Middle Adulthood: Generativity, Intelligence, Personality

Learning Objectives: Middle Adulthood

  • Describe Erikson’s developmental task of middle adulthood, generativity vs. stagnation.
    • Describe how the perception of time changes as we age.
    • Explain why “midlife crisis” is not an appropriate interpretation of middle adulthood.
  • Describe how differences between cross-sectional, longitudinal, and sequential research designed have contributed to our understanding of the development of intelligence.
    • Define crystallized and fluid intelligence.
    • Explain how intelligence changes with age.
  • Define creativity. Describe the stages in the creative process.
    • Discuss how creativity changes with age, and how we can promote creativity.
  • Explain why work is important to middle-aged adults.
    • Identify expertise and describe why it is important.
    • Explain the importance of everyday problem-solving in work competence.
    • Describe how ageism shows up at work and discuss research findings on ageism in the workplace.
  • List and define the five factors of the Big Five personality inventory.
    • Describe how personality develops over time.
    • Explain the stability that is often found in personality over time.
    • Describe the causes of personality change over time.

Developmental Task of Middle Age: Generativity vs. Stagnation

According to Erikson (1950, 1982) generativity encompasses procreativity, productivity, creativity, and legacy. This stage includes the generation of new beings, new ideas or creations, and lasting contributions, as well as self-generation concerned with further identity development. Erikson believed that the stage of generativity, which lasts from the 40s to the 60s, during which one established a family and career, was the longest of all the stages. Individuals at midlife are primarily concerned with leaving a positive legacy of themselves, and parenthood is the primary generative type. Erikson understood that work and family relationships may be in conflict due to the obligations and responsibilities of each, but he believed it was overall a positive developmental time. In addition to being parents and working, Erikson also described individuals as being involved in the community during this stage, for example, providing mentoring, coaching, community service, or taking leadership in church or other community organizations. A sense of stagnation occurs when one is not active in generative matters, however, stagnation can motive a person to redirect energies into more meaningful activities.

Erikson identified “virtues” for each of his eight stages, and the virtue emerging when one achieves generativity is “care”. Erikson believed that those in middle adulthood should “take care of the persons, the products, and the ideas one has learned to care for” (Erikson, 1982, p. 67). Further, Erikson believed that the strengths gained from the six earlier stages are essential for the generational task of cultivating strength in the next generation. Erikson further argued that generativity occurred best after the individual had resolved issues of identity and intimacy (Peterson & Duncan, 2007).

Research has demonstrated that generative adults possess many positive characteristics, including good cultural knowledge and healthy adaptation to the world (Peterson & Duncan, 2007). Using the Big 5 personality traits, generative women and men scored high on conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, and low on neuroticism (de St. Aubin & McAdams, 1995; Peterson, Smirles, & Wentworth, 1997). Additionally, women scoring higher on generativity at age 52, were rated higher in positive personality characteristics, reported higher satisfaction with marriage and motherhood, and showed more successful aging at age 62 (Peterson & Duncan, 2007). Similarly, men rated higher on generativity at midlife also showed stronger global cognitive functioning (e.g., memory, attention, calculation), stronger executive functioning (e.g., response inhibition, abstract thinking, cognitive flexibility), and lower levels of depression in late adulthood (Malone, Liu, Vaillant, Rentz, & Waldinger, 2016).

Erikson (1982) indicated that at the end of this demanding stage, individuals may withdraw as generativity is no longer expected in late adulthood. This releases elders from the task of caretaking or working. However, not feeling needed or challenged may result in stagnation, and consequently one should not fully withdraw from generative tasks as they enter Erikson’s last stage in late adulthood.

Challenges at Midlife

There are many socioemotional changes that occur in how middle-aged adults perceive themselves. While people in their early 20s may emphasize how old they are to gain respect or to be viewed as experienced, by the time people reach their 40s they tend to emphasize how young they are. For instance, few 40-year olds cut each other down for being so young stating: “You’re only 43? I’m 48!” A previous focus on the future gives way to an emphasis on the present. Neugarten (1968) notes that in midlife, people no longer think of their lives in terms of how long they have lived. Rather, life is thought of in terms of how many years are left.

Woman smiling while holding a s'more
Figure 9.1

Midlife Crisis? Daniel Levinson’s 1978 book entitled The Seasons of a Man’s Life presented a theory of development in adulthood. Levinson’s work was based on in-depth interviews with 40 men between the ages of 35-45. Levinson (1978) indicated that adults go through stages and have an image of the future that motivates them. This image is called “the dream” and for the men interviewed, it was a dream of how their career paths would progress and where they would be at midlife. According to Levinson the midlife transition (40-45) was a time of reevaluating previous commitments; making dramatic changes if necessary; giving expression to previously ignored talents or aspirations; and feeling more of a sense of urgency about life and its meaning. By the time these men entered middle adulthood (45-50), they generally had committed to the new choices they made and channeled their energies into these commitments.

Levinson believed that a midlife crisis was a normal part of development as the person is more aware of how much time has gone by and how much time is left. The future focus of early adulthood gives way to an emphasis on the present in midlife, and the men interviewed had difficulty reconciling the “dream” they held about the future with the reality they currently experienced. Consequently, they felt impatient and were no longer willing to postpone the things they had always wanted to do. Although Levinson believed his research demonstrated the existence of a midlife crisis, his work has been criticized for its research methodology, including its focus on men only, its small sample size, narrow age range, and concerns about a cohort effect. In fact, other research does not support his theory of the midlife crisis.

Vaillant (2012) believed that it was the cross-sectional design of Levinson’s study that led to the erroneous conclusion of an inevitable midlife crisis. Instead, he believed that the longitudinal study of an individual’s entire life was needed to determine the factors associated with optimum health and potential. Vaillant was one of the main researchers in the 75 year long Harvard Study of Adult Development, and he considered a midlife crisis to be a rare occurrence among the participants (Vaillant, 1977). Additional findings of this longitudinal study will be discussed in the next chapter on late adulthood.

Most research suggests that the majority of people in the United States today do not experience a midlife crisis. Results of a 10-year longitudinal study conducted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, based on telephone interviews with over 3,000 midlife adults, suggest that the years between 40 and 60 are typically marked by a sense of well-being. Only 23% of their participants reported experiencing a midlife crisis. The crisis tended to occur among highly educated men and was typically triggered by a major life event rather than out of a fear of aging (Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, 2007).

Intelligence in Middle Adulthood

The brain at midlife has been shown to not only maintain many of the abilities of young adults, but also gain new ones. Some individuals in middle age actually have improved cognitive functioning (Phillips, 2011). The brain continues to demonstrate plasticity and rewires itself in middle age based on experiences. Research has demonstrated that older adults use more of their brains than younger adults. In fact, older adults who perform the best on tasks are more likely to demonstrate bilateralization than those who perform worst. Additionally, the amount of white matter in the brain, which is responsible for forming connections among neurons, increases into the 50s before it declines.

Emotionally, the middle-aged brain is calmer, less neurotic, more capable of managing emotions, and better able to negotiate social situations (Phillips, 2011). Older adults tend to focus more on positive information and less on negative information than do younger adults. In fact, they also remember positive images better than those younger. Additionally, the older adult’s amygdala responds less to negative stimuli. Lastly, adults in middle adulthood make better financial decisions, a capacity which seems to peak at age 53, and show better economic understanding. Although greater cognitive variability occurs among middle aged adults when compared to those both younger and older, those in midlife who experience cognitive improvements tend to be more physically, cognitively, and socially active.

Crystalized versus Fluid Intelligence. Intelligence is influenced by heredity, culture, social contexts, personal choices, and certainly age. One distinction in specific intelligences noted in adulthood, is between fluid intelligence, which refers to the capacity to learn new ways of solving problems and performing activities quickly and abstractly, and crystallized intelligence, which refers to the accumulated knowledge of the world we have acquired throughout our lives (Salthouse, 2004). These intelligences are distinct, and show different developmental pathways as pictured in Figure 9.2. Fluid intelligence tends to decrease with age (staring in the late 20s to early 30s), whereas crystallized intelligence generally increases all across adulthood (Horn, Donaldson, & Engstrom, 1981; Salthouse, 2004).

Fluid intelligence, sometimes called the mechanics of intelligence, tends to rely on perceptual speed of processing, and perceptual speed is one of the primary capacities that shows age-graded declines starting in early adulthood, as seen not only in cognitive tasks but also in athletic performance and other tasks that require speed. In contrast, research demonstrates that crystallized intelligence, also called the pragmatics of intelligence, continues to grow all during adulthood, as older adults acquire additional semantic knowledge, vocabulary, and language. As a result, adults generally outperform younger people on tasks where this information is useful, such as measures of history, geography, and even on crossword puzzles (Salthouse, 2004). It is this superior knowledge, combined with a slower and more complete processing style, along with a more sophisticated understanding of the workings of the world around them, that gives older adults the advantage of “wisdom” over the advantages of fluid intelligence which favor the young (Baltes, Staudinger, & Lindenberger, 1999; Scheibe, Kunzmann, & Baltes, 2009).


Fluid and Crystalized Intelligence across the lifespan
Figure 9.2

These differential changes in crystallized versus fluid intelligence help explain why older adults do not necessarily show poorer performance on tasks that also require experience (i.e., crystallized intelligence), although they show poorer memory overall. A young chess player may think more quickly, for instance, but a more experienced chess player has more knowledge to draw upon.

Seattle Longitudinal Study. The Seattle Longitudinal Study has tracked the cognitive abilities of adults since 1956. Every seven years the current participants are evaluated, and new individuals are also added. Approximately 6000 people have participated thus far, and 26 people from the original group are still in the study today. Current results demonstrate that middle-aged adults perform better on four out of six cognitive tasks than those same individuals did when they were young adults. Verbal memory, spatial skills, inductive reasoning (generalizing from particular examples), and vocabulary increase with age until one’s 70s (Schaie, 2005; Willis & Shaie, 1999). In contrast, perceptual speed declines starting in early adulthood, and numerical computation shows declines starting in middle and late adulthood (see Figure 9.3).

Seattle Longitudinal Study ages 25 to 88
Figure 9.3. Seattle longitudinal study results

Cognitive skills in the aging brain have been studied extensively in pilots, and similar to the Seattle Longitudinal Study results, older pilots show declines in processing speed and memory capacity, but their overall performance seems to remain intact. According to Phillips (2011) researchers tested pilots age 40 to 69 as they performed on flight simulators. Older pilots took longer to learn to use the simulators but subsequently performed better than younger pilots at avoiding collisions.

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is pragmatic or practical and learned through experience rather than explicitly taught, and it also increases with age (Hedlund, Antonakis, & Sternberg, 2002). Tacit knowledge might be thought of as “know-how” or “professional instinct.” It is referred to as tacit because it cannot be codified or written down. It does not involve academic knowledge, rather it involves being able to use skills and to problem-solve in practical ways. Tacit knowledge can be seen clearly in the workplace and underlies the steady improvements in job performance documented across age and experience, as seen for example, in the performance of both white and blue collar workers, such as carpenters, chefs, and hair dressers.

Middle Adults Returning to College. Midlife adults in the United States often find themselves in university classrooms. In fact, the rate of enrollment for older Americans entering college, often part-time or in the evenings, is rising faster than that of traditionally aged students. Students over age 35, accounted for 17% of all college and graduate students in 2009, and are expected to comprise 19% of that total by 2020 (Holland, 2014). In some cases, older students are developing skills and expertise in order to launch a second career, or to take their career in a new direction. Whether they enroll in school to sharpen particular skills, to retool and reenter the workplace, or to pursue interests that have previously been neglected, older students tend to approach the learning process differently than younger college students (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 1998).

The mechanics of cognition, such as working memory and speed of processing, gradually decline with age. However, they can be easily compensated for through the use of higher order cognitive skills, such as forming strategies to enhance memory or summarizing and comparing ideas rather than relying on rote memorization (Lachman, 2004). Although older students may take a bit longer to learn material, they are less likely to forget it as quickly. Adult learners tend to look for relevance and meaning when learning information. Older adults have the hardest time learning material that is meaningless or unfamiliar. They are more likely to ask themselves, “Why is this important?” when being introduced to information or when trying to memorize concepts or facts.

Older adults are more task-oriented learners and want to organize their activity around problem-solving or making contributions to real world issues. Rubin et al. (2018) surveyed university students aged 17-70 regarding their satisfaction and approach to learning in college. Results indicated that older students were more independent, inquisitive, and intrinsically motivated compared to younger students. Additionally, older women processed information at a deeper learning level and expressed more satisfaction with their education. Just as at younger ages, during middle adulthood, more women than men are likely to attend and graduate from college.

To address the educational needs of those over 50, The American Association of Community Colleges (2016) developed the Plus 50 Initiative that assists community colleges in creating or expanding programs that focus on workforce training and new careers for the plus-50 population. Since 2008 the program has provided grants for programs in 138 community colleges affecting over 37, 000 students. The participating colleges offer workforce training programs that prepare 50 plus adults for careers such as early childhood educators, certified nursing assistants, substance abuse counselors, adult basic education instructors, and human resources specialists. These training programs are especially beneficial because 80% of people over the age of 50 say they will retire later in life than their parents or continue to work in retirement, including work in a new field.


Erikson defined the developmental task of generativity as one that included creativity. But what is creativity? Better yet, what do you think creativity is? Perhaps take a second and reflect on cultural monuments, architecture, artworks, music, theatre, and literature. Take the Mona Lisa and then compare it to the Starry Night, in the figure below. Is one of these more creative than the other? If so, what makes one piece more creative than the other?


Photo collage of paintings: Boticelli's Birth of Venus, Rembrandt's The Night Watch, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, Monet's Water Lillies, Da Vinci's Last Supper, Van Gogh's Starry Night, Picasso's Guernica, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Munch's The Scream
Figure 9.4

There are many definitions of creativity, both scientific and non-scientific. Franken (2001) defines creativity as “the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems… and entertaining ourselves and others.” Does this definition change your answer to the question posed in the previous paragraph?

Psychologists who study creativity largely agree on three components. First, creativity involves a great deal of divergent thinking, that is, the ability to look at things from different perspectives. Secondly, creativity involves a unique perspective or some element of originality. Finally, creativity must have functionality in that a creative work serves some function or some value. While paintings such as the Mona Lisa and Starry Night both display various degrees of originality and divergent thinking, their functionality may not be as transparent as other creative works, such as unique architectural designs.

Aside from the elements of creativity, researchers are also interested in the creative process. There are four steps to this process that are generally agreed upon. First is the period of preparation, that is, the conscious and effortful practice of studying and gathering information on a creative endeavor. A second step is the incubation period; a largely unconscious process whereby the mind makes new connections and processes knowledge ‘behind the scenes.’ A third step is illumination, or the ‘Aha!’ moment, that is, an insight generated from conscious and unconscious processes. Finally, revision refers to the part of the processes whereby a creative work is revisited before it is finalized in order to ensure it accomplishes its original goals.

Developmental scientists have found common trajectories in the development of creativity. Generally, we see creativity increase into the 30’s and middle adulthood, as we are developing expertise, motivation, and cognition. This is not to say that creative output follows the same patterns across all fields of work and study. In mathematics heavy disciplines, for example, creativity generally peaks soon after formal training and at a very young age. This makes sense when we consider the early decreases in working memory capacity and processing speed, which are two elements of math heavy work such as physics and engineering.

Developmental trajectories in creativity in mathematics are opposite to those in fields such as the humanities, social sciences, and the arts, where we find that creativity often peaks later in life, as more life experience and knowledge accumulate. Nevertheless, typical trajectories for the development of creativity are just that – average experiences. This is not to say that there are not exceptions to these rules. For example, engineers such as Elon Musk make some of their most creative contributions later in life, whereas social scientists, such as Jean Piaget, made contributions to their fields at exceedingly early ages. As with most areas of development, the study of creativity is not without its mysteries and there is much room for theoretical development and empirical study.

Work and Careers in Middle Adulthood

Expertise refers to specialized skills and knowledge that pertain to a particular topic or activity. In contrast, a novice is someone who has limited experiences with a particular task. Everyone develops some level of “selective” expertise in vocational activities or other areas that are personally meaningful to them, such as making bread, quilting, gardening, computer programming, or caring for children. Expert thought is often characterized as intuitive, automatic, strategic, and flexible.

  • Intuitive. Novices follow particular steps and rules when problem solving, whereas experts can call upon a vast amount of knowledge and past experience. As a result, their actions appear more intuitive than formulaic. Novice cooks may slavishly follow the recipe step by step, while chefs may glance at recipes for ideas and then follow their own procedure.
  • Automatic. Complex thoughts and actions become more routine for experts. Their reactions appear instinctive over time, and this is because expertise allows us to process information faster and more holistically and effectively (Crawford & Channon, 2002).
  • Strategic. Experts have more effective strategies than non-experts. For instance, while both skilled and novice doctors generate several hypotheses within minutes of an encounter with a patient, the more skilled clinicians’ conclusions are likely to be more accurate. In other words, they generate better hypotheses than the novice. This is because they are able to discount misleading symptoms and other distractors and hone in on the most likely problem the patient is experiencing (Norman, 2005). Consider how your note taking skills may have changed after being in school over a number of years. Chances are you do not write down everything the instructor says, but instead extract and note the most central ideas. You may have even come up with your own short forms for commonly mentioned words in a course, allowing you to take down notes faster and more efficiently than someone who may be a novice academic note taker.
  • Flexible. Experts in all fields are more curious and creative. They enjoy a challenge and experiment with new ideas or procedures. The only way for experts to grow in their knowledge is to take on more challenging, rather than routine tasks.

Gaining Expertise. Developing expertise takes time. It is a long process, resulting from repeated experience and protracted practice (Ericsson, Feltovich, & Prietula, 2006). When they are faced with a problem, middle-aged adults often find that, with their store of knowledge and experience, they have encountered something similar before. This allows them to ignore the irrelevant and focus on the important aspects of the issue. The development of expertise is one reason why many people often reach the top of their career in middle adulthood.

However, expertise cannot fully make-up for all losses in general cognitive functioning as we age. The superior performance of older adults in comparison to younger novices appears to be task specific (Charness & Krampe, 2006). As we age, we also need to be more deliberate in our practice of skills in order to maintain them. Charness and Krampe (2006) in their review of the literature on aging and expertise, also note that the rate of return for our effort diminishes as we age. In other words, increasing practice does not recoup the same advances in older adults as similar efforts do at younger ages.

Climate in the Workplace for Middle-aged Adults. A number of studies have found that job satisfaction tends to peak in middle adulthood (Besen, Matz-Costa, Brown, Smyer, & Pitt-Catsouphers, 2013; Easterlin, 2006). This satisfaction stems not only from higher wages, but also often from greater involvement in decisions that affect the workplace as middle aged adults move up from worker to supervisor or manager. Job satisfaction is also influenced by being able to do the job well, and after years of experience at a job many people are more effective and productive. Another reason for this peak in job satisfaction is that at midlife many adults lower their expectations and goals (Tangri, Thomas, & Mednick, 2003). Middle-aged employees may realize that they have arrived at the highest level they are likely to reach in their career. This satisfaction at work translates into lower absenteeism, greater productivity, and less job hopping in comparison to younger adults (Easterlin, 2006).

However, not all middle-aged adults are happy in the workplace. Women may find themselves bumping up against the glass ceiling. This may explain why females employed at large corporations are twice as likely to quit their jobs as are men (Barreto, Ryan, & Schmitt, 2009). Another problem older workers may encounter is job burnout, defined as unsuccessfully managed workplace stress (World Health Organization, 2019). Burnout consists of:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of job negativism or cynicism
  • Reduced feelings of professional effectiveness or efficacy

American workers may experience burnout more often than workers in many other developed nations, because most developed nations guarantee by law a set number of paid vacation days (International Labour Organization, ILO, 2011), whereas the United States does not (U.S. Department of Labor, 2016).

Figure 9.5 Average Annual Hours Actually Worked per Worker 

In addition, in comparision to workers in many other developed nations, American workers work more hours per year (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, 2016). Not all employees in the US are covered under overtime pay laws (U.S. Department of Labor, 2016). This is important when you considered that the 40-hour work week is a myth for most Americans. Only 4 in 10 U.S. workers work the typical 40-hour work week. The average work week for many is almost a full day longer (47 hours), with 39% working 50 or more hours per week (Saad, 2014). As can be seen in Figure 9.5, Americans work more hours than most European nations, especially western and northern Europe, although they work fewer hours than workers in other nations, especially Mexico.

Challenges in the Workplace for Middle-aged Adults. In recent years middle aged adults have been challenged by economic downturns, starting in 2001, and again in 2008 and 2020. During the recession of 2008, fifty-five percent of adults reported some problems in the workplace, such as fewer hours, pay-cuts, having to switch to part-time, etc. (Pew Research Center, 2010a). While young adults took the biggest hit in terms of levels of unemployment, middle-aged adults also saw their overall financial resources suffer as their retirement nest eggs disappeared and house values shrank, while foreclosures increased (Pew Research Center, 2010b). Not surprisingly, this age group, especially those age 50-64, reported that the recession hit them worse than did other age groups.

Middle-aged adults who find themselves unemployed are likely to remain so longer than those in early adulthood (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2012). Agism is a common complaint in the workplace. For example, in the eyes of employers, it may seem more cost effective to hire a young adult, despite their limited experience, as they would be starting out at lower levels on the pay scale. In addition, hiring someone who is 25 and has many years of work ahead of them versus someone who is 55 and will likely retire in 10 years may also be part of the decision to hire a younger worker (Lachman, 2004).  It may surprise employers to learn that older workers typically stay on the job longer, as younger workers are more geographically mobile and more likely to switch jobs as more attractive opportunities appear. Older adults also demonstrate lower rates of absenteeism and greater investment in their work. American workers are also competing with global markets and changes in technology. Those who are able to keep up with all these changes or are willing to uproot and move around the country or even the world have a better chance of finding work. The decision to move may be easier for people who are younger and have fewer obligations to others.


Profile of a person smiling
Figure 9.6

If you remember from our study of infancy, temperament is defined as the innate characteristics of the infant, including mood, activity level, and emotional reactivity, noticeable soon after birth. Does one’s temperament remain stable through the lifespan? Do shy and inhibited babies grow up to be shy adults, while the sociable child continues to be the life of the party? Like most developmental research the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. Chess and Thomas (1987), who identified children as easy, difficult, or slow-to-warm-up, found that children identified as easy grew up to became well-adjusted adults, while those who exhibited a difficult temperament were not as well-adjusted as adults.

Kagan (2002) studied the temperamental category of “inhibition to the unfamiliar” in young children. Inhibited infants exposed to unfamiliarity reacted strongly to the stimuli and cried loudly, pumped their limbs, and had an increased heart rate. Research has indicated that these highly reactive children show temperamental stability into early childhood, and Bohlin and Hagekull (2009) found that shyness in infancy was linked to social anxiety in adulthood. An important aspect of the research on inhibition was looking at the response of the amygdala, which is important for fear and anxiety, especially when confronted with possible threatening events in the environment. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRIs) young adults identified as strongly inhibited when they were toddlers showed heightened activation of the amygdala when compared to those identified as uninhibited when toddlers (Davidson & Begley, 2012).

This research does seem to indicate that temperamental stability holds for many individuals through the lifespan, yet we know that one’s environment can also have a significant impact. Recall from our discussion on epigenesis that environmental factors modify gene expression by switching genes on and off. Many cultural and environmental factors can affect one’s temperament, including exposure to teratogens in utero, early exposure to harsh parenting, adversity, or child abuse, supportive child-rearing, stable homes, illnesses, socioeconomic status, etc. Additionally, individuals often choose environments that align with their temperaments, which in turn further strengthens them (Cain, 2012). Individuals are also active in other ways. As they get older, adults can choose how they wish to express their temperaments, deciding for example, that they will not let an inhibited temperament stop them from experiencing adventures, such as travel. In summary, because temperament is neurophysiological, biology appears to be a main reason why temperament remains stable into adulthood. In contrast, the environment appears mainly responsible for changes or modifications in temperament (Clark & Watson, 1999).

Everybody has their own unique personality, that is, their characteristic manner of thinking, feeling, behaving, and relating to others (John, Robins, & Pervin, 2008). Personality traits refer to these characteristic, routine ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others. Personality integrates one’s temperament with cultural and environmental influences. Consequently, there are signs or indicators of these traits in childhood, but they become particularly evident when the person is an adult. Personality traits are integral to each person’s sense of self, as they involve what people value, how they think and feel about things, what they like to do, and, basically, what they are like most every day throughout much of their lives.

Table 9.1 Descriptions of the Big Five Personality Traits

Dimension Description Examples of behaviors predicted by the trait
Openness to experience A general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience. Individuals who are highly open to experience tend to have distinctive and unconventional decorations in their home. They are also likely to have books on a wide variety of topics, a diverse music collection, and works of art on display.
Conscientiousness A tendency to show self- discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement. Individuals who are conscientious have a preference for planned rather than spontaneous behavior.
Extraversion The tendency to experience positive emotions and to seek out stimulation and the company of others. Extroverts enjoy being with people. In groups they like to talk, assert themselves, and draw attention to themselves.
Agreeableness A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic toward others; reflects individual differences in general concern for social harmony. Agreeable individuals value getting along with others. They are generally considerate, friendly, generous, helpful, and willing to compromise their interests with those of others.
Neuroticism The tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or depression; sometimes called “emotional instability.” Those who score high in neuroticism are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. They may have trouble thinking clearly, making decisions, and coping effectively with stress.

adapted from Lally & Valentine-French (2019) and John, Naumann, & Soto (2008)

Five-Factor Model. There are hundreds of different personality traits, and all of these traits can be organized into the broad dimensions referred to as the Five-Factor Model (John, Naumann, & Soto, 2008). These five broad domains include: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. (You can use “OCEAN” as a mnemonic to remember them.) This applies to traits that you may use to describe yourself.

Does personality change throughout adulthood? Previously the answer was no, but contemporary research shows that although some people’s personalities are relatively stable over time, others are not (Lucas & Donnellan, 2011; Roberts & Mroczek, 2008). Longitudinal studies reveal average changes during adulthood in the expression of some traits (e.g., neuroticism and openness decrease with age and conscientiousness increases) and individual differences in these patterns due to idiosyncratic life events (e.g., divorce, illness). Longitudinal research also suggests that adult personality traits, such as conscientiousness, predict important life outcomes including job success, health, and longevity (Friedman et al., 1993; Roberts, Kuncel, Shiner, Caspi, & Goldberg, 2007).

Research in the Harvard Health Letter (2012) documents  correlations between conscientiousness and many positive health outcomes, such as lower blood pressure, lower rates of diabetes and stroke, fewer joint problems, being less likely to engage in harmful behaviors, and being more likely to stick to healthy behaviors and avoid stressful situations. Conscientiousness also appears positively related to career choices, friendships, and stability of marriage. Lastly, a person possessing both self-control and organizational skills, both of which are related to conscientiousness, may withstand the effects of aging better and have stronger cognitive skills than one who does not possess these qualities.

Supplemental Materials

  • This Ted Talk discusses how working-class people can organize and own the businesses they work for, making decisions for themselves and enjoying the fruits of their labor.

  • This Ted Talk discusses ways to cultivate inclusion and encourage diversity in the workplace.

  • This podcast interviews Dr. Pauline Boss on her concept of ambiguous loss.



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