May 11, 2003

Personality Is Not Set by 30; It Can Change Throughout Life, Say Researchers

As we get older, we care more about work and people we know; women become more emotionally stable and self-assured

WASHINGTON - Do peoples' personalities change after 30? They can, according to researchers who examined 132,515 adults age 21-60 on the personality traits known as the "Big Five": conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness and extraversion. These findings are reported in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

From this large sample of volunteers recruited and examined over the Internet, lead researchers Sanjay Srivastava, Ph.D., and Oliver P. John, Ph.D., working at the University of California at Berkeley, found that certain changes do occur in middle adulthood. Conscientiousness increased throughout the age range studied, with the biggest increases in a person's 20s; this trait is defined as being organized, planful, and disciplined, and past research has linked it to work performance and work commitments. Agreeableness increased the most during a person's 30s; this trait is defined as being warm, generous, and helpful, and has been linked to relationships and to prosocial behavior. Neuroticism declined with age for women but did not decline for men; this trait is defined in people who worry and are emotionally unstable. It has been linked to depression and other mental health problems. Openness showed small declines with age for both men and women. Finally, extraversion declined for women but did not show changes in men.

Both neuroticism and extraversion scores were higher for younger women than for younger men. But for both of these traits - and most strikingly for neuroticism - the apparent sex differences diminished with age.

Of the 132,515 participants, 54 percent were female, all lived in the U.S. or Canada, 86% were White and 14% were Asian, Black, Latino or Middle Eastern. A subset of the sample - 42,578 - were asked about their socioeconomic status. Of these participants, 405 (1%) said they were poor, 7,614 (18%) said they were working class, 23,024 (54%) said they were middle class and 10,718 (25%) said they were upper-middle class.

This study contradicts an often cited view that personality traits are genetically programmed to stop changing by early adulthood. There is considerable evidence against it, say the authors. In the study, "average levels of personality traits changed gradually but systematically throughout the lifespan, sometimes even more after age 30 than before. Increasing conscientiousness and agreeableness and decreasing neuroticism in adulthood may indicate increasing maturity - people becoming on the average better adapted as they get older, well into middle age."

Article: "Development of Personality in Early and Middle Adulthood: Set Like Plaster or Persistent Change?" Sanjay Srivastava, Ph.D., and Oliver P. John, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley; Samuel D. Gosling, Ph.D., University of Texas, Austin; Jeff Potter, B.A., Cambridge, MA; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 84, No. 5.

Web site: The Web site where the data were collected is still active; individuals interested in knowing how they stand on the Big Five can complete a self-scoring questionnaire at http://www.outofservice.com

Sanjay Srivastava, Ph.D., now at Stanford University, can be reached by phone at (650) 723-5977 or by Email.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.