Personality Change for the Better with Age

Despite the long-held theory that people’s personalities are set in stone during childhood, recent studies suggest that most people’s personalities eventually change throughout their lives. So is it possible to make leading adjustments to your personality? Experts say it is—but it’s not easy.

The End of History Illusion

People, in spite of how old they grow to be, have a tendency to think that the person they are in the present is the same person they will be in the future. This common misconception is based on the findings of a recent study that shows how people normally don’t realize the amount of change in their personality traits and values, despite knowing completely how much they have transformed in the past. And Harvard University psychology researcher, Daniel Gilbert, is not exempted from this rule.

Gilbert says that he has a gut feeling that even though he will age physically, his identity, values, personality, and deepest preferences will not change from here on out. However, he became conscious of the fact that this was a rather odd feeling, considering that he knew how much he had changed before. He pondered if what he felt was an illusion, and if it was one that he shared with other people. Is it really a fact that people think that their development is an evolution that is brought to them up to a certain point in their lives, but after that it just stops there?

Gilbert’s speculations led him to further investigate the idea with a number of his colleagues. After conducting a survey involving over 19,000 individuals, they were able to discover that people generally underestimate the amount of change they will undergo in the future. They just do not realize the capability of their personalities changing and growing in the near future.

Life is an endless course of changing and growing, and according to the results of Gilbert’s study, change and growth never really stop. This occurs in spite of the reality that people between the ages of 18 to 68 think it has already come to an end.

This phenomenon is called the end of history illusion, a ubiquitous psychological misconception in which teenagers and adults of all ages believe that they have consistently experienced significant personal growth and changes in the past until the present, but will somehow stop to grow and mature in the future.

It’s still a mystery why people have this sort of delusion when it’s quite clear that change still does happen in the future. Perhaps it’s rather difficult to conjure up ideas of an altered, future form of yourself. On the other hand, people are possibly contented with who they are now and don’t appreciate the notion of some mysterious transformation to happen to them.

The Maturity Principle: A Contradiction to Popular Belief

Lead researcher and psychologist Sanjay Srivastava, PhD, says that one of the major theories of personality strongly suggests that personality traits are primarily set by genetics, and, as a result, personality traits should slow just as other functions of maturation slow. However, based on the findings of several large research studies conducted over the past few years, a person’s personality naturally changes over the course of adulthood. This occurs in response to certain life events such as entering a committed relationship or advancing in a career.

The studies show that among people between the ages of 20 to 65, there are increases in their positive traits and decreases in their negative ones. Over time, most people have the tendency to become more accountable, more acceptable, and more emotionally stable—simply put, their personalities improve. Psychologists call it the Maturity Principle.

The researchers on Srivastava’s team also found a mixture of different patterns on how people age. On average, people are getting better at dealing with the highs and lows of life, while in particular, they are more caring and more responsive, with age.

When researchers talk about “personality,” they are talking about a characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving that is constant in both time and circumstance, says Dr. Christopher Soto, a research psychologist and director of the Colby Personality Lab at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Personality may not solely result from biology, but from changes over time due to life stages, experiences, social environment and gender. Moreover, this phenomenon should offer reassurance to people who are worried about aging being a process of decline. As people get older, according to Srivastava, they actually get better at things. They are not becoming bitter old hags and grumpy old men.

The Big Five

The Five-Factor Theory, also known as the “Big Five,” was formulated by Dr. Robert McCrae and Dr. Paul Costa to explain the role of the Big Five Factors in personality. The Five-Factor Theory states that the human personality can be divided into five broad categories or domains, where each holds a set of specific traits and behaviors. A chapter in the Handbook of Personality written by Oliver John, Laura Naumann, and Chris Soto, provides a more detailed account on the Big Five. It covers several important issues such as theoretical accounts, the scientific origins and history of the Big Five, and a conceptual and empirical comparison of three measurement instruments.

READ  What is PTSD?

Listed below are the Big Five and how they affect people as their personality changes over the course of adulthood:

1) Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness, the personality trait indicating organization, consistency, and dependability, was found to increase through the age ranges studied, the most change occurring in a person’s 20s through the 50s. This is mostly due to the investment of careers and relationships.

2) Agreeableness

In order to meet the expectations of work colleagues and family members, people tend to be more polite, trusting, compassionate, less competitive, and more cooperative. This trait occurs the most change in people during their 30s while continuing to improve throughout their 60s, disproving the age-old notion of “grumpy old men.”

3) Openness to Experience (sometimes called Intellect or Intellect/Imagination)

People may become more intellectually curious, inventive, imaginative, and sensitive to art and beauty. The interest in being creative and caring about intellectual activities does increase in adolescence and college years, but then it remains static and then decreases with old age. However, there are some who work to develop these traits.

This occurrence is viewed as a reasonable adaptation to the end of life. At that stage, people have consolidated who they are, what they are doing, and they don’t find it necessary to learn new things as much as tell others what they’ve done and who they are.

4) Extroversion (sometimes called Surgency)

Talkative, sociably assertive, and socially dominant traits tend to diminish over time as people work on maintaining relationships rather than seeking new ones. However, one aspect of extroversion, or level of sociability and self-confidence does increase as people age. They become more confident as they develop, especially in their 20s and 30s.

5) Neuroticism (sometimes reversed and called Emotional Stability)

People are more inclined to stop feeling sad, anxious, stressed, temperamental, and moody as they learn to regulate negative emotions by distracting themselves and avoiding unpleasant situations.

How to Improve Your Personality

[wp_ad_camp_3] Changing your personality is a lot like overeating and wanting to lose weight, experts say. If you want to lose weight, you become conscious of when and why you overeat. This constant, intentional behavior eventually becomes second nature over time. Here are five tips to help you get started.

1) Identify a trait.

Richard Levak, a psychologist from Del Mar Caligornia suggests that the first step to improving your personality is to recognize the pieces of our personality that affect you the most. Find out which ones you can make the most of by changing. Is there a pattern of conflict or negative feedback in your career or personal life?

2) Focus on one behavior (at a time).

Starting with your own behavior, try to obtain insight into your role in this pattern. Isolate the behavior that is causing the most difficulty and work on that one. Don’t worry about the initial results, and don’t set your expectations too high. Also, don’t expect to restructure your personality overnight. Be patient. Change takes time.

3) Start small.

It’s important to start small, says a behavioral strategist in Sydney, Australia, Warren Kennaugh. Gain control of only one behavior before adding another. It’s a lot like learning how to kick a football. You focus on the steps leading up to the goal, not the goal in itself. Expect to make mistakes, but never dwell on them. Just keep moving toward the direction you need to go.

4) Take note of progress.

Reviewing your progress provides encouragement and positive reinforcement. Let the people close to you know what you’re doing. Not only can they be supportive, but a change for you can also mean a change for them.

5) Build up on success.

Upon having your new behavior ingrained, identify a new area for improvement. Always be introspective and be honest with yourself. You will be surprised to see what a better person you can grow and change to become.

About the author