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Can You Change Your Personality After 30?

Attention, twentysomethings: Now is the time to change yourself for the better, if ever. Because if you’re older than 30, there’s a good chance your personality will stay more or less the same for the remainder of your life, studies say. That might seem like terribly uninspiring news, but it does have its loopholes.

Brian Little, a University of Cambridge psychology lecturer and author of Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, told Melissa Dahl at Science of Us that by the age of 30, a personality is “half-plastered.” The five prominent personality traits psychologists consider are openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—traits that don’t fluctuate according to moods, but are most likely core characteristics, with about 40 to 50 percent of our personality coming from genes. In fact, certain traits can show up within days of being born, although evolve quite rapidly throughout childhood.

Yes, there’s a strong genetic component to our personality that’s generally stable throughout our lives. That doesn’t mean it’s fixed, exactly, but that the rate of change greatly slows compared to childhood, adolescence, and your early twenties. It becomes more consistent. Dahl also quotes Paul T. Costa at the National Institutes of Health, who said, “What you see at 35, 40 is what you’re going to see at 85, 90.” Yikes.

Still, it’s not a rigid timeline: “There’s nothing magical about age 30,” Costa said. Rather, it’s about maturity, with the 30s being a developmental arc: It’s likely college is over, most of the “firsts” are over, and life generally becomes a little more settled—so, too, does your personality.

But it’s nothing a little faking can’t fix. Little argues that we can still choose to act against our natures. Our basic personality traits may not change, but our behavior and how we choose to express ourselves can decidedly be at odds with our true selves if the situation calls for it. An example, he said, would be an introvert playing the part at a social event, or a disagreeable person just trying to be nice.

“Acting out of character,” as it’s known, comes more naturally the more it’s practiced. Little warns, however, that too much of this can cause anxiety—heart starts pounding, muscles get tense—a typical stress reaction. Consider how an introvert might need some “alone time” to recharge after playing the part of a social butterfly for a while, he said.

From 30 to 90, milestones will occur, no doubt, and be the catalysts that could soften your heart, instill cynicism, or dramatically change your outlook on life: marriage, children, heartbreak, deaths, success, failure. Certain personality traits may eventually just be a part of who you are, but it’s how you express them and the choices you make that unlock the genetic shackles.

Image by Torrie, licensed under Creative Commons.