Does Who You are at 16 Determine Who You Are at 66?
As we enter a new decade, many of us may reflect on how our lives have changed over the past 10 years. Are we the same people we were 10, 20, or even 50 years ago? Or have life’s ups and downs shaped our personality in unrecognizable ways?
The end of the last decade marked the conclusion of one of the longest running documentary series in the world, the “Up Series.” In 1964, Micheal Apted filmed 14 children in the United Kingdom from all walks of life asking them about their lives, personality, hopes, and dreams. Every seven years, he showed up and asked them to update the world about their lives.
The “Up Series” was guided by the maxim, “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man,” which suggests that we can predict how people will turn out as adults by what they were like as children. Apted seems to have agreed with this maxim when interviewed by the New York Times about the conclusion of the series. But is Apted correct? Are people’s personalities—their broad, general patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—fixed early in life? Or does their personality change as they age?
Two examples stand out from the Up Series: Neil and Jackie. Neil was a bright, happy, sociable middle-class 7-year old with a promising future. But by age 21, he was showing signs of psychological strain and was living a life marked by mental illness and homelessness. Jackie was a feisty, sharp, sociable working-class 7-year old dreaming of an education. Though by age 21, she was married with a family and had to relinquish her dreams, Jackie persevered through disability and adversity, while always remaining the same smart, feisty woman. Thus, Neil changed a great deal as he got older, whereas Jackie stayed mostly the same. Where does this leave us? How much do most people’s personalities change as they get older?
My collaborators and I recently studied personality development in a representative sample of 1,795 US high-school students. These students’ personalities were first assessed in 1960, when they were 16. They were assessed again 50 years later.
Because this was the first study in which the same people were followed across 50 years and asked to report on their personalities, it allowed us to address key questions such as:
- To what extent do people maintain their relative ranking on personality traits compared with other people? For example, do people who are nicer than their peers at age 16 remain nicer than their peers at age 66?
- To what extent do people’s personalities change, on average, relative to their younger selves? For example, are people, on average, more emotionally stable at 66 than they were at 16?
- And, do people differ in how much they change—with some people changing a great deal and some people changing very little or in opposite directions?
We found that, on average, how people ranked on various personality traits (from the lowest to the highest on each particular trait) remained relatively consistent across the lifespan. Expressed as a correlation, the average personality stability coefficient was .23 (where .00 would indicate no stability whatsoever, or that that random life events fully shaped personality, and 1.00 would indicate perfect genetic determinism). Thus, there was a meaningful chance that the feistiest person at age 16 would still be the feistiest person at 66, as was the case with Jackie. However, the fact that personality shows a certain degree of stability doesn’t mean that people do not change at all.
When comparing the group’s average personality levels on various characteristics at age 66 to age 16, we found that people tended to become more conscientious, more emotionally stable, and more agreeable as they aged. This was a larger average change than previously observed over shorter time-spans, suggesting that personality change does not stop early in life but rather continues and accumulates as people age. Thus, even though people’s rankings relative to others remained moderately consistent over time, on average, people changed relative to their younger selves in ways that presumably allowed them to better meet life’s new challenges. For example, most people increased in conscientiousness as they got older, possibly as an adaptation to meeting the demands of adult life, such as work and family responsibilities.
Despite these general tendencies, some people changed more than others did, and some changed in an opposite direction to the general pattern. For example, although 42% of the people in our sample increased in emotional stability from age 16 to 66, 55% of them stayed the same across time, and 3% decreased in emotional stability (as was the case with Neil).
In sum, based on the scientific evidence accumulated regarding lifespan development, personality is not a script but a theme. We exhibit certain tendencies early on, and relative to each other, we are likely to maintain some consistency in our personality ranking—even over a very long period. But life shapes us, and we change throughout our lives. Furthermore, people differ in their degree of change, and sometimes they change in unexpected ways.
For Further Reading
Apted, M. (Director). (2019). 63 up [Motion picture]. England: First Run Features.
Damian, R. I., Spengler, M., Sutu, A., & Roberts, B. W. (2019). Sixteen going on sixty-six: A longitudinal study of personality stability and change across 50 years. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(3), 674–695. Open access version: https://psyarxiv.com/dmq5g OSF: https://osf.io/vxba7/
Lewis-Kraus, G. (2019). Does who you are at 7 determine who you are at 63? The New York Times. Retrieved online from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/27/magazine/63-up-michael-apted.html
Rodica Damian is an assistant professor of social-personality psychology at the University of Houston. Her research is dedicated to understanding the precursors of career success and well-being, protective factors in the face of adversity, and underlying developmental mechanisms. You can find more about her work at https://www.damianlab.com/ and on Twitter @RodicaDamian.