- There is a widespread myth that personality is fixed with little potential for changes through life.
- New research busts this myth by examining the relationships between personality traits and life experiences.
- The findings can give people hope that anyone can grow and adapt to life’s continuing challenges.
As you contemplate how your life has evolved over time, what role do you believe personality has to do with this developmental process? Perhaps you were digging through some of your school notebooks from your teenage years. Alongside the class notes, homework assignments, and other academic material are doodles, jokes, “notes to self,” cookie recipes, and attempts at creative writing. As you flip through the pages of the notebook, you realize that it’s full of what you might consider predictors of your current life in those nonacademic scribblings. You still draw some of those same doodles and continuously write little phrases with ideas that pop into your head. You even make the same cookies. At the same time, you realize that your ideas about your future life are nowhere near where your life has taken you since, and you can’t even remember that you wrote those little stories.
Researchers on personality development in adulthood have done a complete “180” on a now-discarded notion that your life reflects a continuous playing out of your innate traits or dispositions. Original writings based on the most well-known trait theory, known as the Five Factor Model (FFM), proposed that what you were as a child predicts what you’ll be as an adult. With accumulating bodies of evidence showing the invalidity of this claim, personality researchers have finally gotten on board with the developmental models that document the nature and influences on life change.
Transactional Models of Personality Development
According to The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Wen-Dong Li and colleagues (2023), personality traits are “relatively enduring patterns… [that] are also able to change as a function of various work and life experiences over the years” (pp. 2–3). The transactional piece of this proposition is based on the idea that your traits, defined as “patterns of behaviors, thoughts, strivings, and feeling” may lead you to make certain initial life choices (the “selection effect”). Once those choices start to play out, your experiences begin to have a moderating impact (the “socialization effect”). Consider the trait of neuroticism (the tendency to worry and feel sad). If you were high on this trait, it might take you longer than your age peers to find a person to love and establish a committed relationship with. However, once in that relationship, as shown by prior research, your neuroticism eventually eases, and you start to feel better about life and yourself.
Personality can also affect your work–life patterns, but evidence on the effect of work on personality is less compelling than the effect of relationships. Li et al. believe that this prior research failed due to its sole emphasis on work rather than, they maintain, the work–family “interface.” You don’t leave your personality at the door when you go to your place of employment (even if that place is your home office). Similarly, what happens at work doesn’t, as they say, “stay at work.”
Furthermore, much of adult life involves navigating the work–family (or relationship) balance. How are you going to handle the stress of having to put in extra hours at work while at the same time co-parenting a newborn baby? Indeed, although previous studies failed to find a reciprocal effect of work with the trait of conscientiousness, there is research documenting the idea that “work-family facilitation may be associated with increases in conscientiousness over the years” (p. 4). Essentially, this means that people become better at managing potential stressors by becoming better organized.
Testing the Work–Family Interface and Its Impact on Personality
The highly ambitious study carried out by this Hong Kong research team examined, longitudinally, scores over three testing occasions on the FFM traits of extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness to experience, and conscientiousness in relation to the life experiences variables of work-to-family and family-to-work conflict and facilitation. The authors took advantage of two large existing data sets, involving 3,192 and 1,133 adults, respectively (average ages 43 and 57 at Time 1; followed for 10 and 4 years).
As you might imagine, tracing pathways from personality to the work–family interface and back again required the use of highly sophisticated analytic models. Li and his collaborators ultimately arrived at a set of reciprocal pathways demonstrating the effect of both selection and socialization. Positive work–family experiences were related to growth of extraversion and reduction in neuroticism. However, there were only limited influences of work–family experiences on either conscientiousness or agreeableness. As the authors concluded, “This probably has to do with the fact that extraversion and neuroticism mainly represent affective traits, which appear more prone to affect-laden work–family experiences” (p. 17).
What also emerged from these findings was the potential for personality change to evolve over time in the period of life (mid- to later adulthood) that many theorists used to write off as having no potential for growth. The authors also point out that, in contrast to the literature in organizational psychology, people don’t just end up in jobs based on their personality and never change but, instead, show “reverse causality” in that work–family experiences may “cultivate personality adaptation” (p. 19).
Your Own Life’s Twists and Turns
There is much to ponder from this comprehensive study, which is rich not only in data but also in theory. The authors make a number of significant points intended to shake up the status quo in the fields of personality as well as developmental and organizational psychology. But what do the findings mean for you? There are two main object lessons.
In the first place, returning to that example of the little scribbles in your old notebook, these can provide a learning experience for you as you find tidbits to suggest where you thought your life would head. However, you can also reflect on how the early decisions you made ultimately put you in places that stretched and expanded your adaptive abilities.
Second, you can also take heart in the fact that people’s personalities, at least in the two domains of extraversion and neuroticism, are responsive to life experiences well beyond what you might think of as the “end” of development in your teens or 20s. There’s no reason to give up on the potential for you to become more adaptive because you do have the ability to shape the ways that your work–family balance plays out over time.
To sum up, where you start on life’s journey doesn’t have to define you forever. The ability to foster beneficial relationships between your life’s various spheres can continue to evolve in ways that shape and expand your fulfillment, no matter your age.
Li, W.-D., Wang, J., Allen, T., Zhang, X., Yu, K., Zhang, H., Huang, J. L., Liu, M., & Li, A. (2023, August 10). Getting Under the Skin? Influences of Work–Family Experiences on Personality Trait Adaptation and Reciprocal Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000476