Many people have questions about personality in adulthood and the possibility of changing theirs for the better. Would you say you agree with the view that personality is fixed by the age of 30, or perhaps earlier? Do you see personality change as limited to a certain age? When you predict your own future personality, do you feel that you’d like it to change—or would you rather it stays as is?
Researchers who study aging and personality provide evidence that adult personality is indeed malleable, particularly for the better (Roberts et al., 2013). The changes that occur over time reflect some degree of exposure to particular environments or historical events. For example, due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on your life, you may feel that you’ve become more adaptable and resourceful. You may also have become far more conscientious in dealing with your health as you try to avoid being infected with the virus. Over time, these changes may have a lasting impact.
A recent study by Robbert J. Langwerden of Florida International University and colleagues (2021) applies a new approach to examining the question of whether people change over adulthood. In 1992, the researchers administered a personality instrument in order to establish norms for the scores produced by this measure. The sample consisted of 1,244 Danish adults averaging 44 years old, of whom nearly half were female.
In 2012, the research team sought to determine whether the same norms would apply or whether there would be changes based on the passage of time. That 2012 sample was slightly larger (2,014 participants) and 8 years older, on average, than the first sample. As it turned out, 65 participants completed the same survey on both occasions. Their data became the basis for the FIU team’s analysis of personality changes over the course of adulthood.
Many studies of personality conducted in the field use measures based on the Five-Factor Model which categorizes personality traits into the groupings of Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Lengwerden et al. used a measure with a very different theoretical base, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2-RF, otherwise known as the MMPI-2-RF. You may have heard about the MMPI, as it is one of the most widely-used psychological tests that there is. (The “RF” stands for “restructured form,” which refers to the slight item changes and rescoring system that researchers instituted in 2008.)
As a clinical measure rather than a general personality test, the MMPI-2-RF is intended to detect abnormality in psychiatric populations. However, Langwerden and his coauthors believed there could be value in using their own version of this instrument (the Psy-5-r) to assess “maladaptive personality traits, or the outermost levels of the normative personality spectra” (p. 28). The scales developed for use with the Danish population fell into these 5 categories (note that parentheses mean the opposite):
- Aggressiveness AGGR-r: Aggressive, angry, argumentative, assertive, competitive, concerned about status, hostile, hostile toward therapist, manipulative, overbearing in relationships, (passive) (passive in relationships), physically abusive, power-oriented, stereotypic masculine behavior, (submissive)
- Disconstraint DISC-r: Acts out, bored, poor judgment, does not complete projects, impulsive, restless, problems with authority figures, impatient, (work-oriented), (moralistic), (dependable), (overcontrolled), and (perfectionistic)
- Negative Emotionality/Neuroticism NEGE-r: Anxious, whiny, worrier, self-degrading, feels hopeless, pessimistic, nervous, self-doubting, physical symptoms in response to stress, feels like he/she gets a raw deal from life, preoccupied with health problems, ruminates, believes he/she cannot be helped, feels life is a strain, feels mistreated, feels like a failure, and many specific fears
- Introversion/Low Positive Emotionality INTR-r: Introverted, low sex drive, shy, keeps others at a distance, (extroverted), (energetic), (likable), (needs to be with others), and (optimistic)
- Psychoticism PSYC-r: Paranoid ideation, unusual experiences, abnormal experiences, connection to shared reality, hallucinations, delusions, loose associations
As you can see from this detailed listing, these are not personality traits that you particularly want to hang onto yourself if you scored high on any of them. What are the chances that you can “grow out” of high scores on these measures?
Unfortunately, based on the FIU-led study’s findings, the chances would be very small. That “maladaptive personality plaster” in the article's title indeed tends to stick around. The 65 people followed over the entire 20-year period scored very similarly on both test occasions. Additionally, the community-based norms were also highly stable. As the authors concluded, “these five maladaptive personality constructs may have absolute stability” (p. 30). That is, to be sure, a very “absolute” ruling on the possibility of change.
But if you did want to change any of these maladaptive, sticky, traits, how would you go about doing so? After all, if you’ve followed the literature in this area at all, you may have been given reason to hope that although you’re unhappy with yourself now, just wait and things will improve, as suggested by the Roberts et al. (2013) findings based on the Five-Factor Model.
There are two possible explanations for this discrepancy in findings. The first is that maladaptive traits show a different pattern of change over time than the healthy, so-called “normal” dimensions of the Five-Factor Model. Perhaps individuals who receive high scores on these maladaptive scales have become locked into ways of looking at themselves and the world and are unable to break out of their longstanding habitual patterns of responding.
The second explanation for the Danish-based study’s findings is more technical, and based on the methods of analysis used to provide the results. Researchers in the field of adult development and aging know that simple comparisons of so-called “before” and “after” scores often fail to detect subtleties such as patterns of change that don’t follow a straight line, or changes within individuals that relate to outside events or influences.
Think back on what you were like when you were 20 years younger. What vacillations has your own personality gone through during all of this time? Did your personality improve only to come down again later, leading to “average” scores that remain the same? How has your personality changed in the last 12 months alone?
Whether or not the Lengwerden et al. findings were a fluke, it’s still possible for you to figure out ways to get out of your own negative personality patterns. Indeed, as the authors note, “scholars should direct their attention to studying intervention as a means of adjusting the stable course of maladaptive personality traits” (p. 31). You can be the scholar of yourself and, having identified your high points on the PSY-5-r work on changing those that are causing your own life to be troubled. Maybe you never put two and two together to realize that the feeling you get a raw deal from life is connected to preoccupation with your problems. Maybe you hadn’t even realized that there was a trait cluster known as “disconstraint.”
If the FIU team were able ultimately to conclude that you can change the direction of your personality with some intervention, consider seeking out that intervention for yourself. This might involve working with a therapist, or it could even be accomplished by showing a willingness to examine your personality’s own less than desirable features. You might also ask trusted people close to you to give you feedback about what changes you should try to make, as well as your progress toward making those changes.
To sum up, knowledge about your personality, both its strengths and weaknesses, can provide you with important insights about yourself and even the way you relate to others. It may take effort for you to break out of the inertia that keeps you stuck in those old patterns, but that effort may ultimately pay off in the rewards of fulfillment.
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Roberts, B. W., Donnellan, M. B., & Hill, P. L. (2013). Personality trait development in adulthood. In H. Tennen, J. Suls, & I. B. Weiner (Eds.), Handbook of psychology, Vol. 5: Personality and social psychology (2nd ed.). (pp. 183-196). Hoboken, NJ US: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Langwerden, R. J., van der Heijden, P. T., Egger, J. I. M., & Derksen, J. J. L. (2021). Robustness of the maladaptive personality plaster: An investigation of stability of the PSY-5-r in adults over 20 years. Journal of Personality Assessment, 103(1), 27-32. doi:10.1080/00223891.2020.1729772