Unique study reveals how personality changes from teen years to old age

First-of-its-kind research spanning 50 years shows adults typically become more emotionally stable and agreeable as they mature

HOUSTON — Do people really change over time? That is, do more folks in their elder years believe they’re the same person they were as a young adult? Philosophers have puzzled over this very question for ages, only to reach a thorny impasse. A new longitudinal study weighs in on the matter, arguing that our core personality traits often do change during adulthood. The catch being, so do everyone else’s.

Researchers at the University of Houston recently analyzed personality inventory data collected from nearly 1,800 American adults over the span of 50 years, beginning in 1960. Participants took two identical inventories — one at age 16 and one at age 66 — which let the researchers track how their personality traits shifted over time.

This study, which is the first to track personality changes over decades using the same parameters, found that core personality traits, such as conscientiousness and agreeableness, do shapen over time. The caveat: our traits tend to not change much relative to others our age. In other words, our peers change too.

“The rankings [of personality traits] remain fairly consistent,” explains Rodica Damian, the study’s lead author, in a release. “People who are more conscientious than others their age at 16 are likely to be more conscientious than others at 66. But, on average, everyone becomes more conscientious, more emotionally stable, and more agreeable.”

Rodica notes that some participants did show more drastic change than others, often for the better. This is in line with recent research that found personality traits to be more malleable than previously believed.

Her team’s research also supports the popular theory that personality traits are shaped by both genetics and environment, often in equal measure.

The researchers’ inventory gave them answers to a wide variety of unresolved questions, including the extent to which personality traits change on average. An interesting observation: gender differences in personality shifts may appear at specific points in time, but do not prevail in the end.

“Our findings suggest that personality has a stable component across the lifespan, both at the trait level and at the profile level, and that personality is also malleable and people mature as they age,” the researchers conclude.

The study’s findings were published on August 16, 2018 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.