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Jekyll and Hyde? Studies differ on ability to change personality as you age


My friend Lisa was emphatic: "This year, I'm going to vote for a real person for president. I'm not going to write in 'Mickey Mouse.'

"I figure, it's about time I grew up and voted for a real person, even if I don't like him."

At age 39, gregarious, bubble-gum-chewing, fashion-fad-crazy Lisa says she's going to attempt to become serious, thoughtful and responsible.

It's doubtful.

Come Nov. 3, she may vote for George Bush, Bill Clinton or Ross Perot, but she'll still be Lisa: Wearing T-shirts, riding motorcycles and taking college classes.

A growing wealth of research and an increasing number of psychologists and therapists agree: An individual's personality, it seems, is firmly rooted and resistant to change by the time one turns 30. Despite how much you want to change, you may not be able to.

You can transform yourself dramatically at age 5 or 15 or 25. But when you look in the mirror at 35, you're seeing the real you -- the person you'll still be at 45, 60 and 80.

"The best predictor of what people will be like tomorrow is what they're like today," says psychologist Paul T. Costa Jr., a noted personality researcher at the National Institute on Aging. "Personality stops changing after age 30. It becomes fixed. If you're an introvert at 30, you still will be at 60. If you're feminine at 30, you won't be masculine at 60."

If this is bad news, don't write yourself off just yet. Some human development experts take a softer stance, saying you can change some aspects of your personality. And other preliminary research suggests certain life events -- usually personal catastrophes -- offer "windows of opportunity" to change.

Finally, experts say psychotherapy or other counseling can still help change your life or how you feel.

Married just weeks after college graduation, Megan and Jon were full of optimism about their future. After 16 years of marriage and two children, they recently divorced.

"He just really, really changed," she says. "It's so sad."

It's also not surprising, according to the slew of studies that have followed individuals for several decades. What Mr. Costa and other psychologists have found is that sometime in your 20s the wet plaster of your personality mold begins to harden. Several studies even indicate the cast sets at age 27.

From about age 30 to 35, Mr. Costa says, "there is enough of a settling in so we can't say it's set. But, in general, from personality measurements at age 30, we can predict happiness levels 20 years later."

Political attitudes, he says, are often the last aspect to change and settle.

The studies should serve notice to people in their 20s to consider whether they are ready to make important decisions in their lives, such as their choice of mates or careers.

"If there are aspects of themselves they recognize and don't like, they should deal with those first," Mr. Costa says. "It's like putting on a good pair of walking shoes before you take that long walk."

But, if you're 35 or older and wondering what kind of old person you'll be, look at yourself now, says Mr. Costa, who has directed one of the longest-running personality studies with colleague Robert McCrae.

The buoyant, outgoing, agreeable, conscientious 35-year-old woman does not become the depressed, cranky, disagreeable 75-year-old, he says. "But if you're prone to distress, angry and irritable and unhappy with most things at 30, you are unlikely to be any different at 50 or 70."

Mr. Costa dismisses the popular notion that some adults endure sudden, unexpected midlife crises that transform their personalities. Only individuals who frequently experience identity crises will experience one at midlife, he says.

But other personality experts say that adults continually develop, even if only in small gradations.

"A lot of this [debate] depends on how you define personality," says psychologist Revenna Helson.

Mr. Costa's study defines personality in very broad terms, measuring such basic traits as neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

But in a 31-year study of 140 individuals as they aged, Ms. Helson looked at traits like independence, assertiveness and dominance.

She found substantial change.

Ms. Helson, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley's Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, says people change through typical adult experiences -- marriage, becoming a parent, divorce. She argues a 30-year-old introvert can still be that way at age 60, but perhaps become more assertive.

"There are a lot of implications to this," she says. "I think the idea that we have a little capacity to change makes our reflectiveness seem meaningful. It gives us hope and confidence and without which we would be able to change less."

Therapy can help people lead more fulfilling lives, Ms. Helson says, even if it can't change basic personality.

There are other exceptions to the no-change concept of personality.

People with neurological illnesses, such as Alzheimer's, undergo dramatic personality change. Religious conversions can also influence personality. And, a new study suggests that catastrophic events, such as developing a serious illness or losing a loved one, can change people.

In a study of people who said they had experienced significant positive or negative events, psychologist Richard G. Tedeschi and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found that negative events, in particular, can change people.

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