You may have heard the adage, “People don’t change.” Actually, we sometimes do, according to psychological science.
As personality researcher Christopher Soto explains, “We know that personality change can happen, that it usually happens gradually, and that it's usually for the better. But we don't fully understand the causes of personality change just yet.”
We become more upbeat. Now a new analysis of data from 60,000 people in the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden, Scotland and Germany backs up earlier reports that most of us become less neurotic after the age of 60, growing more positive until we hit old age.
The analysis pulled together information from 16 studies and looked for links between personality changes and age and gender. Although the studies had differences, there were evident patterns across them.
The participants had all answered questions designed to measure what psychology theory calls the Big Five traits. The key is that the volunteers answered the questions on at least three occasions, revealing changes over time.
What are the Big Five traits? In the Big Five theory of personality, we’re each a combination of extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Each trait is imagined as a scale, so you can be more or less agreeable, for example.
- An extraverted person is sociable and fun-loving; a less extraverted person is reserved and quiet.
- An agreeable person is warm, trusting and helpful; a less agreeable person is suspicious and uncooperative.
- An open person is imaginative, curious, and artistic, drawn to variety and able to accept differences; a less open person prefers routine and focuses on practical things rather than art or abstractions.
- A conscientious person is disciplined, careful and responsible; a less conscientious person is disorganized and impulsive or distractible.
- A neurotic person is anxious and pessimistic or experiences big shifts; a less neurotic person is calm, upbeat and more stable.
Previous research has shown increases in extraversion and conscientiousness from 21 to 60, as we grow into our roles, building careers and families or other bonds. In the new analysis, across the studies, both extraversion and conscientiousness steadily fell past 60—when you may be more free to follow your own whims and comfortable alone.
Openness was stable through middle adulthood, but decreased in our last years.
Neuroticism—being anxious and pessimistic—decreased through most of adulthood, especially for women, before rising again as we hit old age and people around them may begin to die.
Why do we say, “people don’t change”? The real message of the adage: don’t expect people to change the way you want them to. If they do change, it'll be slow and gradual.
Other research suggests that while your personality may change, over the decades you’re likely to compare similarily to other people in your age group. So even though you are less disciplined than you used to be, you might still be more disciplined than many of your peers.
However, this isn’t true for all of us. In the latest analysis, the researchers wrote, “people change differently on different traits, personality is not stable for everyone across the lifespan (but is for some people), and accounting for or explaining these changes is difficult.”
Can life change you? There is evidence that a catastrophe can change personality, making an extraverted and less neurotic person withdrawn and anxious. Serious diseases like dementia, addiction, or mental illness can change personality and behavior. For example, alcoholism over time triggers depression and may lead to abusive behavior.
On the other hand, feeling happy with your life may reinforce certain personality traits. When life is going well, you may become more agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable and—perhaps surprisingly, introverted. You may become more self-contained and less talkative when you're content.
A version of this story also appears on Your Care Everywhere.