Aging and Personality

A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has shed new light on how personality traits change as we get older. Over a seven-year period, the authors of this article assessed the personality traits of more than a million individuals between the ages of 10 and 65 via the World Wide Web.

In doing so, the research addressed a gap in the personality literature by examining a section of the population that has been historically underrepresented in personality research: older adults. What’s more, the authors were able study nuanced subcategories of personality traits in addition to the five main facets of personality that have traditionally been studied by researchers. In short, this article provides a fine-tuned examination of how specific facets of personality change with age.

As noted above, researchers have historically focused their attention on a handful of personality traits, which have come to be known as “The Big 5”: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience. And, generally speaking, prior work in this area has found positive age trends related to Conscientiousness and Agreeableness from early adulthood years through middle age, as well as a general decrease in Neuroticism with age.

Findings from the current article support results from previous personality research and also introduce a few new caveats. For example, similar to what has been found in previous studies, this article noted pronounced positive age trends for the global personality trait of Agreeableness, as well as increased age-related change for two subcategories of the dimension, Altruism and Compliance. That said, findings in the current article are distinct from earlier research regarding Conscientiousness. Explicitly, only one facet or subcategory of Conscientiousness increased with age and the other did not. In short, the facet of Self-Discipline was found to increase with age during later adulthood, but not the facet related orderliness (i.e., Order).

Another noteworthy finding was a trend for gender differences in some personality traits to dissipate or completely disappear in later life. For example, although there were large gender differences in Neuroticism between men and women in adolescence and early adulthood, these differences were almost nonexistent for participants in their 60s. More specifically, gender differences for the older adults were very small for overall Neuroticism and its Anxiety subcategory, and nonexistent for the Depression subcategory of Neuroticism.

In summary, this article does an excellent job of pointing out the currently wealth of knowledge researchers have accumulated surrounding the relationship between personality traits and the aging process early on in a person’s life, as well as how much is still left to be learned regarding how personality functions in later life. In closing, the authors call for additional research in the future.

Article Reviewed: Soto, C. J., John, O. P., Gosling, S. D., Potter, J. (2011). Age differences in personality traits from 10 to 65: Big five domains and facets in a large cross-sectional sample. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 330-348.


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