College of LAS « Illinois

Research

Better With Age

Contrary to popular belief, one's personality improves over time.

Brent Roberts

Brent Roberts often reminds his students the best is yet to come. The LAS psychology professor is not referring directly to their future careers but, instead, to the changes in personality traits that will occur as his charges move through their 20s and 30s.

"I tell them that most of their change is going to happen after they become adults and that most of it is going to be positive. They will become more confident, nicer, more reliable and organized, and they will become less anxious."

Roberts and two former graduate students (Kate Walton and Wolfgang Viechtbauer) have assembled the largest meta–analytic database of longitudinal studies of personality changes to date, involving 92 studies of 45,000 people, ages 10 to 101, over a period of 45 years. (Longitudinal research refers to a long–term study. A meta–analysis compiles multiple studies.) Whereas most studies of personality developments look at either childhood, adolescence, or old age, Roberts wanted to examine the often overlooked years of 20 to 60; this time frame, he says, is arguably the most important period of an individual's life. What Roberts found was counter–intuitive to common beliefs regarding when people's core personalities develop and change.

"The majority of change occurs in the decades of your 20s and 30s, not in adolescence. That's a big finding," Roberts says. "That opens up the window of development to a completely different period of a life course, which begs the question, what is going on at that point?

"We've had the stereotype of believing that development—for the most part—occurs until you're 18 and then some slight movement, some refining of who you are. But we found that doesn't seem to be the case."

Five personality traits were analyzed in the study: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. Of the five, "four demonstrated significant changes in middle and old age," says Roberts. Those changes are for the better, too.

One aspect of extroversion, or level of sociability and self–confidence, does increase as we age. Roberts says, "People get much more confident as they develop, especially in their 20s and 30s. So you're more willing and able to take a lead in social settings, you're not as nervous going into a social group, speaking up and speaking your mind, so to speak."

Agreeableness also improves, Roberts notes, although it is not a reliable change until we reach our 50s, the only period when a significant increase occurs. But in general we become nicer people with age.

Conscientiousness, or the ability to be industrious, organized, and more rule abiding, improves from the 20s through the 50s. However, Roberts admits, some might view the idea of increased conformity as a negative. "If your goal is for society to be more questioning of the status quo then you might not be so happy about that. But if you want marital stability, occupational success, and if the well–greased functioning of society is your primary goal, then the results have to be good. As people become more conscientious they're going to become more pro–social in orientation and try to facilitate society as opposed to undermining it."

Emotional stability also improves from the 20s through age 40. We become less anxious, less nervous, and somewhat less depressed.

The only trait that does not show a positive change throughout a lifetime is openness to experience. Roberts found that an interest in being creative and caring about intellectual activities does increase in adolescence and college years, but then it remains static and then decreases in old age. "So, if the goal is to create a society in which this kind of increase in openness sticks, we're not doing very well.

"Perhaps you can view it as a reasonable adaptation to the end of life. At that stage you've consolidated who you are, what you're doing, and you don't really need to learn new things as much as tell people what you've done and who it is you are."

The "whys" for all of these changes are the focus of Roberts' ongoing research, which will explore how such life experiences as challenging work, satisfying relationships, and health behaviors change one's personality. But Roberts speculates that the longer we live the more experience we have on which to make our decisions. "We're constantly learning things about ourselves and that may contribute to the increasing stability. You come to understand what kind of situations you work well in. You come to understand what type of people you tend to work well with. You learn to avoid certain situations that cause you distress."

Roberts does offer a cautionary note to all this positivism. These changes take time, a lifetime actually. "People that conclude from the study that their coworker or spouse will finally change over time shouldn't necessarily take any hope from this. Treat personality change like tobacco: if you want to quit cigarettes it takes an average of 10 years. You have to conclude that your personality is more addictive than tobacco. So if you want to change a family member or somebody else, make it a long–term goal and you better work pretty hard at it."

Stephen J. Lyons
Fall/Winter 2006–07