One mistake can change your life

Personality: These life events change character

The assumption that a person's character does not change significantly in the course of their life is widespread. And it is wrong, say the authors of a new, as yet unpublished study.

According to them, certain events in life have a tremendous impact on our fundamental personality traits.

The research team writes that which events affect the character and how it affects men and women.

“That's the way I am” is a popular argument from people who want to get out of responsibility as quickly as possible in disputes with their partner, boss or colleague. If you are one of those people who have never believed in the validity of this sentence, then let me tell you: Your skepticism is justified. Because personality traits are by no means engraved in us humans. On the contrary: They can change dramatically in the course of our lives. This is shown by a new, not yet peer-reviewed study by an international research team.

For this purpose, the scientists evaluated an enormous data set that comes from the national Australian HILDA survey. Since 2001, the same 35,000 people have been surveyed annually. With the help of HILDA data from 16 years, the research team wanted to find out: How had events such as a marriage, a separation or even sudden money problems affected the character traits of the people who had experienced them?

Four events that can change you forever

In order to make such properties measurable, the researchers worked with the psychological concept of the “Big Five”. These five represent the essential dimensions of the human personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, compatibility - i.e. the ability to cooperate and empathy - and neuroticism, i.e. emotional vulnerability. Each of these characteristics is different in each person. We all let ourselves be placed somewhere on a scale for all five points. The majority of researchers previously assumed that we find ourselves at "our" points on the respective scale very early in life - and then do not move away from there in the course of our lives.

But this assumption is incorrect, say the authors of the new study. Because there are events in life that have the potential to change your character permanently. The research team has now identified the four most influential of these events. And at least one of them has probably all of you already experienced or is still ahead of you.

1. Financial hardship: Anyone who once struggled with major financial problems became on average more extroverted - and less conscientious, write the authors. This applies to both sexes. In men, however, lack of money also impaired emotional stability, which was not the case with women.

2. Major illness: Women who had to deal with a sudden illness or injury also became more extroverted as a result - three times as much as men who experienced the same thing. Women also made it more extroverted and open when one of their family members got sick - in contrast to men, who completely lacked this effect in the case. This finding suggests that it is true that women are more likely to share their concerns with others. Many men may still be afraid of being considered weak.

3. Marry: This is where one of the biggest differences between men and women can be found. On average, a wedding makes women more emotionally unstable, write the study authors. And marriage also slides down on the compatibility scale, so on average they become less considerate and empathetic. In contrast, the research team did not observe any significant change in character in men after a wedding.

4. Pension: Here the researchers see what they call what "Grumpy old man" hypothesis approved. Retirement, they write, makes men increasingly intolerable, less considerate and empathetic over time. The woman's personality, on the other hand, does not change at all in the long term as a result of the pension.

You can of course conclude what you want from the results of the study. One interpretation that encourages us could be: We humans continue to develop our character. Even when bad things happen to us - like a breakup. Such a relationship end makes men, for example, more empathetic, considerate and open in the long term, write the authors. And women would even become more emotionally stable overall after the first shock of separation. Even strokes of fate can have a positive influence on our character for a long time to come.

This article was published by Business Insider in September 2020. It has now been reviewed and updated.