Prior research has shown that early adulthood is a key period of personality change. On average young adults become less disagreeable, less neurotic and more conscientious. There tends to be more personality change in early adulthood (the 20s) than in later decades. This is in part related to the maturing of the prefrontal cortex, but experiences also play a role. For example, entering into one's first serious relationship has been associated with sustained decreases in neuroticism and increases in conscientiousness (Neyer & Asdendorpf, 2001; Neyer & Lehnart, 2007, cited in Bleidorn, 2012).
A new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin this month attempts to shed further light on how behavior creates personality change. The study followed 910 students over their last years of high school and found that students who increased their investment in achievement experienced bigger increases in the conscientiousness personality trait. Conscientiousness is associated with long life, higher relationship quality, higher life satisfaction and greater career success (see here for a summary).
Students whose initial achievement investment was low experienced some of the biggest increases in conscientiousness when they increased their achievement investment.
For students in their last year of high school, those who increased their investment in achievement also experienced decreases in neuroticism and increases in openness.
The study has some limitations that should be considered. Most notably, the dropout rate was high and personality changes were based on self-reports by the students without collateral reports from others. That said, this study adds to the evidence that what we do with our brains in early adulthood shapes later personality.
Reference: Bleidorn, W. (2012). Hitting the Road to Adulthood: Short-Term Personality Development During a Major Life Transition. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Aug 15. [Epub ahead of print]
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