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Getting Older? Personality Changed?

Getting Older? Personality Changed?

The Atlantic includes an article: “Your Personality Can Change in Curious Ways in Old Age” by Faith Hills, here are some excerpts:

You’ve probably heard the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” An awful phrase, I know, but it speaks to a common belief about older adulthood: that it’s a time of stagnation. A time when we’ve become so set in our ways that, whether we’re proud of them or not, we’re not likely to budge.

Psychologists used to follow the same line of thinking: After young adulthood, people tend to settle into themselves, and personality, though not immutable, usually becomes stabler as people age. And that’s true—until a certain point. More recent studies suggest that something unexpected happens to many people as they reach and pass their 60s: Their personality starts changing again.

This trend is probably observed in older populations in part because older adults are more likely to experience brain changes such as cognitive impairment and dementia. But some researchers don’t believe the phenomenon is fully explained by those factors. 

People’s personality can morph in response to their circumstances, helping them shift priorities, come to terms with loss, and acclimate to a changing life. These developments illuminate what personality really is: not a permanent state but an adaptive way of being. And on a societal level, personality changes might tell us something about the conditions that older adults face.

Psychologists have identified certain major, measurable personality traits called the “Big Five”: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, openness to experience, and neuroticism. And they can track how those traits increase or decrease in a group over time. 

To the surprise of many in the field, those kinds of studies are revealing that the strongest personality changes tend to happen before age 30—and after 60. In that phase of later adulthood, people seem to decrease, on average, in openness to experience, conscientiousness, and extraversion—particularly a subcategory of extraversion called “social vitality.” And neuroticism tends to increase, especially closer to the end of one’s life.

We can’t say with certainty what factors are driving these shifts, but a few theories exist. One possibility is that personality is shaped by specific life events that tend to happen in older age: retirement, empty nesting, widowhood. But such milestones, it turns out, aren’t very reliable sources of change; they affect some people deeply and others not at all. Any one event could mean many different things, depending on its context.

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