Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks

Contrary to traditional thinking, adults do change, researchers say

Kathleen Doheny

Kathleen Doheny

Published on May 12, 2003

MONDAY, May 12, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- If you've ever grumbled, "You'll never change!" to someone, you may have to eat your words.

Personality traits aren't set in stone, claims a new study that questions the traditional thinking that says little change occurs after age 30.

People do change, and often for the better, suggests the research, which appears in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"It wouldn't be fair to say everyone will get better with age," says Sanjay Srivastava, a research scholar at Stanford University in California who completed the project while at the University of California, Berkeley. "But, on average, [with age] people are becoming more responsible, better at keeping commitments, warmer, more nurturing and more affectionate."

The finding that personality is more plastic than some experts think flies in the face of the so-called "plaster theory," which holds that the "big five" personality traits are genetically programmed and little change occurs once you reach early adulthood.

Those five traits are conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness and extraversion.

Srivastava and his colleagues recruited their sample participants -- 132,515 men and women aged 21 to 60 -- over the Internet, asking them to tell their age and answer a personality "inventory."

The researchers found that conscientiousness, a trait that involves being organized and disciplined, increased throughout the age range studied, particularly in the decade of the 20s.

Agreeableness, defined as being warm and generous toward others and able to see others' good qualities, went up throughout the age range studied but increased most during the 30s.

"People became more agreeable with age," Srivastava says.

Neuroticism, defined as being a worrier and emotionally unstable, declined with age for women but not men. (Srivastava says previous research has shown that younger women are slightly less emotionally stable than younger men. So this change identified in the new study may narrow that gender gap with age.)

Openness to new experiences declined slightly for both genders with age. And extraversion -- being gregarious and enthusiastic -- declined for women but not for men.

Whether the people who changed worked to achieve that change by, say, reading self-improvement books or taking courses isn't known, Srivastava says, because that issue wasn't part of the study.

Srivastava says he's interested in how the changes he observed might be linked to environmental factors and life experiences. It makes sense to him, for instance, that conscientiousness goes up in the 20s because many young adults start to make a living and get serious about their careers during that decade.

Agreeableness goes up, especially in the 30s, his study shows. And that's the decade when many people start having families or helping others, such as mentoring a younger worker, he notes, adding, "I'm totally speculating."

But he wonders: "Are the personality changes preparing us for the environmental changes?" Or do the environmental changes drive the personality changes?

One thing he's sure of: "Our data disagrees with the concept that you are given a certain level of agreeableness [or other traits] and that's it for life."

A proponent of the "plaster theory," Paul T. Costa Jr., isn't impressed with the new study.

"In general, there might be problems with Internet sampling," says Costa, chief of the National Institute on Aging's Laboratory of Personality and Cognition. "It's selective recruitment," he says, because only those with access to a computer are eligible.

The study is a kind of snapshot at a given point in time, Costa says, but the only way to determine actual personality changes is to follow people over time.

He remains skeptical that major personality changes occur with age. "You don't find an individual who's an introvert at 35 becoming extremely extroverted at 55 or 45," he says. "What we do see are very modest changes."

More information

To learn more about personality, visit the National Institute of Mental Health. For details on how your office or bedroom give clues to your personality, see the American Psychological Association.

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