by Katja Shimkin, Kenyon ’17
Can personality change? If you try hard, can you become a different person? Many people believe you can’t—but there might be a chance. A study by Berg and Johansson (2014) showed certain personality traits change throughout lifetime. You don’t have to try for it though, it just happens. The scientists examined two of psychology’s Big Five important traits that determine personality, Extraversion and Neuroticism, and determined that, although neuroticism remains constant as you age, extraversion changes. The study sampled 408 Swedes of the Oldest-Old category (ages 80-98). Geriatrics reported feeling less extraverted over the six years they were studied, and this feeling was most influenced by hearing loss; as hearing worsened, old people felt increasingly less fuctionable in social situations and, as a result, became more withdrawn.
Although researchers analyzed other variables (eyesight, cognitive impairment, general health), none correlated with decreased extraversion as a function of age, although some influenced extraversion at the beginning of the study (participants higher in cognitive impairment, for example, began less extraverted). If cognition, overall health, or vision don’t influence personality changes in the Oldest-Old, why does hearing associate strongly? Berg and Johansson offer an explanation: perhaps as hearing in elderly people decreases, they feel less able to interact socially. Imagine how tough it would be to maintain a relationship with someone if you can’t understand his or her words. We’ve all been in a situation where we’ve gotten frustrated talking to somebody who continues to ask, “what? What? WHAT?!” After a while, your sentence doesn’t feel worth the monotony of repeating it.
When assessing scientific publications, it’s important to remember the potential for questionable results or discrepancies with other studies, and, it just so happens such a situation exists for Berg and Johansson’s research. Much older research by Srinivasan (1974) analyzed the relationship between hearing aid usage and levels of neuroticism and extraversion, finding individuals who’d been rehabilitated with hearing aids didn’t have extraversion levels different from those who hadn’t received treatment. Furthermore, neuroticism levels actually decreased—not stayed the same—for those with hearing aids. The studies were of course quite different; Srinivasan’s analyzed participants at only one point in time, and didn’t look at them long-term. The average age of participants in that study was also 54.5, well under the minimum age for Berg and Johansson’s research. For these reasons, it’s possible the projects were different enough that results cannot compare. However, it seems logical that if hearing loss affects extraversion but has no effect on neuroticism for the Oldest-Old, it would have similar implications for participants in Srinivasan’s study.
Widely-supported research by Donnellan and Lucas (2008) suggests some national populations decrease in neuroticism whereas others increase. Perhaps this explains the discrepancy in neuroticism between Berg and Johansson’s work and Srinivasan’s; Berg and Johansson’s sample was drawn from Sweden whereas Srinivasan’s came from India. Maybe extraversion change is influenced by what part of the world you’re from. Donnellan and Lucas also found extraversion tends to decrease across the lifespan (though they don’t go in-depth about possible reasons for this) which, broadly, supports the findings of Berg and Johansson.
An additional topic to consider when assessing the results of Berg and Johansson’s work is methodology. It’s noted at the end of their article that attrition was heavy for a specific cohort of their sample; participants with poorer health tended to drop out earlier so, by the end of the study, results collected were mostly of those participants who began participation as less-sick individuals. The use of the Oldest-Old population is questionable as well. Wouldn’t it make sense to accept younger individuals into the study? Sixty-five years is the age generally considered to divide adults from geriatrics so why not include individuals 65+? It’s around this time health problems begin to occur (if they haven’t already) so a sample including all geriatrics is a more accurate representation of the overall population. In addition, life expectancy is below 80, so studying solely the Oldest-Old means beginning with a sample already not-indicative of people as a whole. These possibilities don’t discount the study’s results but it should be kept in mind the sample may not represent the general population perfectly.
There are many studies that make interesting reads but don’t ever lead to anything. But what’s the good of research if nothing comes of it? That said, it’s important to consider potential implications of Berg and Johansson’s findings. Certainly it might change our interactions with people losing their hearing; instead of rolling our eyes when grandmother dearest yells, “WHAT?!” maybe we’ll have more compassion. At least I don’t want my grandma to feel socially isolated. More than that, how can findings apply on a larger scale? Berg and Joahnsson’s results suggest need for research into the hearing-extraversion relationship. It would be interesting to assess how hearing issues affect younger people. Do people prematurely losing their hearing undergo these same processes? Research by Aplin and Rowson does indicate relation between introverted behavior and youngsters with impaired hearing.
Imagine a child involved in a car crash who hits their head and suffers enough brain damage to cause hearing impediment. Will they experience similar feelings of social isolation and subsequent extraversion decrease? Would these changes occur at the same rate as with the Oldest-Old or take place more gradually?—or even faster? Future research is necessitated to know for sure. If correlation between younger people and extraversion change is shown, early rehabilitation with communication strategies (ASL, hearing aids) should be emphasized. Of course there is nothing wrong with not being extraverted—but to allow someone to become less sociable because they feel deficient interacting with others seems sad and immoral.
Obviously further research is needed to be confident in hearing-loss-personality-change associations, but Berg and Johansson’s work set a solid stage to work from. I anticipate future findings in the field and hope they’ll allow application of new concepts to society in a meaningful way.
Aplin, D. Y., & Rowson, V. J. (1986). Personality and functional hearing loss in children. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 25, 313-314.
Berg, A. I. & Johansson, B. (2014). Personality change in the oldest-old: is it a matter of compromised health and functioning?. Journal of Personality, 82, 25-31.
Donnellan, M. B., & Lucas, R. E. (2008). Age differences in the big five across the life span: evidence from two national samples. Psychology and Aging, 23(3), 558-566.
Srinivasan, K. P. (1974). Neuroticism and extraversion among aurally handicapped adults. Journal of the All-India Institute of Speech & Hearing, 5-6, 35-38.