Personality traits were once thought to be fairly stable. But recent research has suggested that our personality can alter over time — whether that’s due to ageing or because we decide to change our traits ourselves. And as personality is linked to our behaviour, it follows that we might see different life outcomes as our personality shifts or grows.
In a new study in Psychological Science, Kevin A. Hoff and team look at the personality changes of teenagers as they move into adulthood. And they find that certain shifts in personality can result in real-world benefits during the early years of a career, suggesting that interventions that increase particular traits and skills could make all the difference at work.
The team examined data from two longitudinal samples of young people from Iceland, who were followed over twelve years from their late teens to early adulthood; at several time-points, participants had rated their Big Five personality traits. The team also examined standardised test scores from the teenagers’ final year in education and noted the highest degree each participant had attained.
The researchers also rated participants’ “occupational prestige” once in the workforce — how high or low status their work was seen to be in general society. Participants also shared how much money they earned, and indicated how satisfied they were with what they had achieved in their career thus far and in their current job.
As expected, the personality traits of the teens changed as they entered young adulthood. The largest increases were seen in agreeableness, openness and conscientiousness, while extraversion decreased. Personality traits at adolescence were stronger predictors of participants’ academic achievement than personality changes: those who were more conscientious, emotionally stable, and agreeable were more likely to attain a higher degree. Emotional stability and conscientiousness at school-age were also the strongest predictors of occupational prestige.
Those personality changes, however, were also important. Participants who became more emotionally stable and those who became more extraverted were more likely to receive a higher income, while increases in emotional stability, extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness were the strongest predictors of career and job satisfaction across the samples.
We already know that we can change our personality and increase how outgoing, agreeable, or open we are. And given the results of the study, it also seems possible that targeted interventions to help young people develop the skills associated with particular personalities could help them achieve certain goals. The fact that personality growth was the strongest predictor of the subjective measures of career and job satisfaction also indicates that growth is an important part of how young people think about their success.
Though this study focused on work success, other areas of life could also be explored in future research. For some people, relationships, social skills or self-image are more important than their careers, and understanding how personality change can impact these dimensions would also be interesting. Certain personality traits are also likely to be more valued or useful in certain lines of work, so further exploration of this might also help teenagers work out which elements of their personality they would like to develop depending on their goals.
Helping teenagers understand that their personality is not fixed, the team concludes, is one of the most important takeaways from the study: while our personalities clearly play a part in our lives, we’re by no means fated to stay the same forever.