Can Life Events Change Your Personality?
By: Gogi Francis
Can Life Events Change Your Personality?
Probably, but we can’t predict how.
Posted March 20, 2022 | By: René Mõttus Ph.D.
- Although personality trait change is common, it is surprisingly unpredictable from ordinary life experiences.
- This may be because many experiences contribute to each change, people react to them differently, or both.
- It can be comforting that our traits are not at the mercy of individual events that life throws at us.
Personality trait change is common. For example, if we think of people as low, medium, or high in a personality trait, about a third of them will swap their levels over the next few years.
Most psychologists assume that how people behave, think, and feel is shaped by their experiences. If so, we should also expect that personality traits change due to changes in life circumstances.
But this has been surprisingly difficult to prove. For example, there is almost no clear evidence that ordinary life events that can happen to most people change their personality traits in predictable ways.
Some studies have reported that events like divorce, becoming a widow, or starting a career can cause trait change, but these effects have been tiny and rarely confirmed by other studies. Severe traumatic events may have stronger effects on personality, but they are rare and can’t explain why trait change is so common.
If this sounds puzzling, you are in good company—most personality psychologists didn’t expect this finding either. So, what is going on?
A Psychologist’s Dream
Ideally, psychologists would love to have a catalog of life experiences that shape personality traits in a predictable way.
For example, they—and surely, employers—might like to see that starting a career makes most people more conscientious. They would love to see unmistakable evidence that starting a long-term relationship makes most people more agreeable and less neurotic. And when someone becomes more neurotic, they would like to be able to put this down to a negative event like divorce, job loss, or the death of a loved one.
Psychologists could then predict how people change as they experience one or another event. Perhaps they could reduce undesirable changes by eliminating the experiences responsible for them, or at least by buffering their effects with interventions.
But It Hasn’t Turned Out That Way
In one of the strongest studies yet, the personality traits of thousands of Dutch adults were followed for several years. There was little evidence that life events like marriage, childbirth, divorce, or widowhood caused predictable and lasting personality changes.
Other such studies haven’t had much more luck. Where traits are linked with the likelihood of events, it is usually because people with certain traits come to experience them rather than the events changing the traits.
This pattern is consistent with other kinds of research. For example, living in the same family doesn’t make kids’ personalities much more similar, and partners’ traits don’t become more similar over time. And, contrary to a popular myth, birth order doesn’t matter for personality.
In part, this surprising lack of evidence may be blamed on research limitations, but this is unlikely to be the full story. If life experiences really shaped people’s personality traits in profound and predictable ways, researchers would have identified at least some of their effects by now.
Why is Change So Elusive?
This lack of evidence doesn’t automatically mean that ordinary experiences don’t influence personality traits at all. Trait change is common and something has to cause it, after all.
But the effects may just be unpredictable:
- Each change may result from many small and subtle causes, so finding them will require more sophisticated research. Measuring personality traits and multiple experiences in many thousands of people at numerous time points may gradually reveal such associations. But even if this happens, these small and subtle effects still leave trait change in any given individual largely unpredictable.
- Experiences may influence people in different ways. Some may take divorce as a painful experience that causes a lasting increase in neuroticism. Others may feel liberated, becoming more gregarious and open-minded. If so, trait change in any given individual remains unpredictable from merely experiencing certain events.
- It may not be external events that change people, but people themselves may desire to change and often achieve this, either with or without help.
- Some trait changes may be just random, without any explanation to be found.
A Gloomy Prospect or a Humanistic One?
Several decades ago, Robert Plomin and Denise Daniels wrote: “One gloomy prospect is that the salient environment might be unsystematic, idiosyncratic, or serendipitous events… Such capricious events, however, are likely to prove a dead end for research.”
When it comes to predicting personality trait change from ordinary life events, that gloomy prospect may have come to pass. Life events may change us, but not in predictable ways.
But I see a more humanistic message in this:
- If our personalities were predictably molded by the lottery of experiences that life happens to throw at us, this could be pretty unfair. Imagine one person losing their job and declining in self-confidence as a result, while their friend enjoys a stable work experience and becomes ever more self-confident.
- Instead, if most personality changes have many causes, good and bad influences can even out in the long run.
- If it is our unique reactions to these influences that ultimately matter, we are not passive recipients of whatever is thrown at us. Instead, we have an active role in whether and how events change us. And our own traits often matter for which events we come across, for better or worse.
As a researcher, I agonize over the gloomy prospect. I would love to identify the life experiences that make personality trait change so common.
But as an individual, I would not like to see my traits being predictably pushed or pulled by events that happen to come my way. Nor would I like policymakers designing clever interventions to mess around with my traits, however good their intentions.
My traits and their changes are mine, thank you.