Are you the same “you” that you were twenty years ago? Thirty? Forty? What about fifty years ago? While science still struggles to quantify, measure, and categorize personality, some have a different question: how stable is personality in the first place? Do the high school version of yourself and the retiree version of yourself still have some common immutable core?
It depends how you look at it, says a study by lead author Rodica Damian of University of Houston and her co-authors Marion Spengler of the University of Tuebingen in Germany, Brent W. Roberts of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and UH grad student Andreea Sutu. The paper in question goes by the catchy title “Sixteen going on sixty-six: A longitudinal study of personality stability and change across 50 years.”
Damian and her colleagues compared the results for 1,795 U.S. adults who had taken a personality test as teenagers and then again, five decades years later. The team found that yes, there is a definite shift in traits over time, trending in roughly the same direction: with age, subjects became more conscientious, more stable, and more agreeable.
To be clear, there were exceptions, with some developing “maladaptive” traits, but overall, people seemed to become more steady and mellow. (Or at least, more steady and mellow they were as teens—whether or not your adolescent self is the most useful personality data point is another question altogether.)
However, it’s not that we become the same as we approach retirement. Differences remain—as compared to each other. In other words, your less-than-responsible high school buddy has grown more conscientious compared with their high school self, but compared with others of their age group, they could still certainly remain a bit of a bust-out. (Gender seems to make no difference in how these qualities develop.)
This is great news, in a way: we do mature, in ways that might sometimes render us unrecognizable to ourselves, but to our peers, you’ll probably still retain that special combination of traits that makes you yourself. It’s simply all relative.