Are Some Personality Types More Likely To Change Over Time?

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

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Why do some people’s personalities seem to change over time while other people stay exactly the same way they’ve always been?

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Psychology’s latest issue, it has to do with how susceptible we are to our environment and life experiences. Some people may be more susceptible to environmental than others.

What causes our personalities to change? 

Although there’s still some ongoing debate in the world of personality science, many studies suggest most people’s personalities do change over time. In general, people tend to “mature” into better people, becoming more agreeable and less neurotic. However, that’s not to say we don’t all have some essential characteristics that stay relatively stable: Some research suggests that if you look at a group of people and compare their personalities now and 50 years from now, the most confident of the bunch now will still be the most confident of the bunch then, even if the whole group got a bit more confident over time.

Tetsuya Kawamoto, Ph.D., a personality researcher with the University of Tokyo, sought to understand the underlying causes of that change and why some people might change more than others. He surveyed over a thousand middle-aged men and women in Japan twice with six months in between, asking them questions to understand their personality traits as well as experiences and events happening in their lives.

The results confirmed life experiences—from the death of a person close to you to changing workplaces to entering a new serious relationship—can absolutely affect one’s personality. For example, a person who experienced a traffic-related accident tended to experience a decrease in openness and extraversion. But interestingly, how much these traits decreased depended on a person’s level of environmental susceptibility. 

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Some people are more “susceptible” to change.

“Environmental factors may play a major role in personality change. However, environmental events may affect individuals differently and even serve to accentuate individual differences,” Kawamoto writes in the paper on his findings. “Individuals who are high in susceptibility demonstrate an enhanced reactivity to both negative (stressful) and positive (nurturing) environments and are therefore more likely to experience developmental changes in response to environmental influences.”

He offers an example from a previous study: Young adults with an insecure attachment style tended to be more susceptible to life experiences, and those life experiences influenced their personalities more, leading to more pronounced personality change.

What exactly makes a person more susceptible to environmental factors? Kawamoto notes one theory some researchers have developed: “Individuals evolving and developing in predictable and controllable environments strategically adapt to stable and specific conditions, whereas those evolving and developing in unpredictable and uncontrollable environments strategically maximize their flexibility in migrating between different conditions.”

In the questionnaire used in the study, participants rated how much they agreed with items like “I have a close and warm romantic relationship with my sexual partner” and “I often find the bright side to a bad situation” to further determine what their level of susceptibility might be. That said, Kawamoto notes that more research needs to be done to figure out a more specific way to define and measure susceptibility.

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently bad about having your personality be more responsive to the things happening in your life. There are certainly ways to grow your resilience so you’re able to bounce back from negative events stronger than ever; that said, change can sometimes be a good thing. Change can mean development, adaptation, and growth, and that’s something worth being open to when it comes.

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