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Personality Changes Over Time, According to Science

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A major study of 50,000 people that spanned several decades found that a person’s personality is not fixed and unchanged after adolescence. When they become older, people normally decline in all the five major personality metrics considered as gold-standard by psychologists.

The research, which combined 14 longitudinal studies, found major fluctuations across the individual lives of participants in the five personality traits of neuroticism, conscientiousness, openness, extroversion, and agreeableness.


Downward Trends

Except for agreeableness, the four other traits showed downward trends of 1 to 2 percent for every 10 years across the overall studies, Science Alert reported.



It was part of the “Dolce Vita” effect that as people grow older, they enjoy fewer social responsibilities and can do more of what they want. When conforming to the group, people can be less neurotic.

But they can also be less open to trying new things to savor the classics and less conscientious as they become more selfish. They also become less extroverted and keep more to themselves.

At almost every stage of the 14 studies, the trends appear and held mostly steady across various geographical regions. The research included data from the US, Europe, and Scandinavia. There were considerably bigger declines in extroversion among Americans as they aged. The signal to the investigators was that they were especially finished with seeming social. 

Instead of being set in plaster, people are more like clay because they are constantly molded by their changing circumstances.

Eileen Graham, from the Northwestern University, led the researchers in comparing and combining data from 14 studies. They began by searching for existing long-term studies into health and aging which captured data on at least one of the big five personality traits, the British Psychological Society said.


From Stern to Outgoing Personality

One of the reasons behind the personality change is having a brain tumor removed. BBC reported on the case of a 70-year-old woman whose brain tumor was removed. The surgery damaged the front of both sides of the brain. But the procedure changed her personality from a stern personality that was highly irritable and grumpy.


Photo by YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV via Shutterstock


The surgery made her happier, more outgoing, and more talkative compared to her past. It offers evidence that at least for a minority of patients, personality changes which are beneficial are a reality.

Brain damage changes personality too. BBC cited the case of Phineas Gage, a 19th-century railway worker who was involved in a terrible accident when an iron rod blasted the front of the man’s brain. The result is that Gage became aggressive and impulsive from a shrewd, intelligent man.


Damage to Specific Brain Areas

In a recent study, published in the Neuropsychologia journal, discovered that out of 97 patients who were previously healthy patients, when they suffered from a permanent damage to a specific area of their brains, 22 showed personality changes afterward. But 54 had negative personality changes, and the remaining ones showed no change at all.



Damage to specific brain regions can sometimes have positive effects. It cited a 2007 study of Vietnam War veterans which found that soldiers who suffered damage to areas believed to play a role in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder were less likely to develop PTSD. Patients with damage to an area vital for emotions were less prone to depression.

BBC pointed out that the chance of a patient exhibiting personality improvements seemed to be not related to a person’s gender, age, educational background, or intelligence. Rather, what is apparently relevant is a history of a difficult personality – like being short-tempered and having other negative traits – combining with a particular pattern of brain damage.

It also noted that because the methods are highly exploratory, there must be caution, the authors warned. They pointed out that their approach allowed them to uncover broad patterns between personality outcomes and brain damage. To identify areas associated with specific personality changes, it should be covered by future studies.

Although the personality changes for some people, it should not downplay the seriousness of brain injury. The authors stressed that complete recovery from severe brain injury is extremely rare. A patient may seem fine on the surface, but the person may experience lasting hidden challenges like difficulty in learning new information.

The website noted that even if the idea sounds outlandish, doctors sometimes resort to brain surgery to treat psychological problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. But there was also abuse because of psychosurgery during the mid-20th-century when surgeons like Walter Freeman performed crude frontal lobotomy.

But modern techniques are now more careful and have become refined. Their objective is to dial-down brain circuits believed to be over-active in certain mental health conditions such as evidence that depression is associated with excessive connectivity between frontal brain regions and other neural networks that are involved in emotions and cognition.

If the brain can be tweaked that way purposely, it is a clue how brain damage can sometimes lead to beneficial personality changes.

[메디컬리포트=​Vittorio Hernandez 기자]

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