Our Personalities Are Constantly Changing, Even if We Think They’re Not

We admit we've changed in the past, but mistakenly believe we'll be the same person in the future

  • Share
  • Read Later
Gallery Stock

It’s rare that scientific journals explicitly engage philosophical conundrums, but a paper in this week’s Science magazine begins with the question: “Why do people so often make decisions that their future selves regret?” At age 18, that skull-and-crossbones tattoo seems like an unimpeachably cool idea; at 28, it’s mortifying. You meet the man of your dreams at 25 — except that your dreams have become so different by 35 that you end up divorced.

“Even at 68, people think, Ugh, I’m not the person I was at 58, but I’m sure I’ll be this way at 78,” says one of the Science study authors, Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of the book Stumbling on Happiness.

An obvious answer to the question is that people mature — that “change is inevitable,” as British politician Benjamin Disraeli said, that “change is constant.” But after examining the responses of more than 19,000 people gathered over four months in 2011 and 2012, the researchers— Gilbert, Jordi Quoidbach, of the National Fund for Scientific Research in Belgium, and University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson — discovered that even though most people acknowledge that their lives have changed over the past decade, they don’t believe change is constant. Against all evidence, most people seem to believe that who they are now is pretty much who they will be forever.

(MORE: How Overconfidence and Paranoia Become Self-Fulfilling Prophecies)

For example, the average 33-year-old surveyed expected less change over the next decade than the average 43-year-old reported actually had occurred over the past decade. As the paper says, “People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person[s] they will be for the rest of their lives.” Although personality and values do tend to become more stable with age, people generally underestimate the extent of future personality shifts. The researchers call this phenomenon “the end of history illusion.”

Proving an illusion is a giant epistemological problem, which is one reason the authors recruited so many participants for their study — although many of the thousands were recruited from a website sponsored by a French reality show, Leurs Secrets du Bonheur (The Secrets of Happiness). Analyzing the answers that the volunteers provided to questions about their favorite music, food, hobbies, as well as about choices concerning friends and vacations, Quoidbach, Gilbert, and Wilson compared people at different stages of life and came to a couple of conclusions:

1. The older you get, the less you believe you have changed or will change. This finding isn’t surprising: for years, researchers have confirmed the common-sense idea that one’s personality and preferences become more stable with age. At 80, your grandfather will likely disparage whichever political party he opposes with more ferocity than he did at 65. As the Science research explains, even young people feel their current qualities are good qualities. They find it hard to imagine their beliefs and values could significantly change — even though most of us actually change our views often as time progresses.

2. In a similar vein, people have a tendency to recognize that their personalities and preferences have changed in the past but misunderstand that personalities and preferences often change in the future. As part of the research, the researchers compared how self-reported personality traits had changed among 3,808 adults recruited not by that French TV show but by the MacArthur Foundation. The participants had completed a personality survey (as part of a larger study called MIDUS, or Midlife Development in the United States) in the mid-1990s and then again in the mid-2000s. Among other things, MIDUS measures what are called the Big Five personality traits: conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability (sometimes called neuroticism), openness to experience and extroversion. (You can test your Big Five here.)

The MIDUS surveys are widely accepted for their reliability, so the scientists assumed that any difference between scores in the mid-1990s and those in the mid-2000s accurately captured changes in how much people are conscientious, agreeable, stable, open and extroverted today vs. 10 years ago. The researchers then asked the participants to estimate how much their MIDUS measures would have changed from 10 years ago and how much they will change in 10 years. Most people were pretty good at estimating the difference in average MIDUS scores over the past decade, but they dramatically underestimated how much MIDUS scores change for most people in the future. In short, people may commit errors of prediction more often than they succumb to errors of memory.

(MORE: Borderline Personality Disorder: NFL Wide Receivers Talks Diagnosis and Recovery)

As further insurance that the effect they were tracking was real, the researchers conducted another study with a smaller group of volunteers. In the original experiment, the researchers assigned the participants to either make predictions of how much they would change in the future or how much they had changed in the past — but not both — so the scientists couldn’t be sure that different people were interpreting the personality criteria in the same way. They focused on 613 adults who provided answers about both future change and past change, and the discrepancy between predictive and past change remained. Most of them predicted that they would change less over the next decade than the majority of people who reported they had actually changed. Their predictions fell short, however. In other words, people who thought they “loved” and would always prefer Rice Chex to Corn Chex became less adamant by their 50s. By their late 60s, they seemed not to care so much, which may owe partly to declining mental acuity, but may also reflect a real change in the strength and intensity of personality and preferences.

The paper shows other data: older people are less willing to pay for the same concerts and meals than younger people anticipate they would, and they are less likely to remember the name of their best friend. But that could be because older people are simply bored by familiar pleasures and have worse memories.

Whether people change — can change, do change, actually change — is surely one of the most important questions in psychobiology. The Science paper advances our understanding of the answer incrementally: we understand that we have changed, but we are uncomfortable with the idea that we will change any further. The need to change implies another question: Do we need to correct a flaw? It’s not likely that any amount of science can answer that question.

30 comments
EmilyMadison
EmilyMadison

I am not really someone who leaves  comments on blogs and posts, but I had to do this one. This man called DR.OBOM inspiring to me! I just wanted to say thank to you! Thank You for encouraging me. Sometimes it is really hard for we to know what we are going to be in future. DR.OBOM  has told me how great, fearfully, and wonderfully i will be in future. again thanks to DR.OBOM of homeofsolutions1@gmail.com this man can help people to see what they are going to be in future

gracechiou88
gracechiou88

Participants were questioned on their favorite food, music, hobbies, friends, and vacation spots but had not been asked about recent fits of fury.  I wonder what are the things that people remain adamant about as people age.  The article suggests politics.  Are there other things such as unhappiness about unequal share of household burden, improved hygiene standards, or religious faith that we cling onto more and more as we age?

gracechiou88
gracechiou88

If our personalities are constantly changing, by how much are the changes decades by decades?  Would our alumni still recognize us after two decades of lost contact?  Would we be able to face our own changes when presented with the scientific data?  Moreover, as marketing experts take note of major social changes, researchers could refer to marketing strategies and the influence they have on our personalities in the future. 

MollyFields
MollyFields

Why would anyone want to stay the person they are at that moment for the rest of their lives?  Imagine living the rest of your life and not growing or learning at all.  That sounds awful.

JujuCosta
JujuCosta

it aint new to me.. nothign is new to me,, it sucks

ProductoEndorsair
ProductoEndorsair

Self is an illusion. I don't mean "we are all one" or some other religious garbage, just that we have a concept of "I" that is not really as useful as we think. We morph and though we retain some commonality of experience with previous versions of self, we are something other than what we were. This can be a bit of a nuisance since we constantly have to reassess and recalculate, but the alternative is to pretend that reality is different than it is.

ashleyy
ashleyy

just see the clothes you loved to wear back then, and what you wear now. your style changes based on your personality (not just trends!!). Also, if you have a tumblr, you'd probably know that your blog is constantly changing and it changes styles. You go through a phase when you reblog pretty bows and girly stuff and then suddenly your reblogging sunglass wearing hipsters, etc.

-a teenager

thriver
thriver

I find this to be slightly misleading. For me as a clinician the strict sense of personality goes deeper than that. I see change happen all the time and yet I see people remain the same in very fundamental ways.

Obviously if you grow wheat in Iowa and only see the same ten people your whole life changes comes less easily than if you spend your time on a plane selling wheat all over the world.

Also it doesn't seem to be a very earth-shattering discovery to see that we have a better grasp of the past than we do of the future.

Finally I find that when I am in a phenomenon (let's say a sunny day for instance) I have a hard time remembering what it's like to be in a cloudy, rainy, cold day and vice versa. If I stop and consciously direct my imagination there I can "feel" some of the sensations but it takes a real effort.


Ionwyn
Ionwyn

Why do people keep on changing constantly?

jtchun777
jtchun777

Very important meaning the results have. When meeting someone in a very long time, we are often surprised to see that they became so stubborn in some aspects. Epistemological problem...I get to guess we must know much more about this.

MaryAliceMariano
MaryAliceMariano

I guess I need to do more research as to what a personality is, because I was an introvert at 18 and as I age, that does not change, except perhaps to become more of a recluse. I was honest at 18 and can not see that personality trait ever changing ~ will not suddenly decide I like guns, want to rob people, or pick up the ten dollar bill the person walking ahead of me dropped, putting it in my pocket rather than tapping them on the shoulder to return it.

Yes, I expect change, our bodies age, curtailing favorite activities, our tastes in music may change,  but I think core personality traits remain constant, unless we make a conscious effort to change for the better. 

RickHeckenlively
RickHeckenlively

Re: 'The Big Five' Personality Traits test...the misspelling of the word 'organization' leaves the authenticity of this test in question.

jakeadelstein
jakeadelstein

Looper Syndrome. I read this and re-read my high school diary. I've either failed to mature or am amazingly tolerant of my younger idealistic self.  The article does remind me of words attributed to the Buddha, which I find more insightful as I get older. " Who is wise,
The eloquent or the quiet man?
Be quiet,
And loving and fearless.

For the mind talks.
But the body knows.
Gray hairs do not make a master.
A man may grow old in vain."

WP
WP

Nothing new here. Just watch the Up Series.

felixtom3
felixtom3

when you grow up, you've experienced more, certainly your mindset towards different things will change.


abby
abby

If you think of what you thought you knew at 18 versus what you know at 25 or 35 or 45 -- of course there is change.  Higher education, job experience, life experience -- all of that can create change.

Nothing stays static -- even our personalities although some (not all) people do tend to get "set in their ways."

I wonder how much advanced education and exposure to different cultures play a role in changing who we are ...

LeoK711
LeoK711

As I understand it, the study didn't follow the same people over a ten year period (or more), but just compared what people said in their 40s vs what others were saying in their 30s. This doesn't seem valid, even if you have huge numbers. How do you know certain changes are not common to any given age group but not common in the next younger group?

As far as the "end of history" illusion, it doesn't seem any mumbo-jumbo is needed: We don't know what will happen in our future but do know this for our past. Duh.

I'll try to look at the original paper, but so far, after reading this article and another in the NY Times on the same study, I have NO idea how it merited publication in a top-tier journal like Science.

whataboutreason
whataboutreason

"You meet the man of your dreams at 25—except that your dreams have become so different by 35 that you end up divorced."

This seems like a slightly worse example than the tattoo because it involves another evolving person. Also, could it be that your dream man is also now 35, while the "man of your dreams" hasn't aged a bit?

Brianh1903
Brianh1903

@thriver I don't think their point is that we have a better grasp on the past than the future. The point is that people are often unable to recognize the consistent pattern of change that the past shows, and instead predict less change, which there is no evidence for. The problem is the failure to recognize simple patterns, not an inability to understand the future as well as the past.

sixtymile
sixtymile

@thriver More than slightly misleading, I agree this study seems to simply confirm that we are unable to predict our future attitudes and preferences anymore than we can predict future events or changes in society and how they will affect us. Speculation that older people "don't care" or are "bored" does not even qualify as valid social science commentary deserving a response. Mostly, we are the person that we want to be at the moment that we are, and the same for our future selves.

JonVanMeter
JonVanMeter

@RickHeckenlively   from englishforums.com.....  "Organization, authorization etc. are the original English spellings pre 1776. This is why the 'Z' is still used all over the USA since any changes to the English Language after that date (American Revolution) by British authorities would have no jurisdiction in the USA.

However to find out which is correct in British English today, all you need to do is look in the Oxford English Dictionary or Oxford Reference Online and you will find that if you are looking for "organisation" or "authorisation", it will say, "see organization" or "see authorization", because the more correct spelling, as far as the academics who compile dictionaries are concerned, is still with a 'Z'! These academics have been fighting a rearguard action over what is sometimes referred to as the "Frenchification" of the English Language where they see no valid reason for the replacement of the 'Z' with an 'S'!"

MaryAliceMariano
MaryAliceMariano

@felixtom3 True. The mindset might create personality, such as a bigot who learns tolerance, thus changing personality. But, using this example, I know people who have been lifelong bigots, or their base beliefs or personality has not changed even as they grow old and gray (or bald.)

MaryAliceMariano
MaryAliceMariano

@abby I am not sure that if a person is not open to other cultures, they will  allow themselves exposure to them. 

I remember Andy Rooney saying he was watching the Olympics, tears rolling from  his eyes, when camera panned to an elderly Russian man, who likewise was so overcome with emotion,  he too had tears rolling down his cheeks. Andy said it was at that moment he realized that Russian's were, in my words, people too. At the time I was astonished that a man of his age and stature did not know this ~ something I figured out before my 18th birthday, when I was still quite uneducated and naive. 

So was my personality one of openness to other cultures whereas the much better educated and experienced Rooney's was not? Did his personality change due to that experience or was he the same old curmudgeon he was prior to? 

MaryAliceMariano
MaryAliceMariano

@LeoK711 Good point. Example would be on how men view women.  Younger generations that grew up where it was not unusual to have a working mom, or see a women surgeon, have different attitudes towards females, then do older generations. Same is true of younger generations of girls who grow up with more role models, then did older generations of females. 

I am not sure, though, that our attitudes or knowledge shapes our personalities. Due to seeing lots of babies grow into adulthood, I believe we are born with a certain personality, shaped by our early environment. I have seen changes in those people, but their core personalities remain the same as when they were toddlers in diapers.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@MaryAliceMariano @abby I believe the point of the article is that Andy Rooney grew into an "old curmudgeon".  I don't expect he was like that when he was in his 30's or even 40's.  Nor do I expect his TV persona was the same one he had among family and friends.

Personalities aren't about what's inside, but behaviors exhibited.  What's inside can influence that, of course.  The article would have best been served if it had defined the area of study with greater clarity.  That said, this study, like many, are spread across a wide number of people.  People always have exceptions to any general rule.  Anecdotal evidence such as the ones you've been posting do not a wide spectrum of individuals make.

Many things make up a personality, including intelligence, nutrition, physical ability and so forth. But the single-most influencing thing about personality is experience.  You can bet that though in some ways some personality traits may not change, in most ways they do for almost everyone.  Almost being the operative word since if experiences don't change much from day to day and year to year, there's no input on personality change other than simply getting older (which itself tends to make people more conservative, but not always, and ALWAYS creates change in people's personality if for no other reason than to accommodate the physical changes that happen).

That this means is that in your anecdotal tales, the people you knew before are not the same people they were when you first met them.  They don't always do the same things.  They don't always have the same opinions.  They don't act the same the way they did before unless they are incapable of acting differently (which is always a possibility, I suppose).

Finally, memories are not generally reliable in this regard about other people (or, in many ways, even about one's self).  As time goes on, memories become altered.  What you remember may or may not have been how things actually were.  Videos, old movies and other such things would certainly help augment specific personality traits, but our memories of change (or rather their seeming lack) tend to make us think that we're not changing when, in fact, we are.

JonVanMeter
JonVanMeter

@MaryAliceMariano @LeoK711 They used the same people tested and retested 10 years later.

"The MIDUS surveys are widely accepted for their reliability, so the scientists assumed that any difference between scores in the mid-’90s and those in the mid-’00s accurately captured changes in how much people are conscientious, agreeable, stable, open, and extraverted today versus 10 years ago."

MaryAliceMariano
MaryAliceMariano

@DeweySayenoff @MaryAliceMariano @abby Thanks for the input. I did post somewhere here, that I will be doing some study on what personality is ~ when I hear the word, I think: Pleasing personality, outgoing personality, and so on ~ which is expressed through behavior. 

The kid that was an habitual liar at 5 is an habitual liar at 45; no altered memory on that. The man that was a hardcore bigot at 18, is a hardcore bigot at 64, no altered memory there. Same man was a thief at 13, still a thief at 64. The girl that was full of empathy and kindness at 16 is just as empathetic and kind at 45, no altered memory there either. The list is endless. 

The people have changed ~ the very thin teenager is an overweight adult; the smoker, quit smoking; hair colors, styles changed frequently for some, not at all for others. I do not know that those things are personality.

Perhaps, yes, an 18-year-old boy who refused to cut his waist length hair (no altered memory there,) now has typical short men's hairstyle at 40. His personality, to me, is still the same; yes he matured, but he is still shy, introverted, prefers reading to socializing, quite intelligent, then, and now, creative, family man, loving father. 

As to wide spectrum of individuals, take some time reading The White House Facebook page comments. I have known hundreds, in real life, with exact same ugly personalities exhibited by people posting the nasty, name-calling comments. The people I mentioned were examples used to illustrate the mass of humans, because, I have seen that people do fall into certain personality categories, such as the Type-A workaholic, or the Sibling order formed personalities.