New research published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that early life career choices may influence personality traits years later.
The study focused on 16-year-old students in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, who are given the choice of either staying in school to pursue an academic career or enrolling in a vocational training program.
“We wanted to understand whether choosing different career paths would result in different patterns of personality development,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Dr. Brent Roberts, who led the study with researchers from the University of Tubingen in Germany.
“We know from our prior research that entering the labor market is associated with increases in personality traits like conscientiousness and emotional stability,” Roberts said. “But we seldom have the opportunity to compare groups of people at the same age who choose different paths.”
The researchers observed two groups of 16-year-olds in Baden-Wurttemberg. The first group chose to enter apprenticeships or other vocational training programs, and the second group stayed in school and entered the labor market after completing higher education.
At the beginning of the research, and again six years later, the study participants rated themselves on multiple measures that included personality traits and vocational interests. The team used a technique called propensity score matching to align the traits of the two groups of participants.
“In this approach, you do everything you can to equate the two groups at the start of the study,” said study co-author Dr. Ulrich Trautwein, of the University of Tubingen. “This approximates an experimental design that tries to equate groups through random assignment. Many social scientists believe this method allows you to make stronger causal inferences from correlational data.”
The findings reveal that, after six years, self-reported conscientiousness increased more among those who pursued vocational training and employment than their peers in academia. Those on the vocational track also expressed less interest in engaging in scientific, business or entrepreneurial activities.
“This means that those who didn’t continue their education were losing interest in jobs that normally are fostered by going to college,” Roberts said.
The new findings add to the growing evidence that personality is not immutable, but continues to change throughout life, Roberts said. The changes are often subtle, but meaningful. The study suggests many of those changes are the result of one’s life choices.
“This study provides the strongest evidence we have yet that the path you choose may change your personality,” Roberts said.