To see personality in action, look no further than Washington State’s Stevens Pass ski resort circa 1993.
At the top of Hogsback Express, you can see my brother, not yet four feet tall, wearing a neon orange motorcycle helmet wider than his shoulders and already a natural born daredevil. He points his skis straight down the mountain and takes off, knees bent, body crouched, skis locked in position.
If you look back up the mountain as he whizzes by, you can see me. I’m skiing horizontally across the mountain (slow and cautious as ever), reaching the far side, stopping to turn my skis around, then skiing back across the mountain—my skis perfectly perpendicular to my brother’s. (A brother from another mother, if ever there was one.)
If you ask my parents what it was like to raise me and my brother—two wildly different kids—they'll probably say that it was like trying to shape a mold that’s already started to set.
Personality is a collection of patterns—of thought, behavior and feeling—that make up who you are. As any parent suspects, it’s partly (but not entirely) genetic. You surely know from experience that you can change your mind, your actions and your feelings. That means your personality can change too, whether you set out to better yourself or just take life as it comes.
But psychologists didn’t always believe that.
At the turn of the 20th century, when psychology was still in its infancy, Freud suggested that sometime around age five (when kids supposedly resolved their desire to have sex with one parent and kill the other), personality was fully developed. Whoever you were at five was the same person you’d be at 50.
Around the same time, psychologist William James proposed what became known as the “plaster hypothesis,” based on his famous quote that “by the age of 30, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” In that view, your personality was set in stone by the end of young adulthood.
James’ theory held until the mid-90s when scientists starting thinking that didn’t sound quite right.
Personality researchers went back to the drawing board, setting up experiments to test whether the “Big 5” personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism—actually change over the lifespan.
Turns out, they do.
Not only do people change, they tend to change in predictable ways. As you get older, your personality generally improves, a trend known as the “maturity principle.” While you might look at your parents and think they’re sorely set in their ways, they’ve most likely become more agreeable, more conscientious and less neurotic (or more emotionally stable) as they’ve aged. If your mom's stubbornness drives you crazy, imagine what she must have been like at 20.
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