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How does personality change throughout life?

How does personality change throughout life?

January 19, 2023

Do people change throughout their life? This is possibly one of the oldest and most debated questions in society in general, as well as in philosophy and psychology.

Although personality has traditionally been considered as a rigid, stable and hardly alterable construct; a series of studies reveal that this is not entirely true. Next we analyze the details of this study and the possible causes that influence the personality changes .

  • Related article: "The main theories of personality"

How is personality defined?

The personality is a basic construct within the field of psychology, so that over the years of study of this have been developed a lot of definitions. However, most of them have a number of points in common that can help us understand what this concept is about.


Broadly speaking, the concept of personality can be summarized as the combination of thoughts, emotions and feelings that define a specific person . They are stable over time and do not vary from one situation to another.

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The Big Five model

The personality traits of each person can be seen reflected in the acts and behaviors of this, being coherent through the situations and independent of the contexts experienced or lived by the subject. Hence, the personality is what makes the person unique.

These personality traits referred to are those collected in the Big Five model, this being the most accepted model today. According to the model, there are five large dimensions that form the basis of our personality . These are:


  • Extraversion
  • Neuroticism
  • Amiability.
  • Openness to experience
  • Responsibility.

As is logical, these dimensions are not the same in all people, but rather the scores of these can vary greatly from one subject to another . Hence, that each individual personality is the product of infinite combinations of these traits.

In the same way, although the personality remains stable through situations, this does not imply that the person will always behave in the same way, but that the personality governs the way in which we perceive reality and interact with it, creating a series of complex and relatively flexible trends and patterns.

This flexibility finds its explanation in that the person needs to adapt to the environment that surrounds it. This does not mean that we stop being ourselves, but that our personality has the capacity to fluctuate throughout the different epochs of our life.


The main theories also coincide in that the personality accompanies the person from the same moment in the birth, possessing a series of own traits that will be modified and changed in interaction with their context and the vital experiences of this, being, in addition, essential for the development of the social skills of the person and therefore for the integration of this in the society.

  • Related article: "The 5 big personality traits: sociability, responsibility, openness, kindness and neuroticism"

Can personality change throughout life?

The question of whether our personality can change more or less radically throughout our lives is a constant throughout the history of psychology. Therefore, it is logical to think that after all these debates and research psychology would have a definitive answer, but this remains an unknown in constant investigation.

The main reason why it is so extremely difficult to solve, lies in the challenge for the scientific studies to carry out a rigorous follow-up of the subjects throughout his life.

However, there are several teams of scientists who have managed to monitor the participants extensively, establishing a series of conclusions that contradict the well-known statement of psychologist and philosopher William James, according to which the personality of each individual was unable to experience significant psychological alterations after 30 years of age , at least in regards to our personality.

The study of Northwestern University

In this research, headed by the psychologist Eileen Graham, the results of 14 previously published longitudinal studies were compared and combined. Together, they obtained the data of approximately 50,000 participants from different states of the United States and Europe.

After an exhaustive review, the obtained findings confirm, and even extend, the existing knowledge.Establishing that personality traits tend to alter and change over time and, moreover, in more or less predictable ways.

For the study, Graham and his team looked for long-term studies related to health and aging in which data had been gathered from at least one of the five personality traits of the Big Five, already mentioned above, as minimum on three separate occasions of the participant's life .

It is necessary to specify that there was a bias in the included studies to assess people at advanced ages, but this helps to counteract the existing studies on personality change for life, which have been biased towards younger participants.

The results

The combination of the results of the studies evaluated revealed that four of the five personality dimensions showed statistically significant changes , on average, throughout the life of the people. The only exception was the "Kindness" dimension, which on the whole seemed relatively stable.

As for the rest of the traits, they tended to change around 1 or 2% for each decade. The participants became, approximately, more emotionally stable, less extroverted, less open, less ordered and less self-disciplined.

These results coincide with certain theories of personality that hypothesize that people of advanced ages tend to experience changes in their personality in response to a decrease in responsibilities .

Focusing on the results in samples from younger participants, the results also provided evidence that the traits of "responsibility", "extraversion" and "openness to experience" suffered an increase in the score during early maturity.

This fact is consistent with another theory known as the "beginning of maturity" , which states that personality tend to improve throughout life as we adapt to the growing challenges of work and family responsibilities.

Finally, the study reveals that although there is a relatively constant pattern in personality changes, there is great individual variability in these patterns. According to Graham and his collaborators this means that not all people change at the same speed or in the same direction.

Why do we change?

As pointed out above, personality is a relatively flexible construct that can be affected by the events that happen to us throughout our lives. Social pressures, a change in the vital role or biological changes can influence our emotional state, our way of being and how not in our personality.

A very frequent example is that which happens in people who have suffered very serious or traumatic losses that refer "not being the same" after that stressful event.

Some other events or life events that are likely to change our personality are:

  • Motherhood and fatherhood
  • The retirement .
  • The death of a close being.
  • Puberty .
  • The menopause
  • Marriage .
  • The adaptation to a completely different culture.

Petar Milojev - Personality change over the lifespan (January 2023).


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