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Awkward Teens, Rejoice: You’re A Completely Different Person At 77 Than You Are At 14

For better (or maybe for worse), there’s very little stability in people’s personalities as they age.

Awkward Teens, Rejoice: You’re A Completely Different Person At 77 Than You Are At 14
[Photo: Catherine Ledner/Getty Images]

There are certainly scarier things in life than being asked to produce photos of your teenage self, but having to relive adolescence is, for many, an experience rife with unparalleled awkwardness. Because underneath the braces and questionable fashion choices, there lurks an unavoidable question: Am I really still anything like that gawky human?

According to science, the answer is (mercifully) no, not really. The longest-ever personality study, the results of which were published recently in Psychology and Aging, found virtually no correlation between peoples’ personalities at age 14 and at age 77. Put another way: It might take 63 years, but you will, eventually, shed all traces of your awkward middle-school self.

To arrive at this conclusion, researchers at the University of Edinburgh looked at a survey done in 1950 in Scotland, where schoolteachers were asked to fill out six questionnaires rating 1,208 14-year-olds on six different personality traits: self-confidence, perseverance, stability of moods, conscientiousness, originality, and desire to learn. Collectively, the results were combined to produce an overall rating for a term the researchers defined as “dependability.”

[Photo: Lonnie Duka/Getty Images]

In 2012, the University of Edinburgh researchers embarked on a mission to track down as many of those original 1,208 teens–now in their late 70s–as possible. They found 635; 174 agreed to retake the personality tests, and they also selected a close friend or relative to rate them on the same six traits, filling in for the role of the teacher.

We tend to think of the self as something innate and relatively stable; we know that we change over time in response to circumstances and experience, but we tend to hold onto the belief that the person we are, at the core, remains the same.

But no, you are not nearly that resolute. “Correlations suggested no significant stability of any of the six characteristics or their underlying factor, dependability, over the 63-year interval,” the researchers wrote. This was a surprise: They had expected to find at least some measure of consistency over the span of a lifetime.

That assumption was based on previous personality studies, done over shorter periods of time: A 1979 study of 281 middle-aged men found moderate to strong stability in personality traits measured across three decades of later adulthood, and a 2006 study tracked a group of 2000 Hawaiians, first tested in adolescence, over 40 years and also found modest correlation for openness, conscientiousness, and extraversion.

While the idea that personality might change this radically over a lifetime is fascinating, an analysis of the University of Edinburgh report in the British Psychological Society Research Digest points out a handful of potential methodological flaws that make the results tough to take at face value: The teachers’ assessments of their pupils were likely biased by knowledge of their students’ academic achievements, and only a very small number of the original 1,208 teens agreed to participate in the follow-up.

Still, taking these results as evidence for the possibility of change, you can look at these findings in one of two ways: with trepidation, if you’d rather imagine yourself as a constant throughout your life, or with excitement–because not even you can predict how you’ll turn out as you approach your 80s.

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