The Science of Personality Changes

Are you the same person you were at 16? Researchers are exploring why some people do—or don’t—evolve over a lifetime.

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Looking back on your high-school self, you’re likely to think one of two things: that your older self bears almost no resemblance to the adolescent you, or that your personality hasn’t really changed much over your lifetime. Large studies, following hundreds of people for decades, have also reached completely opposite conclusions about how personalities evolve over time, coming down on the side of either personality stability or personality change.

Where the rest of us might see empirical chaos, a growing number of personality researchers see opportunity. Rather than making sweeping statements about change and stability or dismissing conflicting studies as all somehow flawed, they are digging deeper to discover the aspects of personality that are most changeable. By identifying those traits, they can uncover why some people remain stuck in their wallflower past even as most of their peers become more extroverted, and how core personality traits can be influenced not only by unique life circumstances but also by volitional change—in other words, as the result of self-awareness and a desire to be other than how you are.

It all raises a fascinating philosophical, even existential, question: If who I am changes, is there ever truly an “I”?

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