Positive Plasticity

What’s it about?

The human development is characterized by an enormous plasticity over the course of a lifetime. However, knowledge about the plasticity of personality development in adults is rather limited i.e. how individual personality traits are modified depending on their use. This seems to be the result of a debate within the field regarding whether personality develops at all after the age of 30, let alone whether plasticity is possible in later life stages.

What was investigated?

The aim of the study was to find out more about the plasticity of personality characteristics of older adults (62+). Therefore, the following questions were central: Is it possible to facilitate a specific personality characteristic, in our case the openness for new experiences? And if so, are there certain personal and contextual resources that stimulate positive change? In our study we investigated whether people with higher internal control beliefs (personal resource) could be successfully prepared for a challenging volunteering activity by means of a specific training program (contextual resource).

What are the main findings?

As a matter of fact, changes with regard to openness could be observed with test persons. It was proven that there is a plasticity of the personality even in older adulthood. Moreover, we discovered that the positive effect of the training measures was only manifested after a longer time period. Especially those individuals with higher internal control beliefs showed an increased openness towards new experiences after training. This points out that the actual application of learned skills – in our case during the volunteering exercise – played an important role for developing openness.

What are the implications?

Openness is a personality characteristic that helps people try out new roles. This characteristic is especially important in retirement age. During this life period people are often faced with the challenge to find new fields of activity and engagement. Openness could therefore contribute to more life satisfaction in older age. A combination of certain personal resources and contextual factors that help people prepare for new tasks is decisive to increase openness. This knowledge could also be used to develop training measures for older adults. Not only individuals will benefit from this, but also societies of longer living.

More information:
Personality Plasticity in Later Adulthood: Contextual and Personal Resources Are Needed to Increase Openness to New Experiences

Skirbekk, V., Stonawski, M., Bonsang, E., & Staudinger, U. M. (2013). The Flynn Effect and Population Aging. Intelligence, 41(3), 169-177. view PDF

Research on Positive Plasticity at the Columbia Aging Center

Watch Ursula Staudinger’s talk at the GCRI on Cognitive Plasticity in Adulthood.