Written by Neel Shah

December 2019

Change in Big 5 personality traits over time

Ask anyone if their personality was different at the age of 20 compared to the age of 10 and most will say it was. But what is it specifically that’s different. Putting biological differences aside for a moment, what are the changes in character and outlook that develops over time in a more general sense.

A study by Soto et. al (2008) looked at the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience) and their development over time.


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Of course the old showbiz saying of never working with kids or animals has some resonance here. It has traditionally been a challenge for psychologists to gauge accurate data from children’s self-reporting on personality traits.

One reason could be language barriers and limitations in their verbal capacities. In more specific terms, the evidence suggests that children develop a larger vocabulary of personality-related words as they get older as well as improving their reading comprehension skills (Donahue, 1994; Yuill, 1993). After all, if you can’t fully understand the questions being asked, accuracy will suffer. Attempts have been made to counter this and gauge personality development in children, in language adapted for them. Examples of this include the California Child Q-set.


When children reach adolescence, they are also more logically consistent which helps them avoid contradictions in their personality reports. By this age, adolescents will also have a clearer sense of themselves and as a consequence, you will find that their big 5 personality traits have an ability to rate distinct personality traits independently of each other. For example, in a sample of Estonian students, data for intercorrelation among the five personality traits was .24 among 12-year-olds, compared with .12 among 18-year olds (Allik et al., 2004). The low correlation is a positive sign, which shows the 18 year olds have a clearer understanding of distinct personality traits. However, one issue with this study is that it didn’t track the results year by year, as the time between 12 and 18 years old has many significant developmental markers.

A study by Soto et. al looked to investigate this and looked at data for children from the ages of 10-20 for every year of life. What they found was that the basic structure of personality traits fundamentally change across childhood and adolescence. In particular, extraversion becomes a more coherent trait for children over the time span. Agreeableness and conscientiousness are traits that are drilled into young children but many children aren’t able to distinguish between the two until later into adolescence.

So why is this research important? It helps us to understand how seriously to take personality questionnaire data for children and how we might frame questions to them. It’s also a fascinating snapshot of how the different facets of personality in general develop over time.


Are there limitations to this study? Interestingly, over 230,000 responses were analysed, which is enormous in comparison to many psychological studies. Although the responses were exclusively from American and Canadian respondents, there was diversity in the sample from the many ethnic groups represented in both countries. A further breakdown of the sample also shows a range of socio-economic backgrounds for participant’s parents. All this suggests a careful consideration of how this research could be applied in future and gives the study a degree of validity and reliability.

Replications have been carried out that support the initial research (Soderberg, 2016) but are still using North American data. There is still certainly scope in replicating the study in other cultural contexts.



  1. Soderberg, C. K. (2016, August 19). Replication of CJ Soto, OP John, SD Gosling, J Potter (2008, JPSP 94(4)). Retrieved from osf.io/kez47

  2. Donahue, E. M. (1994). Do children use the Big Five, too? Content and structural form in personality description. Journal of Personality, 62, 45–66.

  3. Allik, J., & McCrae, R. R. (2004). Escapable conclusions: Toomela (2003) and the universality of trait structure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 261–265.

  4. Yuill, N. (1993). Understanding of personality and dispositions. In M. Bennett (Ed.), The development of social cognition: The child as psychologist (pp. 87–110). New York: Guilford Press.

  5. Soto, C.J., John, O.P., Gosling, S.D., & Potter, J. (2008). The developmental psychometrics of big five self-reports: Acquiescence, factor structure, coherence, and differentiation from ages 10 to 20. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(4), 718-737.



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