Putting It Together: Personality

Learning Objectives

In this module, you learned to

  • define personality and the contributions of Freud and neo-Freudians to personality theory
  • describe and differentiate between personality theories
  • explain the use and purpose of common personality tests

Personality psychology is about how individuals differ from each other in their characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. In this module, you examined some of the foundational theories that explain personality and learned about personality testing today. Some of the most interesting questions about personality attributes involve issues of stability and change. Are shy children destined to become shy adults? Are the typical personality attributes of adults different from the typical attributes of adolescents? Do people become more self-controlled and better able to manage their negative emotions as they become adults? What mechanisms explain personality stability and what mechanisms account for personality change?

Remember that the Big Five personality traits include:

  • extraversion (attributes such as assertive, confident, independent, outgoing, and sociable),
  • agreeableness (attributes such as cooperative, kind, modest, and trusting),
  • conscientiousness (attributes such as hard working, dutiful, self-controlled, and goal-oriented),
  • neuroticism (attributes such as anxious, tense, moody, and easily angered),
  • openness (attributes such as artistic, curious, inventive, and open-minded).

The Big Five is one of the most common ways of organizing the vast range of personality attributes that seem to distinguish one person from the next. In a meta-analysis of several studies of the Big Five test, Roberts, Walton, and Viechtbauer found that in general, average levels of extraversion (especially the attributes linked to self-confidence and independence), agreeableness, and conscientiousness appear to increase with age whereas neuroticism appears to decrease with age (Roberts et al., 2006). Openness also declines with age, especially after mid-life (Roberts et al., 2006). These changes are often viewed as positive trends given that higher levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness and lower levels of neuroticism are associated with seemingly desirable outcomes such as increased relationship stability and quality, greater success at work, better health, a reduced risk of criminality and mental health problems, and even decreased mortality. This pattern of positive average changes in personality attributes is known as the maturity principle of adult personality development (Caspi, Roberts, & Shiner, 2005). The basic idea is that attributes associated with positive adaptation and attributes associated with the successful fulfillment of adult roles tend to increase during adulthood in terms of their average levels.

Beyond providing insights into the general outline of adult personality development, Roberts et al. (2006) found that young adulthood (the period between the ages of 18 and the late 20s) was the most active time in the lifespan for observing average changes, although average differences in personality attributes were observed across the lifespan. Such a result might be surprising in light of the intuition that adolescence is a time of personality change and maturation. However, young adulthood is typically a time in the lifespan that includes a number of life changes in terms of finishing school, starting a career, committing to romantic partnerships, and parenthood (Donnellan, Conger, & Burzette, 2007; Rindfuss, 1991). Finding that young adulthood is an active time for personality development provides circumstantial evidence that adult roles might generate pressures for certain patterns of personality development. Indeed, this is one potential explanation for the maturity principle of personality development.

Young man around age 20, adjusting his tie for an interview.

It should be emphasized again that average trends are summaries that do not necessarily apply to all individuals. Some people do not conform to the maturity principle. The possibility of exceptions to general trends is the reason it is necessary to study individual patterns of personality development. The methods for this kind of research are becoming increasingly popular (e.g., Vaidya, Gray, Haig, Mroczek, & Watson, 2008) and existing studies suggest that personality changes differ across people (Roberts & Mroczek, 2008). These new research methods work best when researchers collect more than two waves of longitudinal data covering longer spans of time. This kind of research design is still somewhat uncommon in psychological studies but it will likely characterize the future of research on personality stability.

So, while personality is still considered relatively stable over the lifespan, take hope, as it is not set in stone. Many personality attributes are linked to life experiences in a mutually reinforcing cycle: Personality attributes seem to shape environmental contexts, and those contexts often then accentuate and reinforce those very personality attributes. Even so, personality change or transformation is possible because individuals respond to their environments.