Developmental Changes in Personality Traits
Personality traits are defined as relatively enduring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which are expected to remain stable over time and consistent across situations. Theories and research, however, demonstrated that personality traits do change over a longer time period across adulthood. Hence, personality development is characterized by stability and change. These developmental changes have been evidenced across adulthood with different rates of change depending on particular periods of life. However, different ways of defining developmental change lead to distinct answers regarding the extent and pattern of personality change across adulthood.
Developmental Changes in Adulthood and Old Age
Adulthood and old age are characterized by unique environmental and social changes through alterations of social roles, employment, residential independence, intimate relationships or marriage, and parenthood (Allemand 2015; Hutteman et al. 2014). As a result of diverse and specific environmental experiences and a variety of adaptive processes and behaviors, each individual may demonstrate unique patterns of developmental change across the life span (Roberts and Mroczek 2008). Understanding developmental changes of personality traits in adulthood and old age is important for several reasons. First, developmental personality trait change may predict a variety of important life outcomes in adulthood and old age. For example, research demonstrates that developmental trait change is prospectively related to mortality and other health-related aspects above and beyond the trait level (Mroczek and Spiro 2007). Second, age-related environmental and individual changes in adulthood and old age may change or modify personality traits. For instance, research suggests that a specific functional impairment such as hearing impairment may affect socially oriented personality traits, as it reduces the capability to participate in social activities (Berg and Johansson 2014). Third, in order to maintain or improve individual and social well-being and health in face of environmental and individual changes, people require adaptive dynamic regulation processes. Personality traits may contribute to these processes either in adaptive or maladaptive ways. For example, research suggests that older adults tend to engage in strategies and processes that optimize positive social experiences and minimize negative ones by avoiding conflicts and showing greater willingness to forgive others (Fingerman and Charles 2010). Fourth, an emerging body of studies suggests that many people are motivated to change at least some aspects of their personality regardless of their age and that intentional personality trait change in the desired direction is possible (Hudson and Fraley 2015). In order to stabilize and improve people’s well-being over the whole life span, it is important to elucidate which interventions, strategies, and circumstances best enable individuals to realize their personality trait change goals. In sum, developmental changes in personality traits can be conceptualized and studied as predictors, mechanisms, or consequences of aging processes.
In this overview, we define developmental change by considering several meanings of change and stability, followed by the definition of personality. Next, we discuss longitudinal research on developmental changes in personality traits in adulthood and old age. Specifically, we focus on normative and differential perspectives of developmental change. By normative change, we refer to change based on group averages, whereas by differential change, we mean that there are interindividual differences in individual change. Next, we discuss several mechanisms of developmental trait change. Finally, we conclude by discussing important future directions with respect to the role of personality traits across adulthood.
Defining Developmental Change
Developmental change can be defined in many different ways. Each way offers a unique perspective on change and stability. Here we focus on six statistically and conceptually different types of change (Allemand et al. 2007): (1) Structural change refers to the patterns of change of intercorrelations among traits or items on a personality scale. Structural change implies that the associations between the traits change over time. (2) Differential change or rank-order change implies that individuals change their relative standing on a trait dimension relative to others over time. Differential change is commonly measured through test-retest correlations. (3) Mean-level change (absolute change) refers to the average level of a personality trait that changes across time. (4) Interindividual differences in intraindividual change imply that some people change, whereas others remain stable and that additionally people differ in the degree, timing, and direction of change. This type addresses unique patterns of development particular to individuals and therefore complements the abovementioned types of change and stability. (5) Change in interindividual differences (divergence) refers to the fact that although personality traits are stable over time with respect to the average level, the amount of interindividual differences in personality can decrease, increase, or stay stable across time. Empirically, this type of change can be examined by comparing personality trait factor variance longitudinally. (6) Correlated change focuses on whether changes in different personality traits are related over time across individuals and to what degree. Correlated change covers the amount of correspondence in rank-orders of change across several personality factors as well as overall commonality in change in personality traits.
Types four to six of change and stability address the patterns of individual development and emphasize the understanding of change and stability within an individual. The last two types are underrepresented in the literature on personality development and have been largely overlooked until recently. In sum, there are several conceptually and statistically distinct ways of framing and answering questions about developmental change.
Defining Personality Traits
Personality traits are relatively enduring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior that are relatively consistent across a wide variety of situations and contexts. Traits describe the most basic and general dimensions upon which individuals are typically perceived to differ. These individual differences are often organized within the prominent conceptual framework of the Big Five or Five-Factor Model and include five broad traits (John et al. 2008; McCrae and Costa 2008): neuroticism (negative emotionality), extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Briefly, neuroticism or, conversely, emotional stability contrasts even-temperedness with the experience of anxiety, worry, anger, and depression. Extraversion refers to individual differences in the propensity to be sociable, active, assertive, and to experience positive affect. Openness to experience refers to individual differences in the proneness to be original, complex, creative, and open to new ideas. Agreeableness refers to traits that reflect individual differences in the propensity to be altruistic, trusting, modest, and warm. Finally, conscientiousness reflects the tendency to be self-controlled, task- and goal-directed, planful, and rule following. Personality traits are thought to be relatively stable over time, and thus they are not assumed to change at a rapid rate but rather reflect slow processes. Studying personality change over the life span thus requires longitudinal data over longer periods of time to capture the long-term developmental processes.
Personality can be studied through a hierarchical lens with personality traits as global description of personality, personality facets as their lower-level entities and nuances corresponding to single items of a facet (Mõttus et al. 2017). For example, Soto and John (2017) defined personality through the lower-level personality facets within the Big Five personality domains. Soto and his colleagues defined 3 personality facets for each of the Big Five domains (e.g., compassion, respectfulness, and trust for agreeableness) and organized these 15 facets into an integrative hierarchical structure. These facets allow a more precise collection of personality information on lower-order constructs. Mõttus et al. (2017) suggest that by adding nuances as single item descriptions of facets to the personality trait hierarchy, these nuances could lead to a more in-depth understanding of individual differences in developmental change. Mõttus and his colleagues were able to obtain variances beyond any of the examined facets and traits through nuances and concluded that the nuances’ unique variance could facilitate predictions of outcomes in a meaningful matter. Here we focus primarily on developmental changes in the higher-order traits.
Developmental Changes in Personality Traits
Evidence for developmental changes in personality traits in adulthood and old age comes from an increasing number of longitudinal studies. Longitudinal designs consist of at least one sample of participants of a given age and from a given cohort that are followed throughout time. They provide information about intraindividual changes and interindividual differences in intraindividual change. Previous longitudinal work differs with respect to the targeted age groups and the time intervals. Several longitudinal studies with broad age ranges showed that major developmental changes happen in childhood and emerging adulthood, but there is evidence that even during middle adulthood and the later years’ changes in personality traits can occur that are not simply error of measurement (see, e.g., McAdams and Olson 2010; Roberts et al. 2008 for reviews). However, the different ways of defining developmental change offer distinct answers to the question of whether and to what degree personality traits show developmental changes in adulthood and old age.
Structural change. The structure of the Big Five personality tends to be relatively stable across adulthood. Previous longitudinal studies on structural change in personality traits concur with cross-sectional findings and identify a stable personality structure in older adults over a few years (e.g., Allemand et al. 2007; Small et al. 2003). However, Allemand et al. (2008) reported that some of the patterns of correlations among the Big Five traits might be less stable over longer time periods in old age. As such, it is an open question whether and to what degree structural stability declines in old and very old age. Further longitudinal research is needed in order to gain broader comprehension and knowledge of structural change in personality traits across adulthood into old age.
Differential change. Personality traits tend to become more stable with age. A meta-analytic review summarized 3217 test-retest correlations for a wide range of personality traits reported in 152 longitudinal studies on differential change of personality traits (Roberts and DelVecchio 2000). The authors used statistical methods to equate the different test-retest correlations to a common interval of about 7 years. This allowed them to compare results from studies of differing lengths of time because not all studies followed participants for the same interval of time. The main finding was that differential stability increased with age. The correlations increased from 0.31 in childhood to 0.54 during the college years to 0.64 at age 30 and reached a plateau around 0.74 between ages 50 and 70. The finding of differential stability in old age also illustrates that the degree of stability does not prevent changes occurring within personality traits as age progresses. Mõttus et al. (2012) observed relatively high levels of differential stability in two older age cohorts, indicating that instability engendered by aging processes does not necessarily affect older adults’ standing within an age cohort. In contrast, other work found decreases in the rank-order stability of the Big Five traits after the age of 60 except for conscientiousness (Specht et al. 2011). Ferguson (2010) conducted a meta-analysis including 47 studies after noticing that often only uncorrected stability coefficients have been considered and therefore personality change and measurement errors possibly conflated. Ferguson concluded that after correcting for measurement errors, stability of personality traits was high across adulthood, peaking around the age of 30 years and remaining stable afterward. These findings illustrate the role of measurement errors when assessing developmental changes.
Mean-level change. Personality traits are malleable in adulthood and old age. For example, Lucas and Donnellan (2011) conducted a longitudinal study on a representative sample of Germans (N = 20,433) examining mean-level changes of the Big Five personality traits. Across time extraversion and openness levels decreased, whereas agreeableness showed mean-level increases. Conscientiousness levels changed differently depending on the age group. Young adults showed increases in conscientiousness; older adults however demonstrated decreases of the conscientiousness trait (see also Specht et al. 2011). A more recent longitudinal study examined mean-level changes in personality traits over 6 years across adulthood (Milojev and Sibley 2017). The results indicate that neuroticism, extraversion, and openness tended to decrease as participants aged. Agreeableness on the other hand initially decreases in emerging adulthood and stayed relatively stable during the rest of the life span. Conscientiousness however increased between the ages of 19 and 45 years and remained stable afterward. It is important to note that these changes varied depending on the participants’ periods of life span with varying rates of change happening during different phases of life. A meta-analytic review summarized the results of 92 longitudinal studies to provide an overview of mean-level changes in personality traits at various ages across life span (Roberts et al. 2006). The general results were that average levels of social dominance (a facet of extraversion with attributes that are linked to self-confidence and independence), agreeableness, and conscientiousness appear to increase with age, whereas neuroticism appears to decrease with age. Openness also declines with age, especially after mid-life. These changes are often viewed as positive trends given that higher levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness and lower levels of neuroticism are associated with desirable outcomes such as greater success in work and family and better health and longevity (Roberts et al. 2007).
Interindividual differences in intraindividual change. Individuals differ in the degree, direction, and pattern of developmental change. These interindividual differences in intraindividual change vary across people and when being studied offer a comprehension on each individual’s unique pattern of developmental processes. For example, in a recent longitudinal study with five assessment waves over a period of 7 years, Schwaba and Bleidorn (2018) examined interindividual differences in intraindividual personality change over the life span in order to study the degree to which people deviate from mean-level developmental changes. The results suggest that intraindividual differences were most pronounced in emerging adulthood, although individual differences in young and middle adulthood were statistically significant as well. Furthermore, Mroczek and Spiro (2003) reported that interindividual differences in intraindividual trait change could at least partially be explained by birth cohort as well as age-graded life events and experiences such as memory complaints, marriage or remarriage, and death of spouse. According to Roberts and Mroczek (2008), unique life experiences across different stages of life might be responsible for interindividual differences in developmental changes. Hence, it is important to consider life events and experiences when studying developmental changes in personality traits in order to gain more insight into the developmental processes (Bleidorn et al. 2018).
Change in interindividual differences. The amount of interindividual differences in personality traits might increase, decrease, or even show stability over time or across age groups. This type of change is underrepresented in the literature on personality development and has been largely overlooked until recently. Changes in interindividual differences can be studied by comparing the personality trait variances over time. For example, Allemand et al. (2007) studied changes in interindividual differences in personality traits and found no significant longitudinal changes in personality trait variances in two age groups of middle-aged and older adults over 4 years. A follow-up study with the older age cohort over 12 years, however, evidenced change in interindividual differences (Allemand et al. 2008). More specifically, variances in openness to experience and conscientiousness increased significantly over time, implying that participants became more heterogeneous regarding these traits. It is possible that openness to experiences and conscientiousness were more prone to influences of nonnormative events and therefore showed increases in the variance over time.
Correlated change. The analysis of correlated changes allows a better understanding of whether and to what degree changes in the Big Five personality traits are interrelated across time between and within individuals (see Allemand and Martin 2016 for a detailed discussion of this type of change). So far, only very few studies have systematically investigated correlated change between the Big Five traits. For example, Allemand et al.’s (2007) found significant correlated changes between personality traits indicating that personality changes are interrelated, and therefore changes in traits do not occur independently from each other but rather in concert. Changes in neuroticism, for example, were negatively associated with changes in conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and openness. Klimstra et al. (2013) conducted a longitudinal study to examine age differences in correlated changes across the life span and concluded that correlated changes between the Big Five traits were relatively stable from adolescence through adulthood. However, the results indicated increased correlated changes after the age of 70. Based on their findings, the authors proposed two influencing effects regarding personality development. First, broad mechanisms appear to at least partly affect multiple traits and therefore personality development, and, second, narrowly operating mechanisms seem to affect single traits additionally. These influential mechanisms might be present during the whole life but more active throughout certain periods in life. The concept of correlated change is more prominent in the study of correlated changes between personality traits and other constructs. For example, results from an 8-year longitudinal study suggest that changes in personality traits and changes in perceived social support demonstrate commonality in middle adulthood (Allemand et al. 2015). There is empirical evidence for correlated change between personality traits and health, work, education, and social relationships (see Allemand and Martin 2016 for a review).
Summary. Developmental changes in personality traits can be evidenced across adulthood into old age and depend, in part, on the type of change and stability one considers. On the one hand, research demonstrates that personality traits are relatively stable across the adult years into old age. On the other hand, research also show that personality traits can and do change over time and that individuals differ with respect to the amount and direction of personality development as a result of individual differences in life paths and experiences.
Mechanisms of Developmental Changes in Personality Traits
Developmental changes in personality traits can be described as a combination of genetic factors and environmental factors (person-environment transactions; Roberts et al. 2008). The model of person-environment transactions assumes that stable factors within the person as well as external influences of the environment interact to influence stability and change of personality traits and highlights the influence of social roles, normative changes, and major life events. At the beginning of middle adulthood, genetic factors reach almost perfect stability indicating that individual differences in genetically induced maturation are negligible beyond the age of 30 (McCrae and Costa 2008). Compared to adolescence and emerging adulthood, middle adulthood and old age may be characterized more by stability than change – although personality traits are malleable across the entire life span. Universal tasks of social living, life experiences, and life lessons in young adulthood, such as finding a marital partner, starting a family, and establishing one’s career may be the catalysts for personality development and might lead to individual differences in patterns of developmental changes in adulthood (Roberts et al. 2008).
Throughout adulthood, environmental influences seem to increasingly stabilize personality differences (Bleidorn et al. 2009). This might be because of social roles individuals engaged in different contexts (social investment principle; Roberts et al. 2008) may be largely stable in middle adulthood, which contributes to high environmental continuity in personality differences (role continuity principle, Roberts et al. 2008). But, although less is known about the influence of environmental factors on personality change in old age, it appears that even in old age, new environmental demands in the face of developmental transitions, life events, and life circumstances require new adaptations. And even though researchers more often focus on emerging adulthood with reference to transitions and life events, it is equally important to consider the influence of age-related transitions and life events in old age.
Not only adolescence and emerging adulthood but also middle adulthood and old age are characterized by transitions in and out of culturally framed social roles. These social roles can influence individuals’ daily actions and responsibilities as they come with clear duties and expectations, which lead to new contexts for self-reflection and personal change. Research suggests that adults who commit to socially prescribed roles often tend to report higher levels on personality traits considered socially preferable, such as conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability (Lodi-Smith and Roberts 2007). For instance, the decision, forced or voluntary, to retire from work is a particularly important role transition for older adults. It seems that retirement coincides with a greater likelihood for declines in conscientiousness compared to unretired adults (Specht et al. 2011). Certain stereotypes as social role expectations also seem to have significant influences on personality changes. In a 10-year longitudinal study conducted by Kornadt (2016), people who had more positive expectations of “people in their late sixties” with regard to wisdom and family were more agreeable and extraverted 10 years later. Wisdom and being integrated in one’s family become more desirable in old age and are therefore positively connoted which appears to play an important and influential role for positive personality change in older age.
Individual’s social environments are another crucial factor leading to interindividual differences in developmental trajectories. During adulthood, individuals gain close relationships such as life partners, friends, or children but might also lose close friends and family members through deaths, relocations, or divorce. Romantic relationships seem to play a particularly important role throughout adulthood. Age-graded relationship transitions such as finding a partner, marrying, and moving in together are mainly happening during young adulthood (Finn et al. 2017). Research has shown that first romantic relationships can be related to positive personality trait changes (Bleidorn et al. 2018). Older adults are confronted with other important relationship transitions such as dealing with the increasing potential for losing a spouse. Given that the death of a family member (e.g., child, spouse) is one of the most stressful life events one could experience during the life course, this event might influence personality development as well. In fact, widowers seem to score lower on openness to new experiences (Specht et al. 2011). Surprisingly, males and females seem to react differently to the death of their spouse, insofar that it may lead to diminished conscientiousness among females but increases for males. An explanation might be that widowed men have to take on more responsibility within the household.
The enhanced value of intimate social relationships in adulthood and old age (Fingerman and Charles 2010) highlights the potential for social roles as important mechanisms of change. Indeed, recent research has shown that middle-aged adults are more likely to change in the Big Five traits over time when they also change their perceptions of social support (Allemand et al. 2015). Nevertheless, further work is needed to fully examine the rationale behind these potential social role effects, particularly given the importance of personality trait change during older adulthood. Intensive longitudinal assessments with various measurement occasions might lead to possible explanations on how trait changes are being influenced by transitions in and out of social roles and relationships (Finn et al. 2017).
Implications of Developmental Changes in Personality Traits
Personality traits predict a wide variety of important life outcomes (Roberts et al. 2007), and even modest developmental changes in personality traits can clearly have strong implications across the life span. For instance, not only personality trait level but also the direction and pattern of personality change influence health outcomes such as cognitive, physical, and mental health (Leszko et al. 2016) and even mortality risk (Mroczek and Spiro 2007). Personality trait changes do affect health outcomes in adulthood and old age. For example, increases in neuroticism are associated with poorer mental and physical health, whereas increases in conscientiousness and extraversion are associated with better mental and physical health (Magee et al. 2013). Although these associations seemed to be stronger for younger adults compared to older adults, it is reasonable to assume that personality development might play an important role in predicting health outcomes over the whole life span from adulthood into old age. Future research is needed in order to understand why and when trait changes are associated with health consequences to best determine whether interventions should target increases on seemingly positive traits or promote personality stability during older adulthood.
Regardless of their age, people prefer social relationships with individuals scoring higher on socially favored traits like conscientiousness, emotional stability, and agreeableness. Since intimate social ties are highly valuable and of great importance for older adults, they emphasize on maintaining these intimate social relationships and changes away from desirable characteristics which could provide particularly deleterious effects for older adults (Fingerman and Charles 2010). However, further research is needed to better understand whether personality trait changes lead to poorer relationships with close others or if such intimate relationships, given their generally longer duration, are more resistant in the face of presumptively negative trait changes.
Smith and Freund (2002) found in a sample of older adults that changes in the self were highly desired. Out of six domains of future hopes, more than the half of a sample of oldest-old named hopes related to desired personality changes, and these hopes were even expressed more often than hopes in domains like health or social relationships. Based on the assumption that individuals do not play passive roles in development but can actively shape their own personalities as an agent of his or her life, future research is needed to elucidate which interventions, strategies, and circumstances best enable individuals to realize their personality trait change goals (Hudson and Fraley 2015). Analyzing such active and intentional personality changes requires enriched longitudinal studies with information beyond self-report to examine whether actual intentional personality change is possible.
Finally, although the factor structure of the Big Five seems to be relatively consistent across adulthood (Allemand et al. 2007), further work is required to understand whether researchers should revisit the item content of common Big Five inventories when sampling older adults. In order to better address how personality traits manifest in contexts relevant to older adults, it would be desirable for researchers to write additional items or edit existing inventories. For instance, conscientiousness scales often refer to work-related tasks implicitly or explicitly, which may result in difficulties responding to these items for retired adults. Similarly, physical and cognitive limitations older adults might be dealing with should be taken into consideration when assessing personality. These limitations are important to consider as they could attenuate their capability to manifest dispositions such as openness to new experiences. Investigations and possible adaptions along this front can help researchers more accurately capture the trait changes that do exist later in life.
Adulthood and old age are important developmental periods in the life span. The goal of this entry was to discuss the role of personality traits in the context of aging processes and to give an overview of theoretical and empirical work on developmental changes in personality traits. First, several conceptual and statistically distinct ways define developmental change. Personality traits are enduring characteristics which describe individual differences in behavioral, cognitive, and emotional patterns. Second, current empirical evidence suggests both change and stability in personality traits in adulthood and old age depending partly on the types of change one considers. However, research on personality trait change in old and very old age is underrepresented in the literature. Third, different mechanisms are responsible for individual differences in personality trait change. One important approach when investigating the mechanisms of change relates to social transitions in emerging adulthood as well as old age. Finally, changes in personality traits may have important consequences for individuals.
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