers such a design and is thus to our knowledge the only existing study suitable for this endeavor. Furthermore, ILSE provides data from two cohorts of older adults, one born in 1950–52 being 42–46 years of age at baseline, one born in 1930–32 being 60–64 years of age at baseline, thus allowing for comparisons between cohorts.

Two previous analyses have already addressed the relationship between attitudes toward own aging and personality in ILSE [224]. However, one of them [22] was cross-sectional, and Miche et al. [4] could only use three waves and thus 12 years of data collection, and not the four waves that cover a time span of more than 20 years.

Such a long time-span is quite unique and has not been available in previous research. Furthermore, none of them has tested the bi-directionality of relations, and even though this does not provide evidence for true causal relationships, investigating bi-directionality provides a better empirical test of both theoretically assumed directions of influence than separate studies testing only one direction.

By including all variables at all time points and their respective relations, findings for one direction of influence can be controlled for the respective other, providing more confident estimates. Thus, our study is the first that combines both theoretically plausible causal argumentations and empirically tests the directions of influence in one study.

Expectations regarding the relation of the Big Five and attitudes toward own aging

Considering theoretical models and previous research relating personality and attitudes toward own aging, we expect that personality is longitudinally related to (the development of) attitudes across rather long time intervals such as two decades.

Furthermore, considering the well-documented impact of attitudes toward aging for developmental outcomes and developmental regulation, as well as theories about self-directed personality development, we also hypothesize that the relationship between attitudes toward own aging and the Big Five traits is bidirectional.

However, taking into account that the Big Five personality traits manifest, stabilize and develop in a decade-long ecology and person-environment transactions [43], whereas attitudes toward own aging are a sub-facet of identity with increasing self-relevance only in later life [2], we assume the influence of personality on such attitudes to be stronger than the other way around.

We refrain from making specific hypotheses for all five traits, since previous studies delivered mixed results. Even though previous findings suggest strongest linkages for Extraversion (with higher Extraversion predicting better attitudes toward own aging) and Neuroticism (higher Neuroticism predicting worse attitudes toward own aging), studies could not consistently confirm these predictions; and there were results for other traits as well.

In addition, drawing from assumptions of lifespan theories of developmental regulation and also the pervasiveness and comprehensiveness shown for the Big Five approach in personality research [15], all Big Five traits can in principle be relevant for attitudes toward own aging (and vice versa).

Regarding age differences in the assumed relationships, they may unfold across the whole age range covered in our study. The youngest participants of our sample were around 44 years at the first measurement occasion (see below) and thus well into midlife. On the one hand, individual development in midlife is still strongly determined by normative roles, such as parenthood and employment.

Furthermore, attitudes toward own aging might not be relevant yet due to self-identification as a middle-aged rather than an older adult. Thus, the relationship between personality and attitudes toward own aging might be rather weak in this age group.

On the other hand, later midlife and early old age seem to be phases of considerable heterogeneity in attitudes toward own aging [4] and first age-related experiences might already take place and have been mastered [43644], suggesting that they may represent particularly sensitive periods to study the developmental impact and antecedents of attitudes. In older age, a variety of personal age-related experiences have already been experienced and mastered, this might drive change sensitivity in both attitudes toward own aging and personality [33].

Furthermore, in older age, attitudes toward own aging seem to change more strongly into the negative direction, and this negative change also becomes more normative, which leads to reduced interindividual variability in intraindividual change [4]. Investigating the bidirectional relationship of personality and attitudes toward own aging is thus a relevant empirical question throughout the second half of life.

University of Arizona


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