Researchers in New Zealand have made a surprising discovery. It appears that the stability of our personalities change at various points in our lives. Essentially, the research indicates that our personality stability adjusts and increases as we grow from adolescence to adulthood, peaks in middle age, and then gradually declines as we head into our twilight years (our ACTUAL twilight years – this is not a reference to hormone fueled, g-rated, lusty vampire book years). Truthfully, I suspect anyone who survived 80’s hair trends (or anyone with a high school yearbook, really) would gladly corroborate these findings.
Researchers Petar Milojev and Chris Sibley asked nearly 4000 New Zealanders (more than half of whom were women) between the ages of 20 and 80 to complete the same survey once, and then again two years later. These surveys focused data on five major traits (the “Big Five”), extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience, as well as an honesty-humility factor. Once researchers complied the data, comparisons were made between overall age groups. Researchers then compared individual scores from the first survey to the second. For the study, certain traits were considered to be more stable (extraversion) and less stable (agreeableness). In both surveys, data clearly showed personality stability increasing for age groups in their 20’s through 50’s with gradual declines in stable traits for those aged 60 and older. The time of trait peaks varied, with certain traits peaking earlier and others later. For example, extraversion and neuroticism were most stable for those in their late 30’s. Openness, honesty-humility, and conscientiousness, were viewed with peak stability in those in their late 40’s/early 50’s. When charted, this data provides a visual of stability decreasing in age, back toward the levels of those in their 20’s.
As always, there is much room for interpretation of this data. Researchers themselves noted, “this report further highlights the need to test … the effects of events that might cause the lower stability [of personality] in younger and older adulthood.” Possible factors for variations could include family life (whether or not participants had spouses, children), productivity (are participants in school, working, or retired?), and overall health. It is also important to consider how people are treated by those around them. Traditionally, young people are considered uninformed or “green behind the ears.” We tell them every day they lack the necessary experience to make “adult” decisions, even though the age of majority in most of western civilization is 18. We treat our aging population similarly. We not only assume they don’t understand modern technology or politics, but that they are incapable of grasping the information. I suspect societal treatment of these age groups has significant impact on this data, and would be very interested to see what the research would show in consideration of additional variables. In the meantime, take advantage of your stability and make all your decisions, now. It’s all downhill from here, gang!