How your personality changes in your lifetime

Young minds: The teenagers were born in 1936. They lived through war and a digital revolution.

In 1950, over 1,200 teenagers took a personality test. Sixty years later, they took it again — and their characters had completely changed. Will you be the same person at 77 as you are now?

By the time you are in your 70s, all of the cells in your body (except for those in your cerebral cortex) will have been replaced several times over. You will have a few wrinkles in your skin and your hair may have lightened. But most people would assume that you were still somehow you; your core personality traits will have remained relatively stable.

But last week, the longest-running personality study ever completed suggested that this was not the case. Personality can be entirely transformed during a lifetime.

The results are based on a survey of 1,208 Scottish 14-year-olds in 1950. The teenagers’ teachers were asked to rate them on six core personality traits: self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality, and a desire to learn. In 2012, researchers tracked down around half of the participants, and convinced 174 of them to take the test again. This time, they rated themselves, and asked a close friend or relative to rate them too.

The researchers had expected to find some correlation. Instead, there was “no significant stability” in any of the six traits, or the underlying trait of “dependability” that the survey was designed to measure.

“Personality changes gradually,” concluded Dr Mathew Harris, who led the study. It is a process of subtle changes which “accumulate” over time, rather than a response to dramatic life events.

The findings contradict long-held views about personality. In 1890, the psychologist William James wrote that “By the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” In 2002 researchers found that the “Big Five” personality traits were linked to genetics, and therefore relatively stable.

But a year later, a different study suggested that people generally become more “agreeable” and “conscientious” (two of the Big Five) as they get older. And in 2015, neuroscientists argued that the self was not fixed, but “fluctuating” — a belief that Buddhists have cultivated for centuries.

Sense of self

For some, the idea is unsettling. Of course people grow up and learn from their experiences — but surely our core personality is the same? Friendly, hard-working teenagers will generally grow up to become friendly, hard-working adults. And when we meet old friends much later in life, we will recognise the essence of the person we once knew.

Maybe not, say others. Sixty years is a long time — and as our experiences shape our judgement and our values, it is natural that our emotions and behaviour will change along with them. That is all personality is. And if our personalities grow, that is nothing to be ashamed of. It might even be something to look forward to.

You Decide

  1. Will you have the same personality when you are 77?
  2. Is your personality shaped by your experiences, or is it an essential part of you?

Activities

  1. List five important personality traits that you would like to have when you are 77.
  2. Interview a parent or guardian and (if possible) someone over 70. Ask them to rate themselves out of 10 on the six personality traits mentioned in this story. Then ask them what their answers would have been when they were 14. Report back to the class.

Some People Say...

“We continue to shape our personality all our life. If we knew ourselves perfectly, we should die.”

Albert Camus

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I worry about what I’m like when I’m old?
Because thinking about personality changes raises fascinating questions about your identity. Does it have an immutable “essence” (something which spiritual people might call a soul) or are we merely a collection of our behaviours and experiences? Philosophers have been discussing such questions for centuries.
How can I change my personality?
As discussed, psychologists disagree on whether this is possible. But you can change your behaviour. One study (explained under Become An Expert) found that progress can be made over time if you set yourself specific goals. For example, someone who wants to become more extroverted might try to make plans with friends one night a week. However, do not expect radical changes to happen all at once.

Word Watch

Several times
Different cells in the body have different “renewal rates”. For example, cells in your small intestine last just a few days, red blood cells last a few months, and fat cells can last for around eight years.
1950
The teenagers were born around 1936, and were 77 when they retook the test in 2012. They would now be in their early 80s.
William James
An American psychologist and philosopher of the late nineteenth century. His book, The Principles of Psychology, was a groundbreaking work on topics such as consciousness, free will and emotion.
Big Five
The five traits and their characteristics are: Openness (often imaginative people who like to learn new things); Conscientiousness (reliable, organised, and thorough); Extraversion (people who get their energy from being around other people, often talkative and assertive); Agreeableness (friendly, kind and compassionate); Neuroticism (moody and tense).
Neuroscientists
A paper published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences said that our sense of self is tied to a “broad range of fluctuating neural processes”.

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