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How Your Personality Matures with Time

Why we get calmer and quieter as we grow older.

I was always an introvert, but my social needs used to be much more intense than they are today. When I was in high school, I talked on the phone five hours a night. In college, I thought briefly of becoming a professor, but decided I couldn't handle so much solitary time researching and writing. Today, in contrast, I'm horrible at returning friends' phone calls because I dislike talking on the phone, and research and writing are among my favorite activities.

I've noticed the same phenomenon with extroverts, too. Take my husband, a true-blue extrovert whom I call Gonzo, in honor of the journalist Hunter S. Thompson's "gonzo" style of throwing himself into stories. It's impossible to be in the same room as Gonzo without feeling the energy of his presence. I gather that when he was a very young man, he threw himself into his social life with similar verve. Today Gonzo is still the same person -- no one would ever call him an introvert -- but his attentions are directed in a decidedly more interior direction, towards home, family, and so on.

Could it be that people's personalities change over time? According to research psychology, the answer to this question is "No." And "yes."

Studies show that the personality of a 70-year-old can be predicted with remarkable accuracy from early adulthood on. Despite the variety of situations that we experience in a lifetime, all of them influencing who we are and how we grow, our core traits tend to remain constant. It’s not that our personalities don’t evolve -- for example, many introverts report feeling more socially confident and graceful as they mature -- but we tend to stick to predictable patterns. If you were the tenth most introverted person in your high school class, your behavior may fluctuate over time, but you'll probably still find yourself ranked around tenth at your fiftieth reunion.

But, at that class reunion, you’ll also notice that many of your classmates will be more introverted than you remember them in high school: quieter, more self-contained, less in need of excitement. Also more emotionally stable, agreeable, and conscientious. All of these traits grow more pronounced with age, as if personalities are a kind of fine wine that mellows with age. Psychologists call this process “intrinsic maturation,” and they’ve found these same patterns of personality development in countries as diverse as Germany, the UK, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Turkey. Also in chimps and monkeys.

This makes evolutionary sense. High levels of extroversion probably help with mating, which is why most of us are at our most sociable during our teenage and young adult years. But when it comes to keeping marriages stable and raising children, having a restless desire to hit every party in town may be less useful than the urge to stay home and love the one you’re with. Also, a certain degree of introspection may help us age with equanimity. If the task of the first half of life is to put yourself out there, the task of the second half is to make sense of where you’ve been.

Your thoughts -- does this research ring true for you?

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