- Personality traits can shift in adulthood as a result of people's experiences.
- New research shows how work can affect personality. For example, professional success may lead to greater openness and less neuroticism.
- Personality and success therefore both have the potential to influence one another.
When you think about the truly successful people you either know or follow in the media, what personality qualities strike you as their main characteristics? For example, billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are using their wealth to take spaceship adventures, spending millions to get themselves literally out of this world. What are the personal qualities, in your opinion, that motivate them not only to achieve wealth, but the kind of experiences that ordinary people can never have?
You might also wonder what happens to people who do achieve that kind of success, especially when they’re young. What happens to Olympic superstars or rock musicians? They started out in life with the goal of performing to the very best of their abilities, requiring not only talent but perseverance. Once at the pinnacle of their sport or art, their lives start to change in ways that could, you might wonder, lead them to become self-centered or even narcissistic. After all, they are not only catered to by assistants, coaches, or managers, but they are also idolized by millions of people the world over.
Bringing all of this down to the level of your own daily experiences and the people you know, think about your best friend’s mother, a woman you’ve known for years. Recalling what she was like when you first met her when she was in her 40s, she struck you as someone with many interests and hobbies. There was hardly a new craft she wasn’t ready to learn. She also showed a great deal of curiosity about the kinds of music that you and your friend enjoyed, even though it was from a different generation than her own as a young woman. At the time, she had a reasonably well-paying job but now, some 20 years later, she might actually be considered wealthy. All the while, she’s kept up her widespread interests and, if anything, seems more willing than ever to try new things and go to new places.
The idea that personality molds and then becomes reshaped through experiences is central to what’s called the “corresponsive principle” proposed as part of the “neosocioanalytic” perspective (Lodi-Smith & Roberts, 2007). Social experiences, particularly those involved in work, play a crucial role in adulthood in this approach. You “invest” in your work role and, in turn, once in that role, its expectations and norms lead to further changes in your abilities as well as your basic personality. The mother of your friend, in this view, probably chose a job that encouraged her to express herself in new and unexpected ways. As she became reinforced for this self-expression, she continued to grow even further, all the while becoming more successful in terms of promotions and raises.
Success and the Five-Factor Model
In the Five-Factor Model of personality, people are theorized to have five basic dispositions, or traits: neuroticism, openness to experience, extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. Individual differences become translated into different levels of these traits. According to the University of Bern’s Andreas Hirschi and colleagues (2021), these traits can be affected over adulthood by the particular characteristics of a person’s job: “individuals may experience changes in personality based on idiosyncratic life experiences, such as self-development or organizational and life events” and “as such, there is growing acknowledgment… that personality traits can change as a result of various work experiences.”
Breaking this statement down further, and based on the corresponsive principle, Hirschi et al. proposed that each of the five traits would reflect different work-related influences, which in turn would lead to further personality changes. The specific type of work experiences the Swiss-led author team studied involved success, as measured in terms of income and prestige, or degree of social attainment (i.e. a physician has higher prestige than does a retail sales employee).
Taking advantage of a longitudinal (long-term follow-up) study known as the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP), Hirschi and his colleagues used data collected in the years 2005, 2009, and 2013. The 4,767 participants in the SOEP (59% male) ranged from 19 to 57 at the first point of testing (average of 42 years old), who completed a Five-Factor model personality test at each point. The authors also had available to them the income levels and prestige of the jobs of the SEOP participants, making it possible to test the so-called “cross-lagged” relationships in which personality predicts initial success which, in turn, influences personality and ultimately further career success.
5 Ways that Success Not Only Breeds Success, but also Personality Change
Turning now to the findings, the authors spelled out each personality trait’s relationship to success based on the pattern of significant predictors over time. As you read each pattern, think about where you might fall on this set of five factors and how your own success relates to each. If you’d prefer, you could imagine yourself not in terms of success at work but perhaps success at another life endeavor that occupies your time and energy. You may not be able to use the same types of indicators (i.e. salary and prestige) but there may be comparable measures, such as rising to the level of a volunteer committee chair or winner of prizes for various competitions.
For each of the following traits, then, the corresponsive principle worked in the following way to reflect personality's influence on success, and then the influence of success on personality:
- Neuroticism: people higher in this trait were less likely to achieve career success because, in the words of the authors, “neuroticism is a hindrance to the attainment of objective career success.” However, if people manage to achieve success regardless of this problem, their neuroticism tends to decrease over time because they learn to suppress their chronic tendencies to worry and take a gloomy approach to life.
- Openness: This quality is “a resource for the attainment of objective career success” because being open to new ideas allows you to find innovative solutions to problems. The results of this success in problem-solving translate into even greater tendencies to think outside the box as people get older.
- Extraversion: Although people high in extraversion may initially experience success, based on their ability to radiate positive vibes, success itself seemed to lead to lower levels of extraversion over time. As the authors suggest, “successful individuals might depend less on the support they receive from others,” leading them to have fewer sociable role demands.
- Conscientiousness: Somewhat surprisingly, the more highly conscientious in the sample actually received lower income and fewer promotions over time. The authors suggest that, based on previous vocational research, the more highly conscientious seek what are called “conventional” occupations, making them less likely to ascend up a career ladder. At the same time, if people with conscientious personalities do rise into higher prominence, they may find they don’t need to be concerned with minutiae, so they let some of their diligence fall by the wayside.
- Agreeableness: People higher in agreeableness had lower starting salaries but, over time, the corresponsive principle didn’t apply to this trait. The authors suggest that there may be more nuanced factors at play in that, depending on the particular line of work you’re in. It may be better for you to be prosocial (i.e. nice to others) or for you to be a bit more ruthless in order to get ahead. It’s also possible that people who achieve success can let their prosocial tendencies kick in because they no longer need to climb over others to rise to the top.
Success and Your Own Personality
Now that you’ve reviewed the findings and thought about how they might apply to you, it should be possible for you to trace your own personality journey over time. What were you like when you started on your own job path, or the path of your interests and hobbies? Which aspects of your work involvement seemed to trigger your own personality change?
You can also gain insight into the tendencies of the rich and famous as you’ve watched their pathways over time. Returning to the case of Branson and Bezos, you may not have followed them all that closely but now, as you think about the choices they’ve made, how might their own career success have led them to seek out the newest of new adventures?
To sum up, if you’re unhappy with the direction your own personality is taking, and concerned about what this means for your success, you can take some solace in the finding that, for example, even the highly neurotic were able to overcome the individual limitations they may have faced in their career. It’s not possible to know whether they “learned” to be less neurotic or received professional help in coping with their chronic tendencies to worry. However, the fact that they were molded by their environment can serve as inspiration for you to find your own fulfillment in whatever ways you define success.
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Lodi-Smith, J., & Roberts, B. W. (2007). Social investment and personality: a meta-analysis of the relationship of personality traits to investment in work, family, religion, and volunteerism. Personality and Social Psychology Reviews, 11(1), 68-86. doi:10.1177/1088868306294590
Hirschi, A. (2012). Callings and work engagement: Moderated mediation model of work meaningfulness, occupational identity, and occupational self-efficacy. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 59(3), 479-485. doi:10.1037/a0028949