Forever Set in Your Ways--at 30? : Identity: A growing number of researchers suggest that who you are at age 30 is who you will be at 60. Others say personal crises can force change.
My friend Lisa was emphatic: “This year, I’m going to vote for a real person for President. I’m not going to write in ‘Mickey Mouse.’
“I figure, it’s about time I grew up and voted for a real person, even if I don’t like him.”
At age 39, gregarious, bubble gum-chewing, fashion-fad-crazy Lisa says she’s going to attempt to become serious, thoughtful and responsible.
Come Nov. 3, she may vote for Bush or Clinton, but she’ll still be Lisa: wearing T-shirts, riding motorcycles and taking college classes.
A growing wealth of research and an increasing number of psychologists and therapists agree: An individual’s personality, it seems, is firmly rooted and resistant to change by the time one turns 30. Despite how much you want to change, you may not be able to.
You can transform yourself dramatically at age 5 or 15 or 25. But when you look in the mirror at 35, you’re seeing the real you--the person you’ll still be at 45, 60 and 80.
“The best predictor of what people will be like tomorrow is what they’re like today,” says psychologist Paul T. Costa Jr., a noted personality researcher at the National Institute on Aging. “Personality stops changing after age 30. It becomes fixed. If you’re an introvert at 30, you still will be at 60. If you’re feminine at 30, you won’t be masculine at 60.”
If this is bad news, don’t write yourself off just yet. Some human development experts take a softer stance, saying you can change some aspects of your personality. And other preliminary research suggests certain life events--usually personal catastrophes--offer “windows of opportunity” to change.
Finally, experts say psychotherapy or other counseling can still help change your life or how you feel.
Married just weeks after college graduation, Megan and Jon were full of optimism about their future. After 16 years of marriage and two children, they recently divorced.
“He just really, really changed,” she says. “It’s so sad.”
It’s also not surprising, according to the slew of studies that have followed individuals for several decades. What Costa and other psychologists have found is that sometime in your 20s the wet plaster of your personality mold begins to harden. Several studies even indicate the cast sets at age 27.
From about age 30 to 35, Costa says, “there is enough of a settling in so we can’t say it’s set. But, in general, from personality measurements at age 30, we can predict happiness levels 20 years later.”
Political attitudes, he says, are often the last aspect to change and settle.
The studies should serve notice to people in their 20s to consider whether they are ready to make important decisions in their lives, such as their choice of mates or careers.
“If there are aspects of themselves they recognize and don’t like, they should deal with those first,” Costa says. “It’s like putting on a good pair of walking shoes before you take that long walk.”
But, if you’re 35 or older and wondering what kind of old person you’ll be, look at yourself now, says Costa, who has directed one of the longest-running personality studies with colleague Robert McCrae.
The buoyant, outgoing, agreeable, conscientious 35-year-old woman doesn’t become the depressed, cranky, disagreeable 75-year-old, he says. “But if you’re prone to distress, angry and irritable and unhappy with most things at 30, you are unlikely to be any different at 50 or 70.”
Costa dismisses the popular notion that some adults endure sudden, unexpected midlife crises that transform their personalities. Only individuals who frequently experience identity crises will experience one at midlife, he says: “People who do not have a lifelong history of maladjustment do not go through a midlife crisis.”
Robert, 42, finds such research very distressing. Divorced three years ago, he blames himself. For years, Robert had viewed his aggressive, overbearing style as professionally beneficial; no one pushed him around at work. Now, he understands that his personality has hurt his relationships.
He’s in therapy, Robert says, “to try to stop being such a schmuck.”
Is there hope for him?
Here, personality experts start to disagree. Hard-liners like Costa would say Robert’s outlook is dim.
“If you want to change, grow, improve from adulthood on, you have to work at it,” Costa says.
People don’t often make the effort to change, he says. Instead, they wait for a transformation.
But, Costa warns: “You’re not going to wake up after X number of birthdays and be sociable. People want to believe they don’t have to do anything; that they’re going to get wiser, mellower, better. But you’re going to have to work at making these changes to be more sensitive and caring.”
Simply moving to a new city, changing your looks or hanging out with different people won’t do it.
“Moving from Lowell, Mass., to San Francisco won’t change your personality,” Costa says. “Going from blue jeans to tuxedos won’t change your personality and style. Life changes don’t even seem to have lasting impact. For example, the person who suddenly gets married at age 40 and changes his job and place of residence . . . after about two years you can’t say anything (about what effect this had).”
But other personality experts say adults continually develop, even if only in small gradations.
“A lot of this (debate) depends on how you define personality,” says psychologist Revenna Helson.
Costa’s study defines personality in very broad terms, measuring such basic traits as neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.
But in a 31-year study of 140 individuals as they aged, Helson looked at traits like independence, assertiveness and dominance.
She found substantial change.
Helson, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, says people change through typical adult experiences--marriage, becoming a parent, divorce. She argues that a 30-year-old introvert can still be that way at age 60, but perhaps become more assertive.
“There are a lot of implications to this,” she says. “I think the idea that we have a little capacity to change makes our reflectiveness seem meaningful. It gives us hope and confidence and without which we would be able to change less.”
Therapy can help people lead more fulfilling lives, Helson says, even if it can’t change basic personality.
There are other exceptions to the no-change concept of personality.
People with neurological illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s, undergo dramatic personality change. Religious conversions can also influence personality. And, a new study suggests that catastrophic events, such as developing a serious illness or losing a loved one, can change people.
Mark, a singer in rock band, had been taking drugs and living dangerously when the van in which he was riding crashed.
Left paralyzed from the waist down, Mark now calls the accident the best thing that ever happened to him. He stopped the drugs, went to college and graduate school and began a professional career.
“This was the one thing that happened in my life that I needed to have happen,” Mark says. “On the outside looking in, that’s pretty hard to swallow. But I don’t think I would be here today if this hadn’t have happened.”
In a study of people who said they had experienced significant positive or negative events, psychologist Richard G. Tedeschi and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found that negative events, in particular, can change people.
“The overwhelming evidence does point to general stability across the life span,” he says. “But there do seem to be these particular ‘windows of opportunity’ for change. Negative life events are so affecting that they call into question a lot of the usual ways of operating that people have adopted. Only because they are so traumatic do they pull people off their usual path.”
People transformed by such events often adopt a different philosophy of life, he says. They begin to believe that life is good and useful; they become more expressive, more empathetic and tolerant.
Those who experienced profound positive events, however, did not change in dramatic ways, Tedeschi found: "(Positive events) do not challenge our basic notions about living and what our life is about in the degree that negative experiences do.”