“Mr. President, I want to raise an issue that I think has been around for two or three weeks and present it specifically in terms of national security …” said journalist Henry Trewhitt, staring seriously at US President Ronald Reagan.
It was October 1984, and Reagan was on the debating circuit, fighting to stay in office for a second term.
A few weeks earlier he had performed poorly against his main rival.
It was rumored then that, at 73, he was simply too old for the job.
At the time, Reagan was already the oldest president in American history, a record that has been surpassed by Donald Trump (74) and now by current president Joe Biden, 78.
Laughter and overwhelming victory
Trewhitt wanted to know if Reagan had any doubts about whether he could function in stressful circumstances.
“No, none, Trehwitt,” Reagan replied, holding back a smile.
“And I want you to know that I am not going to make age an issue in this campaign either. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, the youth and inexperience of my opponent.”
His response was met with raucous laughter and applause, which preceded a landslide victory in the election.
Reagan’s joke, however, contained more truth than he knew then.
Not only did he have experience on his side, he also had a “mature personality”.
We are all familiar with the physical transformation that aging brings: the skin loses its elasticity, the gums recede, our nose grows, the hairs sprout in peculiar places – while they disappear completely from other parts – and those precious centimeters of height Those we cling to begin to disappear.
Now, after decades of research on the effects of aging, scientists have begun to discover more mysterious changes.
“The conclusion is exactly this: that we are not the same person throughout our lives,” says Ren Mttus, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh.
Most of us would like to think of our personality as relatively stable throughout our lives. But various research suggests that this is not the case.
Our traits are constantly changing, and by the time we enter our 70s and 80s, we have undergone a significant transformation.
The gradual modification of our personality has some surprising advantages.
We become more mindful, agreeable, and less neurotic.
Levels of the so-called “Dark Trada” personality traits – Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopath – also tend to decline, and with them, our risk of engaging in antisocial behaviors such as crime and substance abuse.
Research has shown that we become more selfless and trusting people. Our willpower increases and we develop a better sense of humor.
Finally, the elderly have more control over their emotions.
It’s certainly a winning combination, and one that indicates that the stereotype that older people are grumpy and curmudgeonly needs to be revised.
Our personalities are fluid and malleable
Far from settling in childhood, or around 30 years old – as the scientific community thought for years – our personalities seem to be fluid and malleable.
“People become nicer and more socially adapted,” says Mttus.
“They are increasingly able to balance their own life expectancies with the demands of society.”
Psychologists call the process of change that occurs as we age “personality maturation.”
It is a gradual and imperceptible change that begins in our adolescence and continues until at least our eighth decade on the planet.
Interestingly, it appears to be universal: the trend is seen in all human cultures, from Guatemala to India.
“It is generally controversial to make value judgments about these personality changes,” says Rodica Damian, a social psychologist at the University of Houston, USA.
“But at the same time, we have evidence that they are beneficial.”
For example, lack of emotional stability has been linked to mental health problems, higher death rates, and divorces.
Meanwhile, Damian explains that the partner of someone with a high degree of consciousness is likely to be happier, because these people are more likely to wash dishes on time and are less likely to cheat on their partner.
A more stable side of our personality
It turns out that while our personality changes in a certain direction as we age, who we are in relation to other people in the same age group tends to remain fairly stable.
For example, a person’s level of neurosis is likely to decline overall, but the 11-year-olds who are the most neurotic are still generally the 81-year-olds who are the most neurotic.
“There is a basis of who we are in the sense that we maintain our rank in relation to other people to some extent,” says Damian.
“But in relation to ourselves, our personality is not set in stone, we can change.”
How do these personality changes develop?
Since personality maturation is universal, some scientists think that, far from being an accidental side effect of having had more time to learn social norms, the ways in which our personality changes could be genetically programmed, perhaps even shaped by evolutionary forces.
On the other hand, other experts believe that our personality is partly forged by genetic factors and then sculpted by social pressures throughout our lives.
For example, research by Wiebke Bleidorn, a personality psychologist at the University of California, found that in cultures where people were expected to mature faster (in terms of getting married, starting work, taking on adult responsibilities), their personalities they tend to mature at a younger age.
“People are simply forced to change their behavior and become more responsible over time. Our personalities change to help us cope with life’s challenges,” Damian says.
But what happens when we get very old?
There are two possible ways to study how we change throughout our lives.
The first is to take a large group of people of many different ages and then observe how their personalities differ.
One problem with this strategy is that it is easy to accidentally confuse generational traits that have been sculpted by the culture of a particular time period – such as prudence or an inexplicable adoration for custard and sherry – with the changes that occur as they occur. one grows old.
The alternative is to take the same group of people and study them as they grow.
This is exactly what happened to the Lothian Birth Cohort, a group of people in Scotland who had their personality and intelligence traits examined in June 1932 or June 1947, when they were still in the school.
At that time, the people were about 11 years old.
Together with colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, Mttus tracked down hundreds of the same people when they were 70 or 80, and gave them two more identical tests, several years apart.
“Because we had two different groups of people, and they were both measured twice, we were able to use both strategies at the same time,” says Mttus.
It was fortunate, because the results were noticeably different for the two generations.
While the personalities of the younger group remained more or less the same overall, the personality traits of the older group begin to change, so that, on average, they became less open and outgoing, as well as less personable and conscientious.
The beneficial changes that had been occurring throughout their lives began to reverse themselves.
“I think this makes sense, because in old age things start to happen to people at a faster rate,” says Mttus, who points out that the health of these people may have been in decline and it is likely that they have begun to lose. friends and family.
“This has some impact on their active participation in the world.”
No one has yet investigated whether this trend will continue beyond 100 years.
Research on centenarian Japanese has found that they tend to score high on awareness, extroversion, and openness, but they may have had more of these characteristics to begin with, and perhaps this even contributed to their longevity.
In fact, our personality is intrinsically linked to our well-being as we age.
For example, those with greater self-control are more likely to be healthy in adulthood, women with higher levels of neurosis are more likely to experience symptoms during menopause, and some degree of narcissism has been associated with lower rates of loneliness, which in itself is a risk factor for earlier death.
In the future, understanding how certain traits are linked to our health – and how we can expect our personality to evolve throughout our lives – could help predict who is most at risk for certain health problems and be able to intervene.
The knowledge that our personality changes throughout our lives, whether we like it or not, is a useful test of how malleable they are.
“It’s important that we know this,” Damian considers. “For a long time, people thought no.”
“Now we are seeing that our personality can adapt, and this helps us face the challenges that life presents us,” he adds.
At the very least, it gives us all something to look forward to as we age and a chance to discover who we will become.