A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that patterns of personality development for older adults are very distinct from those of less mature individuals. The study’s authors looked at a sample of twins age 64 to 85, including 134 pairs of identical twins and 63 pairs of non-identical twins to investigate the sources of continuity and change in personality development across the life span, in addition to how those traits related to well-being in older populations.
Personality is typically defined as the sum total of all characteristics that can be used to describe personal discrepancies in thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and individual strivings that are conceptualized to remain relatively stable across situation and over time within certain age groups and cultures. The most frequently studied personality traits are known as the Big 5 and include neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. The authors examined these traits in addition to emotional intensity and perceived control, which have shown to display distinct linkages to the Big 5, thus these were anticipated to differ for very old adults compared to the rest of the population.
The authors examined very old adult twins at two points in time over five years. They found that, on average, neuroticism tended to increase in very old adults over time. Additionally, although mean levels of well-being did not significantly change over time, individual level of well-being tends to decrease in the presence of strongly increasing neuroticism coupled with decreased extraversion, conscientiousness, and perceived control—suggesting that personality traits predict well-being in very old age, but not the other way around—as is seen in younger adults.
The authors set out with the hypothesis that very old adults must be more conscious of health risks, more selective with respect to their social activities and relationships, and the general effort put forth towards being conscientious and dutiful compared to younger adults with more time and less physical and mental ailments. This is because of an increase in awareness that their time on earth is limited; and, diminishing physical, mental, and emotional faculties that require more focus and effort. Thus, choice of where to direct such effort become more important for very old adults compared to their younger counterparts.
The study results supported this hypothesis, as the authors found that participants employed different adaptive strategies compared to younger adults. Explicitly, average level decrements in certain faculties cause older adults to become increasingly aware of their cognitive and physical losses to their functionality—thus leading them to be more effortful in their time and investments socially, physically, culturally, etc. Additionally, the authors found that affect intensity and average well-being remained relatively stable into later life—which they suggest may be related this more diligent and careful approach to how very old adults choose to invest their time and resources.
In sum, this research provides support for the notion that personality changes in qualitatively different ways in older adults than it does for younger adults. That said, via compensatory strategies and techniques, older adults need not suffer extreme decrements in overall well-being in later life because of these changes.