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Mindful : February 2019
Damian of the University of Houston: “ What makes some people’s personal- ity change and others stay almost the same from adolescence into old age?” Damian led the largest study of its kind on personality change, com- paring personality measurements of 1,795 people at two points in time, 50 years apart. The 2018 study used the “ Big Five” personality traits—open- ness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—to examine how personalities changed between ages 16 and 66. Damian’s study looked at how the whole group had changed, on average, since they were high-school students in 1960, and found that the overall score on extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness rose signifi- cantly with age. Compared to their 16-year-old selves, the 66-year-olds were also, as a group, calmer and more self-confident, indicative of lower neuroticism and greater emo- tional stability. When the study looked at how people’s traits developed relative to one another, the researchers found it was more likely than not that, when compared to their peers, participants’ relative ranking on the Big Five traits (left) would stay the same between age 16 and age 66. The rising tide for those traits lifted almost all boats. But only “almost.” “Although we found large overall changes, not everyone changed in the same way, which caused their relative rank on a personality measure to rise or fall,” Damian said. For example, 60% of people became more mature with regard to their ability to negotiate social rela- tionships and challenges—but 40% didn’t; of those who didn’t mature, even if they initially had above-aver- age maturity as adolescents, by the time they were seniors they were rel- atively immature, since the average zoomed past them. About 17% devel- oped greater leadership personality, but most didn’t change; those 17% therefore rose relative to their peers. The dominant framework for classifying personality emerged in the 1980s. Even as psychologists recognized that thousands of attributes combine to make some- one’s personality unique, they couldn’t agree on what those were. According to one personality scale, only two measures—ego resilience and ego control—accounted for every personality type. Another used 20, including the capacity for well-being, self-control, tolerance, and independence. Eventually researchers coalesced around the “Big Five” model. The name refers to how broad each of the five personality traits is. The strength of each trait—and how the strength of each trait compares to the others—makes up an individ- ual’s personality profile. The Big Five are: Openness to experience Intellectually curious, taking joy in learning Conscientiousness Responsible, dependable, orderly, delaying gratification Extroversion Sociable, talkative, asser tive Agreeableness Trustful, cooperative, generous Neuroticism Easily upset, anxious, emo- tionally unstable PERSONALITY PROFILE THE BIG FIVE Most researchers today define our personalities using these key traits. About half became more socially sensitive and therefore agreeable, so the ones who stayed the same were relatively less agreeable as 66-year- olds. The fact that a lot of people move up or down the rankings rather than staying at their adoles- cent self’s place in the pack meshes with several previous studies, which similarly found only partial “rank order stability” between childhood and early adulthood. The amount of movement depends on the trait. People were most likely to retain their place in the pack on open- ness to new ideas and experiences, conscientiousness, and social sensi- tivity. These traits, it seems, are less subject to change. As a result, people tend to stay put, relatively speaking. But rank order on impulsiveness, emotional calm, and self-confidence is quite subject to change. That sug- gests significant variation in the life experiences that affect those traits (some people have them, others don’t) and in the likelihood of consciously and mindfully trying to change those aspects of their personalities (some people try, others don’t). A World of Differences Damian and her colleag ues also looked at whether “personality profile” changed. A personality profile out- lines which of the Big Five traits stand out most when others describe the individual. The study found that sim- ilarity between a person’s personality profile as a teenager and as a 66-year- old ranged wildly: from near-perfect correlation (almost no change) to a wholesale reshuffling of the relative dominance of any of the Big Five. “It’s quite mind-boggling that some people didn’t change at all from their younger self, whereas some people’s personality profile is completely reversed,” Damian said. That’s clear when scientists dig beneath averages and look at individ- ual variations. One 2008 study that 36 mindful February 2019