Do leopards change their spots?
Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have just completed the longest-ever study of human personality. Guess what… you’re a completely different person in your seventies than you were in your teens.
It’s always been thought that your personality is fixed by the time you reach your late teens. But scientists at the University of Edinburgh are now questioning that belief. Their results and methodology has been published in the journal Psychology and Aging.
The Edinburgh researchers looked at 1,208 14-year-old school children in Scotland in 1947 when they were 14 and asked their teachers to assess their personality. In 2012, the authors traced as many of the participants as possible and invited them to take part in a follow-up study. By then, they were 77 years old.
Of the original 1,208, the team managed to track down 635 of them, and 174 agreed to rate themselves on the same six characteristics by filling in a questionnaire. They also asked someone who knew them well to rate them.
Even though they expected to see some evidence of personality stability over 63 years, astonishingly, they found no strong correlation between the personality traits they had as adolescents and those of their later years.
Most teenagers go through a period of being less conscientious, impulsive, moody and irritable – It’s all part of growing up and there are almost certainly evolutionary reasons for it. But they also become more social for a few years as they grow into adulthood before reversing those trends as they pass into old age.
To carry out the study, the researchers concentrated on six key character traits: self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality, and desire to excel.
After 63 years the researchers found a “fairly low” link between conscientiousness and stability of moods, but no link between any of the other traits.
Personality changes very gradually and so can appear relatively stable over short periods of time. But differences will obviously increase as people age. The longer the interval between two assessments of personality, the more distant the relationship between the two will be. It seems that after 63 years, there is hardly any relationship at all.
The results were condensed into an overall rating for a single underlying trait called ‘denoted dependability.’ The 174 who completed the questionnaire had higher cognitive ability scores as children – they also had nearly all been rated by teachers as more dependable.
Of course there are other variables to take into consideration – jobs and parenthood tend to accentuate the trend toward general maturity and better, more stable mood. As we get older, we tend to become more accepting of ourselves, and the world in general.
However, it has to be said that the sample was very small and not very diverse. This is no refection on the work of the researchers because a dwindling participant base is inevitable over a 63-year period. The original study also relied on teachers rating student’s personality at a time when the participants were not able to rate themselves.
Of course, the best way of confirming these results would be to look back over your own life and ask yourself ‘am I the same person I was 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago? Do I take as many risks? Do I have the same ambition? Am I more, or less confident? Do I persevere at tasks more, or less than I use to? Am I more, or less conscientious than I used to be?
Honest answers now…!