Personality Change with Age: Does It Matter?

JUNE 28, 2018
Shirley M. Mueller, MD
personality,aging,lifestyle,extraversion,bigfivepersonalitytraits,agreeable,openness,conscientious An older friend said to me, "The one thing we have to be careful about when we age is isolating ourselves—staying at home too much and not going out." Another elderly person voiced a second concern, "I find I'm not as meticulous as I used to be." Yet, a third confided, "I don't want to explore new areas as I did when I was younger."

Similar observations by our aging population seem to be prevalent. The question is, do they have credibility? Does our personality really change as we age and, even if it does, how much does it matter?

Personality Change with Age
As it turns out, my aging friends are right.  New research indicates that our personalities do modify with increasing years. A meta-analysis of 50,000 people (not yet peer reviewed) examined the Big Five personality traits which includes openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. They can be recalled by using the mnemonic, OCEAN. 

O Openness is the capacity to enjoy the new and different. Those who score low on this trait have fewer interests and prefer sameness. 
C Conscientious is the ability to be organized and persistent. Those without this trait tend to be self-indulgent and spur of the moment. 
E Extraversion translates to fun-loving and a warm personality. This group can be compared to introverts who are not as sociable and prefer a quiet evening to a party. 
A Agreeable people tend to be pleasant and helpful. Opposites are irritable and uncooperative. 
N Neurotics are excessive worriers; the reverse personality is calm and dispassionate.

According to the meta-study, four of the five Big Five personality traits decrease in intensity 1-2 percentage points each decade. The exception was agreeableness.

This finding suggests that our brains are not static as earlier believed but change with age. For example, a neurotic 30-year-old could be expected to be less so by age 60. The same can be said for openness, conscientiousness and extraversion—each has a natural tendency to attenuate over time.

The agreeableness trait was different; it was stable over time. This overall finding was because dissimilar results were found, depending on the study. The divergent directions canceled each other out.

Do These Changes Matter?

1. For Traders?
It is worthwhile to note the association Mark Fenton-O’ Creevy, Nigel Nicholson, Emma Soane and Paul Willman published earlier between success measured by earning power and personality traits  (Traders, Risks, Decisions, and Management in Financial Markets;  Oxford University Press, 2005). Emotional stability (the opposite of neuroticism), openness and introversion (the opposite of extraversion) correlated positively with trader success. Agreeableness and conscientiousness had no association.

Thus, older professional traders who become more stable and less extraverted with age, are likely to have any positive correlation between personality and trading patterns continue. On the other hand, the tendency of older people to become less open is against it. So, there may be a sum zero in terms of the influence of changing personality traits for older professional traders. 

2. The Rest of Us?
My older friends are representative of the expected personality changes as we age and, in fact, each trait in the meta-analysis was skewed in the same direction voiced by these women. The first was worried about becoming less extraverted. The second was concerned about her diminished level of conscientiousness. The third was making a statement about her decreasing zest for new experiences—openness. 

I can easily postulate that though there was an average 1–2 percent per decade change in four of the five traits, in some individuals, it is greater and in others, less. This suggests that specific aging individuals experience a more marked decline in some personality traits and really do notice a difference, just as my acquaintances did. Indeed, our personalities really can change with age. 

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