by Rachael Thorson, Kenyon ’18
Have you ever felt or acted younger than your age?
This behavior exhibition is part of the phenomenon known as subjective age. Subjective age refers to the dimension of age that reflects age as experienced by the individual, such as acting and feeling a younger age than your chronological, or actual age.
So, why might one adopt a younger subjective age? Psychologists Weiss and Lang found in their 2012 study that one reason for this is that older adults use this as a way to cope with the psychosocial stresses of aging, and the negative and threatening conceptions that come with growing old. This is extremely true in societies such as ours that stigmatize old age and value youthfulness.
Another reason behind adopting a subjective age is influenced by physical and psychological aging factors. Westerhof, Barrett, & Jaconelli (2012) found that feeling younger than your chronological age predicts that you have better perceived health, better physical and cognitive functions, and a greater well-being. Many health and psychological outcomes, such as personality development, across one’s life span can be predicted by one’s subjective age.
The discrepancy between chronological and subjective age occurs early in adulthood and continues to change throughout the life span. Younger adults feel their age or slightly older than their actual age, but when they reach around the age of 25, the crossover to subjective age occurs. They begin to feel increasingly younger than their actual age as they age chronologically. After the age of 40, participants in Rubin & Berntsen’s 2006 study reported that they felt about 20% younger than their actual age, which was the trend across all age groups. Another outcome of their study was a difference in the proportion between subjective and chronological age. Some of the participants experienced accelerated subjective aging if they felt 40 at age 50 and then 55 at age 60, while others experienced a slower subjective aging if they felt 40 at age 50 and 45 at age 60.
So, how does the relationship between subjective and chronological age connect to personality development in adulthood? The best way to look at this change in personality over a life span is through mean-level change and rank-order stability. Mean-level change refers to changes in the average trait level of a group, and rank-order stability refers to the degree to which the relative ordering of individuals on a given trait is maintained over time. The normal pattern across most of adulthood is a decline in the Extraversion, Openness, and Neuroticism traits over time, and an increase in the Conscientiousness and Agreeableness traits. In a sample of adults from ages 18 to 91 taken by Canada, Stephan, Caudroit, & Jaconelli in 2013, findings found that “extraverted and open individuals feel increasingly younger than their age as they grow older. An older subjective age leads to the adoption of attitudes and opinions that are stereotypically associated with older people.” Individuals who accept their aging chronological age are more susceptible to the stereotypes of aging and may behave in accordance to those stereotypes. In addition to psychological changes that lead to a decelerated subjective aging, physical conditions can slow this this as well. When your body and brain’s functioning begin to slow down, sometimes your ability to have a young subjective age can’t compensate these physiological changes, and your personality matches your chronological age.
As far as stability in personality goes, the level of stability becomes relatively constant in middle adulthood whereas it’s generally lower during developmental periods of cognitive, biological, and social changes, like in adolescence. During adulthood, lower stability is expected for individuals who feel subjectively older or who have fast subjective aging.
A study conducted in 2015 by Stephan, Sutin, & Terracciano providing support for all of these trends. The results of their study suggested that change in subjective age is correlated with changes in personality traits. They found that those who reported a younger subjective age at the beginning of the study had a smaller decline in their levels of Openness and Agreeableness and a large increase in Conscientiousness over a ten-year period than those who felt order at the beginning of the study. A younger initial subjective age has less change in Agreeableness, Extraversion, and Openness over time than those with an older subjective age initially.
So, what does this all mean? Many psychology studies show that “personality traits tend to be relatively stable in adulthood and follow normative age-related trajectories over time.” Subjective age and accelerated subjective aging are both associated with meaningful changes in personality, as well as in characteristic ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving. Additionally, individuals with a younger subjective age have more stable personalities, no matter their chronological age.
Next time you see someone acting younger than their age, you know that they have a consistent personality over time and will exhibit these traits for the next few years. How are you going to act over time? The choice is yours.
Stephen, Y., Sutin, A.R., & Terracciano, A. (2015). Subjective age and personality development: A 10-year study. Journal of Personality, 83, 142-154.