Many of our tendencies and behaviors are, to varying degrees, innate. But we don’t come out of the womb with a prepackaged personality: Behavioral genetics research demonstrates both the importance and the limits of genetics as a determinant of traits, and the influence of environment and experience on temperament, as early as infancy. All of these forces shape us throughout childhood and into adolescence, when we begin to turn away from home, ideally with enough resilience to meet the challenge of turning ourselves into the adults we want to be.
infants as young as 4 months of age. It is measured by showing infants some simple toys and studying how they behave. Even at this young age, we often see stark differences in their reactions. Some infants react strongly, becoming overwhelmed by excitement about the new situation; they may even boil over in tears. A few months later, these infants tend to show similarly negative responses to all changes in their environment, such as when they meet new people or are brought to new places, or even when their clothes are changed. Other infants respond with ease to the new toys; a few months later, these infants are likely to welcome new people, new situations, and new things, greeting them with a smile.
The way infants react to changes in the environment stays relatively stable into the preschool years. Those who reacted negatively to changes in the environment as babies are the ones most likely to become quiet and shy as they reach school age and to develop social anxiety as adults. In contrast, the babies who reacted more positively to changes are more likely to become social and outgoing. The trait of emotional stability reaches far beyond early childhood. Differences between shy and more social preschool-age children can be seen in their biology and in the brain, suggesting a strong biological basis. You might think of temperament as the biological foundation for personality, but personality itself is made up of a child’s temperament, plus how their experiences shape that temperament throughout life. This suggests that while personality starts at birth, it can change over time. For example, a child who is reactive as an infant can become less inhibited or shy over time with the help of a sensitive, supportive parent. But it also suggests that we are all indeed different right from the start.
Many frameworks describe three core traits: negative emotionality (how much a child tends to experience negative emotions like fear, anger, and frustration); extraversion (how much a child tends to experience positive emotions like joy and excitement and the degree to which they like more stimulating environments); and a regulatory dimension that describes their ability to focus, stay in control, and work toward their goals. One of the magical aspects of this developmental period is the way that these early-appearing dimensions become more enriched and complex as a child’s emerging cognitive abilities mix with these basic tendencies. Even more fullness to the picture comes as the child’s personality traits shape, and are shaped by, the environment around them and events that occur. A child’s increased ability to understand time and the concept of the future, for example, can combine with extraversion to create anticipation and from there to more layered characteristics, like optimism, which then often lead to the experience of more actual positive events. Early abilities to regulate one’s attention and behavior can provide a basis for being conscientious, an extremely valuable trait that has been shown to predict a range of positive outcomes later in life. When these abilities combine with the growing cognitive ability to see things from another perspective, traits like empathy and compassion develop. Conversely, children who are quick to anger and lose control can begin to see themselves as struggling more than their peers. This can harm a budding sense of self-esteem, which in turn can instigate more hostile encounters that then confirm a perspective of the world as an unfriendly and dangerous place. By the time the school-age period ends with the onset of puberty, a well-developed picture of a child’s personality has often come into focus. This does not mean, however, that characteristics are set in stone. The quality of a child’s interactions with trusted adults remains critical, with safe and positive relationships being a key ingredient for important qualities, such as resilience, when children face inevitable challenges.
If you’re the parent of a teenager, this type of “exchange” likely sounds familiar. New research shows that it’s not exactly that teens refuse to listen to their parents, though; neurologically, it appears, adolescents process their parents’ voices differently than they did during childhood. For the study, a team led by Stanford University psychiatry and behavioral science researcher Percy Mistry conducted functional MRI scans of young people between ages 13 and 16½. During the scans, they randomly played, several times among other recordings, the voices of the participant’s mother and of unfamiliar women. Both the moms and the other women spoke the same nonsense words to ensure that participants weren’t responding to the words’ meanings. Participants were able to identify their mother’s voice about 97 percent of the time. This team had earlier conducted a similar study of younger children, ages 7 to 12. In those subjects, MRI scans showed their mother’s voice triggered a variety of areas of the brain beyond those responsible for hearing, including reward centers, emotion-processing regions, and visual processing areas. Among the teens, brain responses in all areas also increased in intensity; in fact, the relationship was so strong researchers could predict a participant’s age using the voice-response data alone. But notably, the teens showed a stronger brain response to the unfamiliar voices, especially in areas related to processing rewards and assigning social value. This change occurred equally in boys and girls. article continues after advertisement Essentially, the study found that teens’ brains change to help them tune in to new people, in the process putting less emphasis on their parents. This change helps teenagers develop socially and form connections with people outside of their families. “The mother’s voice is the sound source that teaches young kids all about the social-emotional world and language development,” Mistry reported. “Fetuses in utero can recognize their mother’s voice before they’re born, yet with adolescents—even though they’ve spent even more time with this sound source than babies have—their brains are turning away from it in favor of voices they’ve never even heard.” Neurological changes, it would seem, lead teenagers to pay more attention to new voices and to tune out their parents. When a teenage child doesn’t listen to you, it may be not rebelliousness but a basic developmental milestone. The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research at Cornell University is focused on using research findings to improve health and well-being of people at all stages of life. Maturity and Midlife Marriage or long-term partnership, career changes, geographic moves, and the arrival of children can all push us to adapt to meet the expectations and needs of new people in our lives in ways we might never have imagined. And while the inevitable highs and lows of adult life can dramatically affect our happiness and satisfaction, with self-awareness, a sense of purpose, and perhaps some lifestyle changes, we can resist the roller coaster and mature into a calmer, kinder, and more secure individual.
Consider how people’s bodies grow: They end up at different heights and get there at different paces, but most follow a broadly similar trajectory, growing until some time in their teenage years and then leveling off. Personality traits are different. Their development doesn’t stop in adulthood; rather, changes happen all the time. And there is no single normative path; individuals can go up and down in any trait as they age. True, some timelines are more common than others; for example, between someone’s early 20s and their 50s. Research somewhat confirms common stereotypes about aging: Many people do mellow as they age, generally becoming kinder and more cooperative, organized, and dutiful, although the force of those changes is not as strong as is often assumed, and many do not follow that pattern at all. In terms of the Big Five personality traits–extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and neuroticism–becoming more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable (lower in neuroticism) over time is somewhat more common among adults than changes in the opposite direction. Researchers call this set of shifts “personality maturation” because high agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability are desirable traits that tend to align with better life outcomes. Studies are less clear on whether people are likelier to rise or fall in extraversion and openness as they age. Who Will Mature Most? Let’s try a thought experiment: Suppose you run a huge study and measure millions of people’s Big Five personality traits. For each trait, participants fall either “low” (the bottom third of participants), “medium” (the middle third), or “high” (the top third). Now, suppose you randomly select one thousand 20-year-olds and pair each with a randomly selected 50-year-old. For each trait, you can now ask the following question: How likely is the older pair member to score higher on a trait than the younger person? Across many studies that have measured agreeableness and conscientiousness in several countries, people score just over half a standard deviation higher at age 50 than at age 20, on average. For emotional stability, the difference is probably somewhat smaller. We can translate that as follows: In about 50 percent of pairs, the older person gets a higher result; in about 30 percent of pairs, both get the same; and in about 20 percent, the younger person scores higher. So, for agreeableness and conscientiousness, about half of people are expected to score higher in middle age than someone who recently graduated from high school. Another half may either stay the same—perhaps having gone up and down a few times in between—or even score lower as they become older. For emotional stability, these proportions are a little more equal. While agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability are all likelier to increase than decrease with age, it is less likely that a given person will experience all of these trait increases, as the chances that every one of a set of events happen are lower than the chances that one happens. If the probability of expected changes in each of two traits is 50 percent, for example, then the probability of both traits changing as expected is just 25 percent. For three traits, the probability is even smaller. So, while we understand how people collectively shift as they age, it is much less easy to predict exactly how a particular individual’s personality will change. René Mõttus, Ph.D., is a Reader at the University of Edinburgh and the Editor of the European Journal of Personality.
Generational stereotypes abound in popular psychology: the “entitled Millennial,” the “cynical Gen-X’er,” and, predictably, the “selfish Boomer.” Of course, if you are a member of any of these generations, you probably resist having that stereotype applied to you. You’re sure, based on your own experience and that of your peers, that you can’t all be so easily categorized. Major new research confirms that you’re right. The results of one of the most comprehensive studies of adult developmental change ever conducted provide long-awaited answers about how personality is influenced by generational placement. The University of Hamburg’s Naemi Brandt, along with the University of Washington’s K. Warner Schaie and Sherri Willis, drew their data from the groundbreaking 70-year investigation known as the Seattle Longitudinal Study (SLS), which made it possible for them to tease apart the potential contributions to personality change of social factors associated with historical time. We’re all subject to the forces of history, and events and trends can shape the way we respond to the world and to each other. We can’t be plucked out of our historical moment and placed in a vacuum. But these researchers tried to do just that. They split their analysis into three core factors: The first, intraindividual change, represents the personality changes we’d expect to see over time; the second, chronological age, represents our age at any given moment; and the third is our cohort, or others of our generation. In this way, the team could explore whether people changed within themselves over time, whether change manifested as a function of their age alone, or if it showed effects specific to their generation. If there was something unique to be found in personality change among Boomers, for example, the research should have found a significant cohort effect. It did not. On the question of whether trends in personality change were affected by one’s birth year, the team reported, the evidence was weak and refuted “overly generalized stereotypes that stigmatize people born at specific historical times.” Yes, people of particular ages are affected differently by their distinct historical period, but this doesn’t mean that the majority of them will mature the same way.
It’s often said that married couples grow more alike over the years, and some research has found that they do. But does the act of getting married itself change your personality? New research suggests it does, at least within the first year and a half of tying the knot. It’s generally accepted that human development is a combination of nature and nurture and that by adulthood, one’s personality is fairly firmly established and isn’t likely to radically change further. And yet some research has shown that major life events can nudge personality in particular directions, and marriage is one of the most significant changes in anyone’s life. Since newlyweds have to find ways to get along on a daily basis, it’s perhaps not surprising that they experience changes in personality as they adapt to partnered life. This was the hypothesis tested by a team led by University of Georgia psychologist Justin Lavner. The researchers surveyed 169 heterosexual couples 6, 12, and 18 months after they wed, seeking to detect any emerging shifts in personality traits. At the end of the study, they found a number of changes. Wives tended to show decreases in openness to experience, perhaps reflecting their acceptance of the routines of marriage. Husbands increased significantly in conscientiousness, while wives tended to stay about the same. Since women tend to be higher in baseline conscientiousness than men, the increase for men probably reflects their grasping the importance of being more dependable and responsible as a spouse. Husbands also became more introverted over the first year and a half of marriage. Other research has shown that couples tend to shrink their social networks after they wed, so this decline in extraversion reflects that trend. Both husbands and wives became less agreeable over the course of the study, but the downward shift was especially noticeable for wives. In general, women tend to be more agreeable than men, so this data may suggest that wives shift to assert themselves more during the early years of marriage. Husbands showed a slight increase in emotional stability but it was not statistically significant. Wives, however, showed a much greater increase. In general, women tend to report higher levels of neuroticism (emotional instability) than men, so it appears that the commitment of marriage had a positive effect on the wives’ emotional stability. Most of the couples in the study were in their 20s, a time when other major life changes occur, such as starting a career or having children. The researchers took this into account, though, and found that spouses’ age at the time they married, whether a couple lived together before marriage, and whether they had children over the course of their first 18 months together had little effect on their personality data. Instead, the team believes, it was marriage itself, and people’s responses to the repetitive demands of a committed relationship, that influenced personality change. As husbands and wives negotiate life together, the best predictor of whether their marriage will thrive is the personalities of the two individuals as they enter the relationship. Emotionally stable partners make for emotionally satisfying marriages; for others, the journey is much more likely to be bumpy. David Ludden, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College. The Future We now know that personality change is as inevitable a part of aging as shifts in our musical and culinary tastes, so why not try to consciously take charge of it? Research suggests that, with some effort, we can nudge ourselves toward habitual behaviors that may never have come naturally to us but that will keep us healthy, sharp, and positive as we age. One key is the ability to imagine, care about, and invest in your future self.
The desire to change for the better is nearly universal. Research finds widespread ambition to become more outgoing, optimistic, or charismatic and less pessimistic or neurotic. But is personality change actually achievable, or are our traits fixed and unalterable? Recent research suggests that change, with commitment, may be more realistic than we might think. Nathan Hudson of Southern Methodist University and his colleagues found that people who actively worked to change aspects of their personality were, in many cases, successful. The team recruited 377 undergraduates for a 15-week study, measured their core personality traits, and asked them which they’d most like to change. Participants were then sent “challenges” of varying levels of difficulty each week, based on their stated personal goals. For example, those who wanted to become more extraverted might be challenged to introduce themselves to someone new one week and, another week, to ask someone new two questions about themselves. Participants also re-took the personality test every week. The challenges mostly worked. Participants who sought to become more extraverted, conscientiousness, agreeable, or emotionally stable all showed improvement in these dimensions; however, those who wanted to become more open generally did not succeed and, in fact, were more likely to end up less open than when they started. The team found that personality change was not much affected by the relative difficulty of the weekly challenges; what mattered more was the participants’ consistency—completing the challenges without fail, week after week. So, yes, personality change is possible; there may, in fact, be clear paths to achieving it. The key is follow-through. Mark Travers, Ph.D., is a psychologist with degrees from Cornell University and the University of Colorado Boulder. Who Will You Be in 10 Years? Someone Else. Resisting the end-of-history illusion. By Benjamin Hardy It’s easier for most people to look back and note the changes in themselves than it is to look forward and imagine themselves changing further. In psychology, this is known as the end-of-history illusion: When we ask someone to look back 10 years and examine all the ways in which they’re different from their former self, they’re able to come up with a lengthy list of shifts, both big and small— perhaps in the way they make decisions, or even the decisions that they see as desirable. Chances are, they rely on different mental models, values, and principles than did their former self. But what about smaller things, like the kinds of people you’re surrounded by or your favorite foods and types of music? Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert found that when people are given time to reflect, they can see massive differences between their current and former selves. However, when asked to project forward 10 years, people of all ages still consistently predict only small changes. “At every age, people underestimate how much their personalities will change in the next decade. And it isn’t just ephemeral things,” Gilbert explained in a TED Talk, noting that best friends, hobbies, and vacation preferences are all subject to change. Thanks to what he calls “the ease of remembering and the difficulty of imagining,” Gilbert referred to human beings as “works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.” Most people make the further mistake of believing that because personality change is hard to imagine, it’s also not likely to happen. But as Gilbert puts it: “Sorry, when people say, ‘I can’t imagine that,’ they’re usually talking about their own lack of imagination and not about the unlikelihood of the event that they’re describing.” The Benefits of Being Someone New There are real benefits in recognizing that you’re not the same person you were in the past and that your future self will also be a different person than who you currently are. Research shows that actually perceiving your future self as a different person is helpful for decision-making, as it enables you to have greater empathy for your future self, to understand what will matter to that person, and to utilize that perspective to make better decisions today. This liberating outlook also enables us to have empathy toward other people. Rather than overly judging someone based on who they were in the past, or even on who they are today, we can recognize that they, too, have the capacity for change. Benjamin Hardy, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and author of Personality Isn't Permanent. Captain Wang/Shtterstock Why Some Personalities Stay Sharper Knowing that personality affects fluid reasoning can help you pinpoint your own cognitive profile. By Susan Krauss Whitbourne We all aspire to have, and maintain, a sharp, quick, and accurate mind. The aspect of intelligence known as “fluid ability” reflects the capacity to generate a variety of ideas and find novel solutions to problems. For example, if asked to come up with as many words as possible that begin with the same letter, the more words you can generate, the more flexible your mind. Psychologists typically perceive cognitive abilities as driving fluid intelligence, but recent research suggests that personality may also play an important role. Angelina Sutin of Florida State University and her colleagues noted that aging typically brings on a decline in fluid intelligence, but that it’s not inevitable; in fact, personality might just be able to compensate for the decline. People higher in the personality trait of conscientiousness, other research has shown, tend to perform better than others on memory tasks, at least partly because they’re more likely to be well-organized and hardworking. Meanwhile, people high in neuroticism may perform more poorly on cognitive tests because they are too anxious to fully focus. And people high in openness to experience may perform more strongly on tests that benefit from a creative and unconventional approach. Evidence is mixed or lacking on the traits of extraversion and agreeableness. The research team proposed that verbal fluency should be supported by the personality traits of openness to experience, extraversion, and conscientiousness and hindered by neuroticism: If you enjoy playing with ideas, aren’t afraid to make a mistake, talk a lot, and are able to inhibit responses that don’t fit the category, you should score well on verbal fluency. To the extent that these traits also benefit your overall health, all the better. After examining reports from more than 90,000 international participants, the team found that, as they expected, verbal fluency was lower among those with high neuroticism scores and highest among individuals with greater openness to experience, conscientiousness, and extraversion. (Agreeableness was not consistently related to fluency.) The connection between openness and fluency held even after controlling for participants’ levels of education, the authors noted, suggesting to them that it reflected an association that began in childhood. It would seem that, starting at an early age, highly open people spend more time reading, which benefits their lifelong fluency. As for extraverts, they tend to talk more, so when prompted, they don’t hold back on coming up with a slew of verbal associations. People high in neuroticism may use fewer words, in part because they worry more about being put on the spot. These findings support the notion that personality can influence cognitive ability, and they emphasize the importance of considering personality as a key aspect of mental training as you age. Personality traits may seem resistant to change, but when you understand their potentially beneficial aspects—in the case of mental acuity, allowing your mind to wander, training it through reading, or just enjoying occasional flights of fancy—you can commit to working on them and, over time, become better able to maintain your mental muscles.
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