Social Investment and the Big 5

by Luis Gomez, Kenyon ’17

As a sophomore in college, the real worry for a job, work, and the various societal obligations I will have as an adult has not set in yet, but I see my senior friends stress out about it all the time. At the age of entering the real world what Roberts, Wood, and Caspi (2008) coined as “the maturity principle” is to set in and they will find jobs, settle down, and being responsible, functional members of society.

Sointu Leikas from the University of Helsinki and Katariina Salmela-Aro from the University of Jyväskylä conducted a study on how these life events that lead to maturing and becoming this responsible adult influences the changes in personality over time in young Finns. Taking a sample of 707 ninth graders (367 males, 332 female, 8 unspecified), they lead a longitudinal study but only taking data when the young adults were 20 and 23.

Using typical life structures such as enrollment in a university, work life, relationship, drug use, and the more extreme case of a diagnosis of a chronic disease, Leikas and Salmela-Aro found data that showed interesting correlation between increases in certain Big 5 traits and the life situations. They created a personality test with three questions per personality trait in the Big 5 inventory (Soto & John 2009). At each measurement of testing, participants were asked to report on their life events and from those Leikas and Salmela-Aro chose the arbitrary life events to examine more thoroughly. They uncovered that becoming a more responsible person (getting a job, starting a family, not using drugs) lead to increase in Conscientiousness and Extraversion and a decrease in Neuroticism, but that chronic disease and drug use increased Neuroticism and decreases the others. The researchers view this as an effect of normative and counter-normative life choices, those viewed more favorably or less favorably by societal moral standards.

As a member of a society, one can either become invested in the community’s interests or isolated from everyone. Leikas and Salmela-Aro found that those who became invested in continuing this social bond were those who developed their “maturity” between the ages of 20 and 23. A lot of this development is owed to the role-based structure of these life events in people. Being an employee, a parent, or a spouse is supposed to instill a greater sense of experience and reliability. Workers are more likely to receive a promotion, a parent will raise their child better, and a spouse is more likely to maintain a healthy relationship all if they act in role-appropriate ways.

Much like an investment in society is meant to show the young Finns growing up, the opposite effect in Finns that use drugs or were diagnosed with a chronic disease shows the inverse. These counter-normative events are situations that place a person outside of society’s comfort zone where the young adult is then isolated and “disinvested” in society. Although the mechanisms for why counter-normative events “disinvest” members from society are unknown at the time of the article, social reinforcement can offer a basic explanation. Drug users in society tend to be the more neurotic ones anyways, and many of their own situations encourage neurotic behavior such as those with addictive tendencies destabilizing their lives.

While the research was well thought-out and built off of a previous experiment, Leikas and Salmela-Aro agree that the sample size of the experiment is its foremost limitation. That meant that of the 707 participants, when looking at drug users, they looked only looked at 64 participants or 9%. Many other Leikas and Salmela-Aro’s explanations using social roles as the driving force for the development in difference life events seem now too broad and universal in their jurisdiction than their sample group suggests.

This study’s importance, however, cannot be underplayed as the influence of life on personality is something that should be looked for by most personality psychologists. Studies like this can help answer questions on how to achieve “the best life” or how to avoid certain social taboos. While pretty simple in their experiment’s basis, the study adds to a ever-growing field of knowledge.


Leikas, S., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2015). Personality Trait Changes Among Young Finns: The Role of Life Events and Transitions. Journal of Personality, 83(1), 117-126.

Roberts, B. W., Wood, D., & Caspi, A. (2008). The development of personality traits in adulthood. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (3rd ed., pp. 375–398). New York: Guilford Press.

Soto, C. J., & John, O. P. (2009). Ten facet scales for the Big Five Inventory: Convergence with NEO PI-R facets, self-peer agreement, and discriminant validity. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 84–90.

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