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Personality Changes More in Old Age than Previously Thought

Study by researchers from Freie Universität Berlin, University of Cologne, and Utah State University on basis of long-term studies "Socio-Economic Panel" and "Survey of Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia"

№ 327/2014 from Sep 29, 2014

According to a German-American study, the personality of older people changes again at a similar rate as that in young adults. This is one of the key findings of a study based on two long-term studies, "Socio-Economic Panel" (SOEP) and "Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia" Survey (HILDA Survey). “Our study refutes the prevailing view among psychologists that personality increasingly stabilizes over the course of life,” says psychologist Jule Specht of Freie Universität Berlin, one of the authors. The study was published recently in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and as SOEPpaper 687.

For their study, Jule Specht of Freie Universität Berlin, Maike Luhmann from the University of Cologne, and Christian Geiser at Utah State University (U.S.) analyzed the information given by more than 23,000 individuals who were surveyed between 2005 and 2009. According to the researchers, the population-representative data show that up to the age of 30 and after the age of 70, the personality changes more than during any other phase of life.

During young adulthood, the most changes occur in individuals with a so-called under-controlled personality type. These individuals are characterized by a low level of agreeableness and low conscientiousness. "About 40 percent of young adults in Germany have an under-controlled personality," says Jule Specht. She continues, "After about the age of 30, however, many of these young rebels mature and develop resilient personalities." Such resilient people are powerful, have high self-esteem, and rarely suffer from mental health problems, she says. "Their personality is generally more stable than that of under- or over-controlled men and women."

According to the study, at the age of 30, only about 20 percent of the people in Germany have an under-controlled personality type, and about 50 percent have a resilient personality type, meaning that they are robust and well able to meet life's challenges.

What surprised the researchers most, was that personality changed strongly again in old age: Up to 25 percent of the individuals underwent a dramatic personality change after the age of 70. "Unlike among young adults, the personality changes in older individuals did not follow a recognizable pattern," says Jule Specht. Instead, the psychologists observed a wide range of personality changes during the period of four years. So far the researchers can only speculate why personalities in older individuals change so strongly and diversely. Some of the possible explanations for this, however, can already be ruled out. "Health changes, grandparenthood, and retirement seem to play a surprisingly small role in this," says Jule Specht. Currently, she is investigating whether changes in the everyday lives of senior citizens or whether a changed attitude toward life causes personality changes.

About SOEP

The Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) is the largest and longest-running multidisciplinary long-term study in Germany. SOEP is based at DIW Berlin and is funded through the German federal and state governments as part of the research infrastructure in Germany under the umbrella of the Leibniz Association (WGL). Each year since 1984, the TNS pollster has been surveying several thousand individuals for SOEP. Currently, there are about 30,000 respondents living in 15,000 households. The SOEP data include information on income, employment, education, health, and satisfaction with life. Because the same people are interviewed each year, it is possible to analyze long-term social trends and also group-specific development of different individuals.

Further Information

  • Study

Specht, J., Luhmann, M., & Geiser, C. (2014). On the consistency of personality types across adulthood: Latent profile analyses in two large-scale panel studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107, 540-556.

  • Link to the Study


  • Link to the SOEPpaper



Prof. Dr. Jule Specht, jule.specht@fu-berlin.de, http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/specht