Are personality traits stable throughout life?

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Kevin Mangelschots

While it’s well known that people change during their lifetime and thus, their personality traits develop and change, it’s an interesting question to find out just how stable our personality is over a longer period of time.

Surprisingly, our personality traits are remarkably stable after adulthood.

Let’s find out how our personality continues to develop and change as we grow older.

Personality trait stability

Image of the big 5 personality traits which are, conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

For the most part, personality traits are remarkably stable and continue to persist relatively nonfluctuating and steady over time.

The stability of personality traits is best illustrated by the consistency of the Big Five personality traits throughout one’s life.

But that doesn’t mean that those characteristics stop developing. As a matter of fact, personality continues to develop in all age groups, including old age.[1]Roberts, B. W., & Mroczek, D. (2008). Personality Trait Change in Adulthood. Current directions in psychological science, 17(1), 31–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00543.x

Human personality shows the greatest stability during late adulthood and tend to fluctuate more during childhood. This can be explained due to the rapidly occurring changes in one’s evolving brain and, thus, also the neurochemistry that influences and shapes our behavior.

Furthermore, these attributes tend to fluctuate more in old age compared to adulthood due to changes in social demands and life experiences. This means that personality stability is less in old age compared to adulthood.

However, the Big 5 personality traits extraversion and conscientiousness tend to increase the most with age, while openness and agreeableness tend to increase as well, but to a lesser degree.

Neuroticism tends to decrease with age, possibly due to becoming more self-confident and due to developing more and improved coping mechanisms.

Scientific research about personality trait stability

Image of a smart woman writing instructions on a blackboard.

Hampson Sarah E. et al. found the following results in their study:[2]Hampson, Sarah E, and Lewis R Goldberg. “A first large cohort study of personality trait stability over the 40 years between elementary school and midlife.” Journal of personality and social … Continue reading produced in 2008:

Our analyses are based on data from a relatively large and culturally diverse sample (N = 799) that was first assessed between 1959 and 1967 when the participants were children in Hawaii.

Short-term (1-3 years) test retest reliabilities were lower (.22 -.53) within childhood when personality is developing than within adulthood (.70 -.79) when personality stability may be at its peak.

Stability coefficients across the 40-year interval between the childhood assessment and two measures of adulthood personality were higher for Extraversion (e.g., .29) and Conscientiousness (e.g., .25) than for Openness (e.g., .16), Agreeableness (e.g., .08) and Neuroticism (e.g., .00).

In other words, personality traits extraversion and conscientiousness tend to remain more stable than openness, agreeableness, and most certainly, neuroticism.

The structural-equation model for child and adult Extraversion (χ2 = 126.86, df = 68, p = .000, CFI = .991, RMSEA = .020, 90% CI = .014 - .025).
The structural-equation model for child and adult Extraversion (χ2 = 126.86, df = 68, p = .000, CFI = .991, RMSEA = .020, 90% CI = .014 – .025).
The structural-equation model for child and adult Neuroticism (χ2 = 183.43, df = 112, p = .000, CFI = .992, RMSEA = .017, 90% CI = .012 - .021).
The structural-equation model for child and adult Neuroticism (χ2 = 183.43, df = 112, p = .000, CFI = .992, RMSEA = .017, 90% CI = .012 – .021).

Mathew A. Harris et al. noted much the same in regard to personality trait stability in children. Stating the following[3]Harris, Mathew A et al. “Personality stability from age 14 to age 77 years.” Psychology and aging vol. 31,8 (2016): 862-874. doi:10.1037/pag0000133:

Childhood is a period of intense learning and many new experiences, leading to much more frequent small changes in personality, or much more substantial changes over time

Rantanen J. et al. reported much the same when they investigated the stability of the Big Five personality traits in adulthood from age 33 to 42. They also noted in their study [4]Rantanen J, Metsäpelto RL, Feldt T, Pulkkinen L, Kokko K. Long-term stability in the Big Five personality traits in adulthood. Scand J Psychol. 2007 Dec;48(6):511-8. doi: … Continue reading that while extraversion, conscientiousness, openness and agreeableness tend to increase with age, neuroticism tends to decrease with age.

The results showed that the mean-level of Neuroticism decreased whereas the mean-level of Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness increased from age 33 to 42.

The Structural Equation Modeling analyses revealed both gender differences and similarities in the rank-order stability of the Big Five: Neuroticism and Extraversion were more stable in men than in women, whereas Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness were as stable in men as in women. Stability coefficients for the Big Five personality traits across 9 years were moderate to high, ranging from 0.73 to 0.97 in men and from 0.65 to 0.95 in women.

The highest gender-equal stability was found for Openness to Experience and the lowest for Conscientiousness.

Specht J. et al. [5]Specht, Jule et al. “Stability and change of personality across the life course: the impact of age and major life events on mean-level and rank-order stability of the Big Five.” Journal of … Continue reading argued the following:

our analyses show that personality changes throughout the life span, but with more pronounced changes in young and old ages, and that this change is partly attributable to social demands and experiences. 

They also noted the following:

The rank-order stability of Emotional Stability, Extraversion, Openness, and Agreeableness all followed an inverted U-shaped function, reaching a peak between the ages of 40 and 60 and decreasing afterward, whereas Conscientiousness showed a continuously increasing rank-order stability across adulthood.

Furthermore, experiencing a specific major life event also plays a significant influence on existing personality traits.

Graphs of the changes in standardized latent personality traits as a function of experiencing.

Brent W. Roberts and Daniel Mroczek performed a study to observe personality trait change in adulthood.[6]Roberts, B. W., & Mroczek, D. (2008). Personality Trait Change in Adulthood. Current directions in psychological science, 17(1), 31–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00543. The following is their conclusion.

The results showed that people became more socially dominant over time, especially in young adulthood.

Social vitality showed small increases in adolescence and then small decreases late in life. Although much of the change on agreeableness was positive, the increase was only statistically significant in old age.

People showed little change on conscientiousness in adolescence but then showed remarkable gains in young adulthood and midlife.

Emotional stability showed steady increases through midlife.

Finally, individuals demonstrated gains in openness to experience in adolescence and then equivalent declines in old age. The cumulative amount of personality-trait change across adulthood for -several trait domains exceeded one full standard deviation.

Change in personality traits over time for six trait domains. These graphs were created by adding average amounts of standardized mean-level change from separate decades of the life course together, under the assumption that personality-trait change may be cumulative. Extraversion is broken into its constituent subdomains of social vitality and social dominance.
Change in personality traits over time for six trait domains. These graphs were created by adding average amounts of standardized mean-level change from separate decades of the life course together, under the assumption that personality-trait change may be cumulative. Extraversion is broken into its constituent subdomains of social vitality and social dominance.

Iris A M Smits et al. published a study to investigate the cohort differences in Big Five personality factors over a period of 25 years[7]Smits, I. A., Dolan, C. V., Vorst, H. C., Wicherts, J. M., & Timmerman, M. E. (2011). Cohort differences in Big Five personality factors over a period of 25 years. Journal of personality and … Continue reading

They concluded that esults indicated small linear increases over time in Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness and small linear decreases over time in Neuroticism.

No clear patterns were found on the Openness to Experience factor.

Secondary analyses on students from 1971 to 2007 of females and males of different ages together revealed linear trends comparable to those in the main analyses among young adults between 1982 onward. The results imply that the broad sociocultural context may affect personality factors.

Overall mean trends of mean scores with 95% confidence intervals (represented by error bars) in 17 cohorts from 1971 (Cohort a) to 2007 (Cohort q), based on all items and on excluding (Excl) biased items. Biased items are detected in the Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness items.
Overall mean trends of mean scores with 95% confidence intervals (represented by error bars) in 17 cohorts from 1971 (Cohort a) to 2007 (Cohort q), based on all items and on excluding (Excl) biased items. Biased items are detected in the Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness items.

Personality trait changes across cultures

Different personality traits.

William J Chopik and Shinobu Kitayama performed a cross-cultural, longitudinal study regarding the personality change across the lifespan[8]Chopik WJ, Kitayama S. Personality change across the life span: Insights from a cross-cultural, longitudinal study. J Pers. 2018 Jun;86(3):508-521. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12332. Epub 2017 Jul 29. PMID: … Continue reading The following are their results.

 
Changes in Agreeableness and Openness to Experience did not systematically vary across cultures.
 

Changes in Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Conscientiousness did vary across cultures.

Furthermore, Japanese show significantly greater fluctuation in the level of all the traits tested over time than Americans.

These results suggest that trait stability is influenced by culture.
 

Conclusion

The stability of personality traits is best illustrated by the consistency of the Big Five personality traits.

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

Image of the acronym “OCEAN”, which represents the following big 5 personality traits: conscientiousness, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

However, that doesn’t mean that our personality doesn’t continue to develop and change throughout our lives.

The attributes agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion tend to increase with age, while trait neuroticism tends to decrease with age, thus, becoming less neurotic as a result.

Stability of those characteristics are also highly influenced by the environment we reside in and by the life events we go through.

For instance, a previously very extroverted individual can become more introverted after experiencing severely negative life events such as a failed marriage, a family death and so on.

On a fascinating side note, being disagreeable is correlated strongest with possessing dark triad personality traits.

References

References
1Roberts, B. W., & Mroczek, D. (2008). Personality Trait Change in Adulthood. Current directions in psychological science, 17(1), 31–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00543.x
2Hampson, Sarah E, and Lewis R Goldberg. “A first large cohort study of personality trait stability over the 40 years between elementary school and midlife.” Journal of personality and social psychology vol. 91,4 (2006): 763-79. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.91.4.763
3Harris, Mathew A et al. “Personality stability from age 14 to age 77 years.” Psychology and aging vol. 31,8 (2016): 862-874. doi:10.1037/pag0000133
4Rantanen J, Metsäpelto RL, Feldt T, Pulkkinen L, Kokko K. Long-term stability in the Big Five personality traits in adulthood. Scand J Psychol. 2007 Dec;48(6):511-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9450.2007.00609.x. PMID: 18028073.
5Specht, Jule et al. “Stability and change of personality across the life course: the impact of age and major life events on mean-level and rank-order stability of the Big Five.” Journal of personality and social psychology vol. 101,4 (2011): 862-82. doi:10.1037/a0024950
6Roberts, B. W., & Mroczek, D. (2008). Personality Trait Change in Adulthood. Current directions in psychological science, 17(1), 31–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00543.
7Smits, I. A., Dolan, C. V., Vorst, H. C., Wicherts, J. M., & Timmerman, M. E. (2011). Cohort differences in Big Five personality factors over a period of 25 years. Journal of personality and social psychology, 100(6), 1124–1138. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022874
8Chopik WJ, Kitayama S. Personality change across the life span: Insights from a cross-cultural, longitudinal study. J Pers. 2018 Jun;86(3):508-521. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12332. Epub 2017 Jul 29. PMID: 28646503; PMCID: PMC5742083.