Personality Development In Adulthood Research Paper

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The study of personality is arguably the broadest subdiscipline in psychology in that it aims to understand how the whole person functions in the world. Historically, personality psychology has concerned itself with grand theories about human behavior, questions about character, identity, and morality. Most of the empirical research on personality published over the past two decades fails to consider potential development in adulthood, reflecting, in part, an assumption that personality changes little in adulthood. Nevertheless there has been a long-standing interest in whether—and, if so, how—people change in systematic ways in the later years of life. The following sections summarize the research traditions and some of the central findings generated in the field of adult personality development.

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1. Defining Personality Development

In part because personality draws so broadly from so many areas of psychology, including cognition, emotion, psychopathology, and motivation, consensus in the field over basic definitions is difficult to obtain. Even the preferred units of study (e.g., traits, behaviors, or psychological processes) continue to be debated. Most recently, questions are being raised about the degree to which personality is bounded within the individual or is better represented in transactions between individuals and broader collective units. Importantly, different conceptual approaches to the study of personality lead to different predictions about and evidence for personality change in adulthood. Whereas personality development is considered by some to unfold naturally and unidirectionally from temperaments inherited at birth, other personality psychologists emphasize the need to consider a complex interplay of factors that contribute to personality development, including temperamental inheritance but more importantly exposure to different types of environments, acquired beliefs and expectations and the capacity for self-regulation (Bandura 1989).

In part, evidence for stability or change in personality in adulthood reflects which facet of human functioning is studied. To be clear, there is no dispute that people change in adulthood. They do. Adults are inevitably changed in idiosyncratic ways by the life experiences they encounter, including major life events, such as becoming a parent, or less dramatic but persistent experiences associated with, for example, the pursuit of a particular career and the consequent development of a particular type of expertise. However, change in adulthood is not automatically considered personality Development. Rather, changes must be enduring, systematic (i.e., nonrandom), and predictable by age or life stage.

2. Major Approaches To Adult Personality Development

Conceptions of adult personality development have evolved out of two very different traditions in psychology; clinical psychology and life-span developmental psychology. The approaches and the findings about systematic change in adulthood reflect these different paradigmatic approaches to the study of lives. Due to considerable overlap between studies of individual differences and clinical psychology, many of the oldest and most influential theories of personality, most notably psychoanalytic psychology but also ego psychology and interpersonal psychology, were developed based on clinical observations of patients. Although strikingly different in its basic tenets, social cognitive theory of personality also evolved out of close connections between clinical and personality psychology, essentially addressing differences between normal and abnormal processing involved in basic psychological functioning. Thus, the oldest approaches to personality were tied closely to understanding psychopathology.

In contrast to the traditional individual difference approach, life-span psychology was born only in about the 1970s and reflects the view that human development is a continuous adaptive process (Baltes and Goulet 1970). Life-span psychology aims to identify and illuminate normal developmental changes in all areas of psychological functioning, including but not limited to personality, from birth until death. Perhaps most notably, life-span psychology is distinguished by the presumption that human growth is at no time during the life course complete. Consequently, the different presumptions inherent in the two approaches direct attention to different research foci. Whereas traditional adult personality psychologists ask whether traits acquired in childhood persist across adulthood, whether particular personality crises present themselves at particular stages of life, or how personality disorders are transformed in later life, lifespan psychologists are more likely to target specific age-related issues, like whether people grow wiser with age, whether conceptions of the self-grow more or less complex over time, and whether self-regulatory processes change in systematic ways over time. As noted above, whether one finds evidence for stability or change depends importantly on where one looks and the particular questions one poses.

The next sections include a birdseye view of the earliest approaches to personality development and brief synopses of research on personality development deriving from the trait approach to personality development and from life-span developmental psychology.

3. Early Stage Approaches To Adult Personality Development

Following the tradition established by child develop mentalists, early thinking about adult personality development was rooted in stage theories. Whereas Freud’s psychosexual stage model of personality suggested that personality was formed in early childhood and that, barring long-term psychotherapy, was highly resistant to change, his skeptical follower, Carl Jung, argued that the most interesting aspects of personality do not develop fully until middle age. Jung believed that only after basic biological and reproductive issues are resolved in early adulthood, are people freed to engage in more psychic pursuits. Jung posited that whereas in early adulthood biological imperatives predominate and demand adherence to gender roles, in mid-life feminine and masculine sides of people grow more integrated and spiritual concerns grow more salient. As people age, feelings and intuitions come to dominate thoughts and sensations. Thus, albeit in rather unspecified ways, Jung advanced the position that people developed in adulthood and that spirtuality played an increasingly central role. Jung wrote far less about advanced old age, but suggested that people predictably turned inward and deteriorated psychologically as they approached the end of life and wrestled with fears about death.

In the 1930s and 1940s, in Europe and the US, several stage stages theories, such as that offered by Charlotte Buhler, concretized thinking about adult personality development and allowed for empirical tests of theoretical predictions. Of these, Erik Erikson’s stage theory had the most enduring influence. Like Freud and Jung, Erikson was a classic ego psychologist and his theory was grounded in the psychoanalytic tradition. However, rather than focus on psychosexual needs, Erikson argued that human needs for psychological intimacy fueled systematic development that continued into old age. According to this epigenetic theory, people pass through a fixed sequence of stages during life each of which requires the successful resolution of a central psychic crisis. In early adulthood, the central issue involves the establishment of intimacy. In middle age, generativity, namely the passing on of power and knowledge to younger generations, is achieved or failed. In old age egointegrity vs. despair (self-acceptance of a life lived or regret and dismay) is the focal crisis in life.

In the 1960s and 1970s, major research projects aimed at profiling adult development were undertaken at Yale (Levinson 1978) and Harvard (Vaillant 1977), which continued the stage theory tradition in the US and longitudinal studies undertaken in the 1930s began to come of age. As research participants in the Stanford Terman study of ‘gifted’ children, for example, entered adulthood, researchers began to examine connections between childhood and adult personality. The Child Guidance and Oakland Growth Studies undertaken at the University of California at Berkeley offered resources by which to examine predictable change. At the University of Chicago, a group of social scientists, including Bernice Neugarten, Morton Lieberman, and David Guttman, formalized the study of life-span personality development.

In the end, however, empirical support for stage theories failed to withstand empirical tests. Although interesting patterns were displayed in some very homogenous samples, identified developmental patterns failed to generalize broadly. Critics of stage theories claimed that the patterns that did emerge reflected the influence of consistent surrounding social structures around highly selected groups of people, not human development. Virtually all of the longitudinal studies included predominately (if not exclusively) white, middle-class individuals, often only males. In the 1980s, Costa and McCrae (1990) essentially waged a war against stage theories declaring that personality does not change systematically in adulthood. In a decade dominated by the trait approach to personality, the central and reliable finding of the 1980s was that personality changes little after the age of 30 years.

4. The Trait Approach To Adult Personality Development

Traits are continuous variables represented by broadly encompassing lexical terms that account for individual differences (John 1990). Traits—such as shy, lively, outgoing, anxious, and intelligent—are conceptualized as predispositions within individuals to behave in certain ways manifest across a wide variety of situations. Gordon Allport argued that cardinal traits are those around which a person organizes life (self-sacrifice). Central traits (e.g., honesty) represent major features and secondary traits are specific traits that help to predict behavior more than underlying personality (e.g., dress type, food preferences). Allport’s definition is compatible with modern trait and temperament approaches to personality which attempt to describe people in terms of one or more central features of the person.

Personality psychologists in the trait tradition seek to identify the traits along which people differ and to explore the degree to which these traits predict behavior. Many taxonomies of traits have been offered over the years, but unquestionably the five-factor model is most widely accepted today. Based on factor analysis of self-descriptions, the five traits that emerge reliably across many studies of Europeans and Americans are: (a) openness to experience, (b) conscientiousness, (c) extraversion, (d) agreeableness, and (e) neuroticism.

Traits and temperaments appear to be relatively stable through the second half of life (Costa and McRae 1990). It appears that beyond the age of 30, extraverts remain extraverts and neurotics remain neurotics. Trait theorists have found reliable evidence for stability in personality well into old age. This finding emerges whether researchers ask individuals to describe themselves repeatedly over time or, alternatively, ask significant others, like spouses, to describe those same individuals repeatedly (Costa and McRae 1990). It should be noted that even though persistent rank-order differences remain the same, there is some recent evidence that modest mean level changes may appear, with older adults scoring slightly higher than younger adults on agreeableness and conscientiousness and slightly lower on neuroticism, extraversion, and openness to experience (McCrae et al. 1999). Importantly, similar findings come from studies sampling Asian and European populations. However, identified changes are quite small. Overall, there is remarkable consistency in the characteristics that distinguish individuals from one another over time. There is some evidence that the core set of traits that differentiate people are genetically based and exert their influence throughout the life course (Gatz 1992). Genetic influence is as strong in old age as early adulthood.

In summary, researchers adopting a trait approach to personality development find that along at least some of the important dimensions of personality, there is little change in personality well into old age. Critics of a trait approach, however, argue that traits communicate little about how people manage their lives in day-to-day life and because of the broadband focus exaggerate the consistency of behavior across time and situations. They criticize the trait approach for failing to better predict behavior and redirect focus to specific strategies (e.g., how an individual cognitively appraises a situation; expectancies, subjective values, self-regulatory systems, and competencies). Life-span approaches—influenced strongly by the social cognitive theory of personality (Bandura 1989)—view individuals as agentic creatures who shape their own environments.

5. Life-Span Approaches To Adult Personality Development

Rather than focus on taxonomies of personality, lifespan developmental psychologists view development as a dynamic process aimed at adaptation (Baltes 1987). Two principal stays of life-span theory speak directly to personality. The first states that adaption is always time and space bound. In other words, behavioral adjustment must occur within a particular environmental and social niche. In life cycle context, what is adaptive in infancy and early childhood may not be adaptive in adolescence. Stranger anxiety, for example, may serve a highly adaptive function in infancy because it motivates dependent creatures to stay in close proximity to caregivers. It may also facilitate attachment to primary adult figures, a key developmental task of early life. Yet, stranger anxiety among adults is clearly maladaptive. Similarly, it can be argued that pursuing multiple prospective mates is adaptive in adolescence and early adulthood as people ‘practice’ intimate relationships but less so in middle and old age at which point emotional investment in a select few may hold greater gains than the continual exploration of all possible mates.

The second stay of life-span theory is that development inevitably demands selection (Baltes and Baltes 1990). In order for specialized (i.e., effective) adaptation to occur within a particular social, historical and physical niche, active and passive selections must be made. As people age, they come to have greater choice in the selection of environments and select environments that support their self-views. Throughout adulthood, people actively construct skills and hone environments to meet selected goals. There is good evidence that people narrow their social spheres with age, for example, forming increasingly well contoured social convoys that accompany them throughout life (Carstensen et al. 1999). Caspi and Herbener (1990) found that people tend to choose spouses similar to themselves, and further show that people who have spouses similar to themselves are less likely than people with dissimilar spouses to display personality change in adulthood. Thus, it may be that stability is maintained across the life course because people actively create environments that maintain stability.

Finally, life-span theory holds that development is never fully adaptive because adaptation to one set of circumstances inevitably reduces flexibility to adapt to another. In this way development always entails gains and losses. Subsequently, life-span theory obviates the presumption that antecedent losses are the only or even the primary reasons for changes that occur with age and examines how people’s relative strengths and weaknesses at different points in the life cycle influence successful adaptation.

5.1 Personality Development From A Motivational Perspective

Life-span developmental approaches, because they are rooted in adaptation, lead naturally to consideration of the ways that goals and goal attainment may change throughout the life course (Baltes and Baltes 1990, Brandtstadter et al. 1999, Carstensen et al. 1999). Motivational psychologists presume that there is continuity in basic human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy across the life course. There is every reason to expect, for example, that regardless of age, people seek to control their worlds.

Researchers who take a goal-focused approach have brought a different set of findings to bear on discussions of personality and aging, showing that goals and preferences do change with age and influence behavior. Carstensen and co-workers, for example, have shown that the perception of time left in life importantly influences social goals. Because aging is inextricably and positively associated with limitations on future time, older people and younger people differ in the goals they pursue (Carstensen et al. 1999). Older people are more likely to pursue emotionally meaningful goals whereas younger people are more likely to pursue goals that expand their horizons or generate new social contacts. Brandtstadter et al. (1999) argue that people adjust goal strivings to accommodate external and internal constraints placed on goal achievement at different points in the life cycle; a central finding coming out of this line of work, for example, is that older people respond to the loss of resources in advanced age by downgrading the importance of some previously desirable goals.

5.2 Emotion And Personality

Another way of conceptualizing personality, which is particularly conducive to life-span approaches, places emotional experience and emotional regulation at the core. In this view, emotions are not related simply to personality, they are the essence of personality (Carstensen et al. in press, Rothbart and Derryberry 1981). The emotions people feel when they face challenges, and the effectiveness with which they learn to regulate their emotions, are the cardinal components of personality development, forming the basis of individual differences in persistent tendencies to behave, think and feel in day-to-day life. Individual differences in the propensity to experience specific emotions influence not only the psychological and biological reactivity of the person in the moment, but come to influence conscious choices about preferred environments, behavioral styles, and also determine the social partners to which people are drawn.

Ryff (1995) has taken a differentiated approach to understanding emotions and well-being across the life-span. Rather than calculating global positive and negative affect as indicators of psychological wellbeing, Ryff conceptualizes well-being in terms of self-acceptance, environmental mastery, purpose in life, personal growth, positives relations with others, and autonomy. The dimensions appear to have differential relationships with age, with older adults scoring higher than younger adults on Environmental Mastery and Autonomy, but lower on Purpose in Life and Personal Growth. There also appear to be lifespan developmental trajectories concerning the relationship between people’s conception of their present status and their ideal selves along these dimensions. Older people tend to have less distance between their actual and ideal selves than do younger adults.

An emotion approach to personality has particularly intriguing implications for adult development because in adulthood emotions appear to grow more complex (Carstensen et al. in press) and emotion regulation appears to improve (Gross et al. 1997). With advancing age, the emotion-cognitionpersonality system also appears to become moredifferentiated, with emotions becoming linked to an ever-increasing array of cognitions. To the extent that such changes influence motivation (e.g., Izard and Ackerman 1998), modify thinking and reasoning (Labouvie-Vief et al. 1989), or result in qualitative changes in subjective well-being (Ryff 1995), personality is importantly influenced.

5.3 Wisdom And Resilience

As noted above, the focus on adaptative development inherent in life-span approaches generates questions about the ways in which aging people adjust to changing resources and changing contexts. There is a delicate balance between gains and losses that occurs in the second half of life that have important implications for personality. As people enter advanced ages, nearly inevitably they encounter increasingly difficult challenges, including the deaths of friends and loved ones, assaults on physical health, and threats to social status. At the same time as experience in life increases, perspectives change. In some ironic way, the familiarity of losses may even make losses easier to take. Considerable focus in lifespan psychology, thus, has been on the ways that people effectively adjust in later adulthood. Resilience (Staudinger et al. 1995) and wisdom (Staudinger 1999) have been particular targets of interest because they involve the use of age-based experience to compensate for losses in circumscribed domains. Studies of wisdom, for example, show that contrary to popular lore, wisdom is unrelated to age in adulthood (Staudinger 1999). Even though experience-based knowledge does increase with age, wisdom requires a complex array of abilities that draw on multiple functions, some of which decline. Under optimal conditions, old age may be the time in life for wisdom to best emerge, but it does not do so normatively.

6. Integration Of Approaches And Findings About Adult Personality Development

Does continuity or change in personality best characterize adulthood? The answer is a qualified ‘yes’ to both continuity and change. Along some basic descriptive dimensions, such as openness to experience and extraversion, people remain remarkably consistent in adulthood. However, in other domains just as central to personality, such as motivation and adaption, there is evidence for systematic change across adulthood. Goals change predictably with age, emotion regulation appears to improve, and wellbeing takes on different qualities.

7. Future Directions

The fundamental challenge that confronted personality researchers a century ago remains largely the same today: predicting and understanding individual differences in behavior. Students of adult personality development face the additional challenge of understanding how the differences that distinguish one person from another may change systematically over time. Although considerable progress has been made, the bulk of empirical findings generated simply show that prevalent assumptions about adult personality development in the twentieth century were wrong. For example, people do not appear to pass normatively through a fixed series of stages; and along broadband dimensions characterized as basic traits, people change very little in the second half of life. Approaches that focus on motivation and emotion are newer, but initial findings suggest that they may shed considerable light on ways that individuals change in middle and old age. Finally, at the time of this writing, the human genome project very recently was declared complete. Few, if any, scientists expect that genetic findings alone will shed much light on personality. However, they may well help to do away with customary language and algorithms (such as ‘heritability coefficients’) that have given credence tacitly to the idea that environmental and biological influences can be cleanly separated. Whereas in past decades, substantial discussion has centered around whether biology or environment was most influential in personality development, personality researchers will now begin to address the more interesting and more important puzzle which lies in the interaction between the two.


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