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How Do Personality Traits Change from 16 to 66?

A 50-year study shows how traits evolve from adolescence to older age.

 Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock
Source: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock

Personality traits such as conscientiousness and agreeableness are both stable and malleable from the age of 16 to 66, according to a new study based on fifty years of “Big Five Inventory” data gathered from 1960 to 2010. This paper, "Sixteen Going on Sixty-Six: A Longitudinal Study of Personality Stability and Change across 50 Years," was published online August 16 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

This is the first study to use decades worth of data to answer the question: “How much do people’s personalities change or remain stable from high school to retirement?” For this groundbreaking research, lead author Rodica Damian of the University of Houston and co-authors analyzed a large U.S. sample of 1,795 participants from Project Talent Personality Inventory (PTPI), a 50-year nationwide study that assessed personality traits and other factors for a generation of high school students beginning in 1960. The original sample for PTPI consisted of 440,000 high school students from over 1,300 schools across the country.

The co-authors of the recent '16 to 66' study included Marion Spengler of the University of Tübingen in Germany, Brent W. Roberts of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Andreea Sutu, who works with Damian at UH as a graduate student.

PTPI gauged personality traits using the Big Five dimensions of personality: (1) agreeableness, (2) conscientiousness, (3) emotional stability [also referred to invertedly as neuroticism], (4) extraversion, and (5) openness to experience.

Rodica Damian and her team also referenced the Big Five Inventory (BFI; John et al., 1991) which utilizes 44 items designed to measure the Big Five to create a personality profile.

When taking a BFI, participants are asked to self-report how fittingly various first-person scenarios reflect each of the Big Five character traits based on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (Disagree strongly) to 5 (Agree strongly). For example, how would you respond to these BFI scenarios on a scale of 1 to 5: Agreeableness (e.g., "I see myself as someone who is considerate and kind to almost everyone."); Conscientiousness (e.g., "I see myself as someone who is a reliable worker."); Neuroticism (e.g., "I see myself as someone who is emotionally stable, not easily upset." *reverse scored); Extraversion (e.g., "I see myself as someone who is outgoing, sociable."), and Openness to experience (e.g., "I see myself as someone who is curious about many different things.").

The results of Damian’s latest study show that people’s personality traits are malleable from high school to retirement and that these changes appear to accumulate over time.

"The rankings (of personality traits) remain fairly consistent. People who are more conscientious than others their age at 16 are likely to be more conscientious than others at 66. On average, everyone becomes more conscientious, more emotionally stable, and more agreeable," Damian said in a statement.

As would be expected, Damian points out that some people change more than others from sixteen to sixty-six. Also, the data shows that sometimes people change in ways that are maladaptive or harmful as they get older. Notably, men and women appear to change at similar rates from 16 to 66.

"Gender played little role in personality development across the lifespan. Our findings suggest that personality has a stable component across the lifespan, both at the trait level and at the profile level, and that personality is also malleable and people mature as they age," the authors conclude in the study abstract.

How Does Openness to Experience Tend to Change from Sixteen to Sixty-Six?

Yesterday morning, when I first saw the press release, “16 Going on 66: Will You Be the Same Person 50 Years from Now?” from the University of Houston, the title jumped out at me because it spoke to a theme that's been on my mind this summer. As an example: Last week, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Can You "Hold On to Sixteen" Longer? Exercise Is Key,” which was inspired by an August 9 presentation by Matthew Hughes at the APA 2018 annual conference linking regular physical activity with younger subjective age.

As a 52-year-old, I've been on a mission this summer to reduce my subjective age on a daily basis by consciously trying to boost my "openness to experience." As the findings by Damian et al. suggest, my middle-aged personality profile is much more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable in comparison to when I was as a volatile teenager in the early 1980s. But, I’m also much more boring.

Earlier this year, I took inventory of my personality traits and realized that my “openness to experience” was shriveling up. Based on this self-assessment, I decided to take immediate steps to actively reboot this character trait. As a 50+ year old, I’d gotten stuck in a ho-hum rut that lacked joie de vivre and a spirit of adventure, which I think is probably common in midlife and beyond.

From a pop culture perspective, part of my motivation to kick-start more openness to experience as an older adult is rooted in John Mellencamp's advice from his 1982 ditty, "Jack & Diane," which notoriously urges us to "Hold on to sixteen as long as you can." This song about holding on to a younger subjective age topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts when I was 16 and has been one of my favorite sing-along anthems ever since.

Earlier this summer, Jake Owen put the universal importance of holding on to certain personality traits from when you're 16 in the front of my mind with his updated meta-version of the Mellencamp classic, “I Was Jack (You Were Diane).” Owen's 2018 narrative picks up the story of two "Class of '82" high school sweethearts decades later in life, as they try to recapture their youthful spirit and openness to experience by singing along to select songs from their adolescence.

After reading about the new study by Damian et al. yesterday, I was curious to learn if her team’s analysis of 50 years worth of data on personality traits had unearthed any trends regarding openness to experience from the age of sixteen to sixty-six. So, I reached out to media relations at UH with a couple of questions for the researchers.

My two-part question for Damian and co-authors is:

1. On average, did the cohorts in your 50-year longitudinal study display more or less openness to experience at 66 than at 16?

2. In looking at various mean-level changes in openness to experience and extraversion, were there any identifiable lifestyle choices within the locus of individual's control that seemed to influence whether someone displayed more or less openness to experience and/or extraversion from 16 to 66?

I sent this inquiry on a Friday afternoon in August. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t heard back yet. If I do get a response, I will update this post. (*Please see Rodica Damian's answer to these questions in an update at bottom of page.)

In the meantime, 10+ years ago, when I wrote The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (2007), one of the sections of my book was subtitled “Five-Factor Personality Model: Your Wheel of Life Needs Balanced Spokes.” In this section, I describe the big five traits as:

Agreeableness: Trusting, straightforward, compliant, modest, tender-minded, altruistic.

Conscientiousness: Competent, orderly, dutiful, self-disciplined, deliberate, achievement-oriented.

Extraversion: Outgoing, positive emotions, assertive, full of energy, excitement-seeking, warm.

Neuroticism: Anxious, self-conscious, depressive, hostile, impulsive, vulnerable. [Emotional stability is linked to low levels of neuroticism.]

Openness to Experience: Rich fantasy life, action-oriented, novel ideas, eccentric, adventurous.

Using the analogy of a bicycle wheel—with each personality trait represented by a spoke—I said, “In biking, as in life, you want all of the spokes on your wheels to be balanced. You want a wheel that doesn’t wobble and rolls smoothly [by equally fine-tuning each spoke.] In the bike world, this is called, ‘true your spokes.’” Additionally, for some ancient prescriptive advice, on the same page I included a quote by Aristotle from Nicomachean Ethics that offers some timeless wisdom: “You cannot have a proud and chivalrous spirit if your conduct is mean and paltry. For whatever man’s actions are, such must be his spirit.

If you’re feeling like your "openness to experience" personality trait is waning as an older adult, I strongly recommend taking actions on a daily basis that reignite your youthful spirit and make you feel 16 again. For more see, “Growth Mindset Advice: Take Your Passion and Make it Happen!” and “Using the Power of Smell to Step Outside Your Comfort Zones.”

Update: After the initial publication of this post, Rodica Damian answered my two questions above via Twitter. Please see her response below.

"Here are my answers to your questions:

1. The average change in Openness was fairly small, but showed a slight increase with age, but there were individual differences in change: 12.6% of people decreased, 17.5% increased, 69.9% did not show reliable change. I'd take the openness results with a grain of salt, because our measure of openness ("Culture") correlates about .50 with modern measures, so it's a bit different, because modern personality scales did not exist in the 60s.

2. Lifestyle choices were not measured, so these data do not speak to that, but looking forward to investigating this question in future studies using different data sets!"

Thanks very much for this research and for your response, @RodicaDamian. Much appreciated!


Rodica Ioana Damian, Marion Spengler, Andreea Sutu, Brent W. Roberts. "Sixteen going on sixty-six: A longitudinal study of personality stability and change across 50 years." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (First published online: August 16, 2018) DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000210

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