While we once thought our personalities were “set in stone,” science shows that our personality changes over time.
When we observe young people, it’s common to remark on how much they’ve grown and changed. We marvel at how toddlers talk, how middle schoolers learn algebra, and even how young adults build careers.
Why do we tend to stop observing changes in behavior as we age? One reason might be that we assume our personality — otherwise known as our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — is finished developing by the time we reach 30 years old.
While we might think our personality is fixed, it’s actually always changing.
A 2018 study suggests that as we age, our levels of calmness, self-confidence, leadership, and social sensitivity increases.
In the study, high school students answered a series of questions about personality traits first in 1960 and then again 50 years later. Researchers found that people were mostly consistent with their personality over time — for example, if you’re extroverted in adolescence, you’ll likely also be extroverted in midlife. But subtle changes do occur between high school graduation and retirement.
“The consistent pattern we see in personality development…are gains that continue or gather momentum with time and age,” says Brent Roberts, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Social and Behavioral Science at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
Robert adds, “The changes we see are potentially quite positive. Gains in self-confidence, conscientiousness, and emotional stability can lead to improvements in our lives — including our work, relationships, and health — because these qualities predict better functioning in those domains.”
As we adapt to the pressures of life, subtle shifts happen across what experts call our big five personality traits.
Rodica Damian, PhD, associate professor of social psychology at the University of Houston and director of the Personality Development and Success Lab explains that depictions of grumpiness in older adults might come from a lack of insight into behavior.
“There’s a misconception that older people are more grumpy,” says Damian. “But it’s actually the opposite. They [may] become more empathetic and compassionate as you grow older.”
“We become more conscientious when life starts having more demands,” explains Damian.
Meeting expectations with timeliness and professionalism is a skill that grows with both time and need — for example, financial security.
“As you grow older, your neuroticism might decrease and self-esteem increase,” says Damian.
Emotional stability might change over time in some cases. Damian adds that everyone is different. “If a person experiences a number of difficulties in life, they might become less emotionally stable as they age,” she says.
“Our personalities are more like tapestries,” says Roberts. “The threads reflect all the different factors that go into making you the person you are.”
Roberts suggests that other factors could impact our personality such as:
- romantic partners
- community members
A lot of cultural perception on personality focuses on early life, but research from leaders in the field of personality development such as Roberts and Damian say otherwise.
“The stereotype is that childhood and adolescence are the important developmental periods,” Damian says. “From a personality perspective, they are not. We don’t find a lot of systematic gains or losses in those stages of life. We find them after.”
While increases in personality traits that help us excel do occur in midlife, some decline as we become older adults. This could possibly be because of health issues, the loss of a partner, or loss of social connections as community members pass away.
If you think that you or your loved one have mellowed out later in life, you’re not alone, and research supports your thinking.
Recognizing and celebrating the gains that come with getting older can be beneficial in seeing aging as an honor and natural part of life.