Study Finds No Correlation between Personality at 14 and 77

Peter Simons
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A new study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, found that personality, as measured at age 14, had no correlation with personality as measured at age 77. That is, based on this method of measuring personality, the participants had completely changed by the time they retook the test. This result calls into question popular notions about the correlations between personality and later-life achievement and health outcomes.

The study was the longest-running personality study, with follow-up of 174 participants after 63 years. The participants had been rated by their teachers on 6 dimensions of dependability in 1947. Upon follow-up in 2012, the participants rated themselves and had someone who knew them well rate them on the same 6 factors. The results were striking—no correlation was found between the original rating and the 2012 rating.

Photo Credit: Sander Koot Photography, “Young and Old: Incredible Retakes of Past Portrait Photos”

At first blush, it may sound frightening to believe that people’s personalities change throughout their lives. After all, the common understanding of personality is that it is your identity at the deepest level. However, “personality change” in psychological studies is not the same as changes in identity. Instead, it’s more like changes in some traits that tend to be more stable over time.

In fact, researchers are quite limited in the ways they can measure personality. Researchers cannot truly measure a person’s identity—they can only measure our ideas about how we would behave in certain situations, or our behaviors when those situations actually occur. Thus, the current system for measuring personality relies on the “Big Five” personality traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. There is, of course, debate about whether these five traits can be said to define “personality” at all, as well as whether personality questionnaires are even capable of measuring these traits in a meaningful way.

Nonetheless, the Big Five personality model appears to be the best-supported method for attempting to measure personality that researchers have yet developed, and is commonly used throughout the social sciences. Previous studies have shown some stability of these traits, even over the course of decades. For instance, a previous 30-year study found moderate stability from middle age to old age, meaning that some aspects of personality changed, while others remained the same. Additionally, personality traits have been associated with life outcomes from later health, to academic achievement, to life satisfaction.

However, previous researchers have also shown that personality does change, in a process of natural development, and that significant life events influence those changes as well. A long-term study in Germany that followed almost 15,000 participants found that “personality changes throughout the lifespan, but with more pronounced changes in young and old ages, and that this change is partly attributable to social demands and experiences.”

Researchers have also shown that personality change occurs in psychotherapy. Just a few weeks of therapy have been shown to reduce the traits known of neuroticism and extraversion. Neuroticism equates to emotional instability, so it’s not surprising that therapy can serve to reduce this quality—another way of describing this change would be to say that therapy helps you become more emotionally stable. Likewise, an increase in extraversion could be equated to less social anxiety, and hence more social confidence. This explanation is bolstered by the finding that people with anxiety changed the most on these traits in psychotherapy.

Critics of the current study argue that the way researchers measured personality in 1947 was very different from the way we think of it in the present. Yet, other studies have shown at best a moderate correlation between Big Five personality traits after several decades, strengthening this finding of no correlation after 63 years.

These results make it difficult to interpret studies that have found a correlation between personality traits such as conscientiousness, and future life outcomes. Others interpret this study to suggest that people can become healthier over time and that they can successfully work through difficult life experiences.

 

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Harris, M. A., Brett, C. E., Johnson, W., & Deary, I. J. (2016). Personality stability from age 14 to age 77 years. Psychol Aging, 31(8), 862–874. doi: 10.1037/pag0000133(Abstract)

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Peter Simons
Peter Simons was an academic researcher in psychology. Now, as a science writer, he tries to provide the layperson with a view into the sometimes inscrutable world of psychiatric research. As an editor for blogs and personal stories at Mad in America, he prizes the accounts of those with lived experience of the psychiatric system and hopes to create alternatives to the biomedical model.

5 COMMENTS

  1. “In fact, researchers are quite limited in the ways they can measure personality. Researchers cannot truly measure a person’s identity,” thank you for pointing this out. And perhaps, given this reality, the psychologists and psychiatrists should get out of the business of playing judge, jury, and executioner of other human beings?

  2. I think someone mentioned how this threatens the notion of “personality disorders.” Until the late 80’s personality disorders were known as neurosis. They just changed the name to sound more “scientific.” Still, I think I will think that new course at the University of Washington to verify if science is again misleading the public. I do not see any explanation of the tests used, variables qualified for; or how they can truly account for the results. There is also no mention of how they adjusted for experimenter bias. “Personality disorders” are hogwash; as how can a personality be out of order. Is the personality like a washing machine at the laundromat? Which also leads me to believe that this whole “experiment” is hogwash. Most of the personality is set by school age; however there are a few parts still out there at age 14. Then there are many so astute in these experiments; they can adjust their answers. True studies of anything so “human” are intensely anecdotal only. Even studies of “non-human” personalities are anecdotal although we can only rely on second hand evidence. Money would be better spent in finding ways for helping people love who they are and not some useless study.

  3. However, there is one thing I would like to add. I do not think people’s personality change; as each person though out a lifetime learn, relearn, discover and rediscover themselves and more about themselves. But this can not be studied or measured. The only way to “study” is to gain enough trust from someone that they will open up and tell you their life story. There is no study ever that can describe the wonder of the human being or any creature, plant, etc upon this Earth. It is even more and more evident with humans. I am not trying to discount science and yes there is a lot to learn “scientifically” about the earth and sky and who lives here. Yet, we need to stop trivializing our lives and lives well lived. I could continue and I am no where near age 77; but, I do need to attend to a joy I have had since before age 14.

  4. To date, I have escaped the horrendous labels of “personality disorders”, and I will make all hell break loose if I’m ever labelled with such tripe. What I would like to know is, and I would like a perspective from various countries, is it possible for a person to sue psychiatrists/psychologists for defamation if such labels are applied to the person by them? What are the chances of winning such a case?

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