UI professor links aging, personality in research

Psychology professor Brent Roberts was quoted in an issue of Psychology Today concerning his research linking personality development and aging. John Paul Goguen

Psychology professor Brent Roberts was quoted in an issue of Psychology Today concerning his research linking personality development and aging. John Paul Goguen

By Amanda Graf

Here is a conversation starter for your next dinner party: If someone offered you $5,000 today or $10,000 next year, which would you choose? The answers might reveal something about your friends’ personalities or impulse control, but do not put too much stock in them. People’s responses could be completely different in a few years.

Brent Roberts, associate professor of psychology at the University, was recently referenced in a Psychology Today article due to his research on personality traits and aging. The article detailed how readers could achieve a level of “healthy hedonism.”

“It’s OK to be the center of attention,” Lia Nower, associate professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, told “Psychology Today.” “But if you have a solid self-concept and know who you are, you aren’t constantly looking for people or experiences to define you.”

According to Roberts’ research, it may get easier to achieve a balance between show-boating and self assurance as you age.

Roberts told the magazine that “counter-hedonistic qualities such as impulse control and traits increase in young adulthood (ages 20 to 40), midlife and old age.”

Roberts’ research goes beyond the observation that a middle-aged housewife might have more impulse control than a college student. He studied how people’s personality traits change throughout a lifetime.

“Some people claim that people stop changing once you reach adulthood per se, with the age of adulthood being something of a moving target, most recently located by some colleagues at age 30, so we were curious to see whether personality traits continue to change after that age,” Roberts said.

The American Psychology Association cited a study by researchers Sanjay Srivastava, Ph.D., and Oliver P. John, Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, which said, “average levels of personality traits changed gradually but systematically throughout the lifespan, sometimes even more after age 30 than before. Increasing conscientiousness and agreeableness and decreasing neuroticism in adulthood may indicate increasing maturity – people becoming on the average better adapted as they get older, well into middle age.”

Roberts found that the trait of conscientiousness changes the most as a person ages.

Now, Roberts studies how conscientiousness changes. The first study showed that the facet of conscientiousness that changes the most is impulse control, which changed the most and more consistently than other traits. He said impulse control is typically presumed to be a part of a person’s temperament, which is thought to be less likely to change, but his findings show that it can change greatly over time.

Changes in societal expectations could be a reason for these long-term personality changes.

“In terms of conscientiousness, teenagers for the most part are not expected to be conscientious. And college students are still not expected to be that conscientious. The increase occurs later, as you transition into the adult social roles,” Roberts said. If society doesn’t expect a young person to be conscientious, there is little motivation to do so.

One study showed that kids who were considered go-getters and naturally responsible were not thriving at the age of 18 because they were not acting “appropriately” according to the standards for their age.

By age 26, they were flourishing because their development stage matched society’s expectations.

Roberts explained that lowered expectations are not necessarily counter-productive.

Considering the protective environment of college, he said, “I see the university in a domain in which the expectations aren’t quite as high for conscientiousness. It’s much more focused on being more open and understanding different ideas and different perspectives.”

At the same time, he said these findings are not a justification for irrational behavior.

“It’s not just a carte blanche so people can go ahead and be impulsive,” Roberts said. “I wouldn’t necessarily take the findings as an endorsement of what should happen but what is happening, and then we can decide as a society whether that’s something we like or something we don’t like.”