Do personality traits remain the same over time?

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It has been debated for centuries if an individual is born as tabula rasa or he/she already has something with him/her. For example, behaviourists (in 1920s) and social learning theorists (in 1960s) supported the hypothesis that everyone could be taught to become a doctor or a lawyer, without natural predispositions having any role in it.

However, it has become clear that an individual is not born as tabula rasa but the colour of their hair and yes, height and jaw shape, as well as a number of traits are largely genetically predetermined. The expression of genes depends on the environment, though.

When is personality coined?

Although traits are heritable to an extent, it takes time for the personality to evolve. Some traits are expressed rather early in childhood (such as Extraversion/Introversion), yet behaviour and emotional response change several times while a child and a young individual develops.

Pullmann et al (Pullmann, Raudsepp and Allik, 2006) examined the stability of personality traits in adolescence. Their study was based on a pool of data from 876 Estonian pupils who completed a questionnaire examining five core personality traits twice, over a period of several years. The analysis revealed that traits became more stable both on the level of population and individual at the age 12–18, while the five traits were quite established starting from the age of 16. The study has been cited over 100 times.

Can we assess the stability of traits across lifetime?

Yes, the last issue of a leading scientific periodical Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (journal rank 7.3 over 5 years) featured an exceptional study (Damian et al, 2019), measuring personality traits in a large sample across 50 years. It was the first study to assess the personality traits of the same people and using the same test over such a long time span – tests were administered to pupils at the age of 16 and then after the individuals retired.

The results revealed that personality traits remain quite stable. For example, if a pupil was timid and reserved in high school, showed little initiative and was anxious about performing in front of others, they were likely to retain the characteristics also when adult. A shy pupil is unlikely to evolve into an executive because they do not enjoy lots of attention, interaction or self-assertion.

However, it is possible to train and practise these skills. In recruitment, the central question is to what extent the natural predispositions overlap with those required for the duties. If the most important traits are there and there is little difference between the desires and actual levels, development strategies can be used to support the necessary competencies. Yet when there are marked discrepancies between the desirable and actual profile, the investments made in development need not pay off as it is very difficult, sometimes impossible to induce major change.

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