Rutgers-Camden psychologist's study of 2,400 schoolchildren through adulthood showed remarkable consistency temperament throughout lifespanCAMDEN —If you consider yourself a talkative, social or outgoing person, chances are you were the same way as a child. New research by a Rutgers psychologist shows that personality traits observed in childhood are a strong predictor of adult behavior.
“Identifying what our personalities were like at an early age may give us important clues to how we may act as adults, but it’s not determinative,” says Christopher Nave, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers–Camden. Nave claims that we remain recognizably the same person throughout our lives.
To come to this conclusion, Nave used data from a 1960s study of approximately 2,400 elementary schoolchildren in Hawaii. He compared teacher personality ratings of each student with videotaped interviews of those same individuals 40 years later.
Previous research by Nave’s collaborators at the Oregon Research Institute found consistencies in personality traits as first graders compared to traits displayed as adults. “That tells us that our personality at a young age can predict life outcomes or behavior decades later,” Nave says.
Nave was the lead author on the paper “On the Contextual Independence of Personality: Teachers’ Assessments Predict Directly Observed Behavior After Four Decades.” It was published last year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science while Nave was a doctoral candidate at the University of California–Riverside.
According to the research, children identified as verbally fluent, meaning talkative, tended to display interest in intellectual matters and speak fluently as adults. Children rated low in verbal fluency were observed as adults to seek advice or exhibit an awkward interpersonal style.
The children who were able to cope easily with new situations behaved cheerfully as adults. Those who rated low in adaptability as children were observed to say negative things about themselves in adulthood.The impulsive adults spoke loudly and were talkative as children, but those who rated low on impulsivity were fearful or timid. Children rated humble by their teachers were likely to seek reassurance or express insecurity as adults.
Nave says that while the study suggests that personality traits demonstrate consistency from childhood to adulthood, they aren’t set for life.
“We are finding that there is a remarkable degree of stability across time,” he says. “That does not mean that you can’t change your personality. It just may be a little more difficult that we thought.”
He continues, “One of the big questions I’ve gotten is what you do as a teacher or parent when you’ve identified a child a certain way. If we find out early on that a child is shy, we can give the child opportunities at a young age to engage with other people. But we shouldn’t put unrealistic demands on our children to be totally different than what they really are. We should appreciate who they are and not try and make them something they aren’t.”
A Philadelphia resident, Nave teaches courses in personality psychology at Rutgers–Camden. He received his bachelor’s degree from Elon University, his master’s degree from Wake Forest University, and his doctoral degree from the University of California–Riverside.
Media Contact: Ed Moorhouse