Has one of the oldest questions about personality been answered?
For many years personality psychologists gave the same answer as any pessimist: no, people’s personalities don’t change.
This was even more true once they got to 30-years-old. By that time, it was thought that if people preferred their own company or were overly neurotic, they tended to stay that way.
In the last 15 years, though, this view has changed. Instead of personality being set in stone at 30, now evidence is emerging that there is some change. In fact people don’t give exactly the same answers to personality questionnaires at different times in their lives. But are these shifts meaningful? Could the differences be more about the tests than real life?
To settle this you’ve got to look at whether the typical changes in personality over time really affect people’s lives. For example, the personality trait of high neuroticism is associated with mental health problems. So, does a decrease in neuroticism lead to a significant increase in how satisfied a person is with their life?
This is exactly what Boyce et al. (2013) looked at for all five aspects of personality: extroversion, agreeableness, openness-to-experience, conscientiousness and, of course, neuroticism. What they wanted to see was if changes in these over the years translated into changes in well-being.
They used data from a large Australian survey of 8,625 people over two years. What kind of difference had two years made to their lives? Had there personalities changed? And if so, had their satisfaction with life changed with it?
Firstly, they confirmed that personality was the strongest predictor of satisfaction with life. This is well-established and helps explain why some people have everything and are never satisfied and some people have next-to-nothing and seem quite happy with life. It’s not just what you have that makes you satisfied (or not), it’s how you think about it. And those habits of thought are heavily influenced by personality.
Secondly, they confirmed that people’s personalities had shifted over the two-year period. Indeed the degree of personality change in those two years was equivalent to changes in other demographic variables such as marital status, employment and income.
Most importantly, though, they found that these changes in personality were associated with significant shifts in satisfaction with life. The strength of the effect was about twice that for all the other aspects of circumstances combined. In other words, the typical shift in personality has a greater effect on your satisfaction with life than all the typical changes in circumstances, like income or marital status, all added up together.
This shows quite convincingly that not only do people change over time, but that these shifts in personality can have significant effects on how we experience our lives.