Friday, September 27, 2013

Personality Traits Theory and Aging


In contrast to the proposition that adults pass through distinct stages which shape their personality, like reviewed earlier Disengagement Theory, more contemporary psychological researchers have argued that personality is defined as a set of traits that follow the individual throughout the life course. Personality is made of five traits which dispose an individual to particular thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. These traits are:

(a) Neuroticism,
(b) Extroversion,
(c) Openness to experience,
(d) Agreeableness, and
(e) Conscientiousness.

Baltimore Study

The Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging is regarded as the most definitive study of personality traits. Paul Costa and Robert McCrae tested the personalities of individuals between 19 to 80 years old for over twelve years and specifically measured their levels of neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Costa and McCrae concluded that these five personality traits remained relatively stable with age.  Furthermore, trait stability especially characterized individuals after the age of 30.

The first trait, neuroticism, refers to an individual's level of anxiety, hostility, impulsiveness, and self consciousness. Neuroticism is measured by self-reported responses to a variety of statements such as "I often look in the mirror before I go outside." Someone who would strongly agree with this statement, as well as the others which measure this trait, would be identified as having a high amount of neuroticism. In contrast, someone who was neutral or strongly disagreed with these statements would have average to lower levels of neuroticism.

Given the general conclusion that personality traits remain stable after age 30, Costa and McCrae would argue that if a 30 year old woman worried excessively about whether or not her husband's salary was enough to make mortgage payments, then she also is likely to be worried about having saved enough for her children's college tuition when she is 45 and is likely to be worried about the adequacy of her husband's pension income at age 70. Since Costa and McCrae suggest that personality traits remain stable through adulthood a high degree of neuroticism, as reflected by a consistent and excessive level of anxiety and worry, is likely to persist and find new focal points over time.

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In regard to the second personality trait, the extroverted personality trait is characterized by assertiveness, excitement seeking, and positive emotional experiences. Costa and McCrae would suggest that extroversion remains stable through adulthood. A thirty five year old oil wildcatter is more likely to be a 75 year old skydiver; conversely, someone who spent the majority of his middle age as an introverted and unassertive biomedical researcher is not likely to become a socially competent and effective university administrator in older age. Such a transformation of personality traits, from introversion to extroversion, is not a normal feature of personality maturation.  

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Further, in regards to the third personality trait, individuals who are open to experiences when they are young are also likely to be engaged in novel experiences when they are old. For example, celebrated artists Wilhelm de Kooning and Pablo Picasso spent their entire lifetimes exploring and refining new methods of artistic expression.

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Moreover, agreeable persons are less likely to become antagonistic as the age. Stubborn, cantankerous, mistrustful older men were likely stubborn and mistrustful in middle age. Similarly, individuals with high levels of conscientiousness in middle age tend to remain ambitious and energetic over time.  

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Costa and McCrae were careful to point out that personality traits reflect enduring personal qualities and cannot predict how individuals may respond to any given situation. Extroverted individuals, for example, are not always interested in starting conversations with strangers.  

How personality traits manifest themselves may also vary across individuals and over time. One person with a high degree of openness to novel experiences may actively change jobs but maintain a stable family environment. Conversely, another person who is open to new experiences may keep the same job but engage in several intimate relationships over the life course.

Over time, people with a high level of neuroticism find new reasons to complain, worry, and be dissatisfied. A younger woman may express unhappiness with her suburban homestead in her thirties and find something else to complain about, like her meddling mother-in-law, in her forties. She maintains a high level of trait neuroticism but how exactly this is expressed changes as her life situations change.

In contrast to Costa and McCrae's position that personality traits remain stable over the life course, other researchers including Neugarten, Havinghurst, and Tobin (1968) found that other aspects of personality are modified with age. They argued that gender roles become less distinct as men retire from the workforce and women finish raising their children. Older men may express more emotion than when they were younger and appear more feminine, older women may be more assertive than when they were younger and appear more masculine.

In summary, research suggests that personality traits remain relatively stable over the life course. So, if an older adult appears cantankerous or eccentric, it is probably because he or she was that way as a younger adult. Moreover, Costa and McCrae conceded that their studies were not definitive, and variability across individual personality is possible. Some individuals may become more introverted as they age, others may become less neurotic.

Dramatic alterations in personality traits, however, should not be considered normative. If an individual becomes significantly more depressed or mistrustful as he ages, then it is possible that this change in personality is caused by a non-normative event such as the onset of Alzheimer's disease or vascular dementia.

Stanford Study

After conducting an online study of 130,000 people aged 21 to 60, researchers at Stanford University, led by Sanjay Srivastava, proposed a conflicting viewpoint that the theory that the 5 key personality characteristics change throughout lives.

"We found a mixture of different patterns of how people change," reported Srivastava. "On average people were getting better at dealing with the ups and downs of life. In particular they were more responsive and more caring [with age]."

This is how our personalities tend to change with age:

  • Conscientiousness: Our ability to handle tasks and our organizational skills grow dramatically in our 20s and continue to improve as we age. The initial growth in our 20s is likely due to new work and family commitments.
  • Agreeableness: Our warmth, generosity, and helpfulness make the biggest improvement in our 30s and 40s; like conscientiousness, changes in agreeableness are probably due to new work and family commitments.
  • Neuroticism: Worry and our sense of instability actually decrease with age for women--but not for men.
  • Openness: Our desire to try new experiences declines slightly with age for both genders.
  • Extroversion: Our need to seek social support declines slightly for women as they age, but changes little in men.


On average, we get better as we get older. We care more about work, family, and our responsibilities. At the same time, we become less open to meeting new people. Women, but not men, worry less and as they age. "People are getting better at things as they age," Srivastava continued. "They're not becoming grumpy old men."

The supplementary studies validated better the later point of view, that personality traits continue to change in adulthood and often into old age, and that these changes may be quite substantial and consequential. However, on the global scale, the main core of the personality virtues remain unchanged over the lifetime.



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