How Our Personality Traits Adapt As We Age

It was once a popular belief that our personalities were ‘set in stone’ by age 30. This has since been refuted by a number of studies demonstrating that not only do we change over time, but we can even purposefully change our own personality traits.

Many studies have identified shifts in the ‘Big Five’ personality traits across the lifespan. However, the often inconsistent results have made room for ongoing controversy about precisely how personality changes over the lifespan.

An analysis of data from 16 longitudinal studies, with a total sample of more than 60,000 people from various countries, reveals some new and important insights. The work, published by Eileen Graham at Northwestern University, Chicago, and her colleagues in the European Journal of Personality Research, suggests that there are some clear patterns of change through middle age and into older age for at least four of those five traits.

For all the studies included in the analysis (from the US, the Netherlands, Sweden, Scotland  and Germany), participants had completed an assessment of at least a subset of the Big Five traits (extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness and conscientiousness) on at least three separate occasions.

What did they find?

Both extraversion and conscientiousness showed a steady pattern of decline with time. For conscientiousness, this decline was most prominent among the over 60’s.

This finding could be explained by several theories about personality change with age, including the idea that for younger and middle-aged people, it’s advantageous to exhibit pro-social traits like extraversion and conscientiousness, but as social demands begin to wane in older age, these traits serve less of an evolutionary advantage. Indeed, the team also found that openness (another prosocial trait), was stable through middle adulthood, subsequently decreasing in older age.

Neuroticism showed a different, ‘U-shaped’ pattern. Overall, this data suggests that neuroticism decreases through most of adulthood, then increases again in older age. This is consistent with the idea that in old age, we generally tend to become anxious about illnesses and death.

The research team found that gender was not relevant to results, except for neuroticism: females had slightly steeper declines through middle adulthood than males.

Individual differences in changes for all five personality traits were evident — so, although there were these overall trends in personality changes, this was not the case for everyone in each sample. As the researchers write, “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.” Therefore, more work is now needed to understand why.