According to a front-page story in the Times earlier this week, your personality does change over the course of your lifetime. A study carried out by Edinburgh University found that the personalities of a group of people in their seventies had changed significantly since they were schoolchildren in the 1950s. Traits like perseverance, self-confidence and originality changed ‘beyond recognition’, according to the study’s leader Dr Mathew Harris. He was surprised, because the conventional wisdom among social psychologists is that these characteristics remain stable over a person’s lifetime.
At first glance, my own personality would appear to bear out these findings. Between the ages of 14 and 40 I was something of a hell–raiser. My main focus was getting into glamorous, star-studded parties, and I reached the summit of my ambitions when I landed a job in the mid-1990s as a caption writer for Vanity Fair’s monthly gallery of D-list celebs out and about in Manhattan. Not a particularly distinguished career for the son of a Labour party panjandrum and a BBC radio producer, but it suited me down to the ground.
I styled myself ‘Vanity Fair’s nightlife correspondent’ — a bit of a stretch, but close enough to guarantee admission to even the most swanky of soirées. I spent my evenings hopping between events in a Lincoln Town Car, usually sandwiched between two female companions.
Fast forward 20 years and I’m a respectable father of four and an education policy geek. The last time I went to New York was to visit a school in Queens. Where did it all go wrong?
But when I think about how I’ve changed, it feels less like I’ve had a personality transplant than the emergence into the foreground of characteristics that were latent for the first 40 years of my life. I went through phases of being more serious — in my last year at Oxford, for instance, when I became interested in political philosophy — it’s just that my frivolous, Dionysian side kept reasserting itself. However, unlike most of my party-loving companions, I always felt a niggling sense of guilt that I wasn’t doing something more worthwhile. I spent my youth running as fast as I could to escape the clutches of my liberal do-gooding parents, but never quite succeeding. It was as if I was on a very long piece of elastic and, when it was at full stretch, they began to reel me back in. I’m now employed as the chief executive of a charity, which is exactly what my father did.
So does that mean the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree and I was always destined to become my father? I think the truth about personality lies somewhere between these two poles. Our traits aren’t completely set in stone from an early age, but nor are we blank canvasses either. Quite often, we have it in ourselves to become something different, and we can either resist that or embrace it. When we do, it can feel as if we’re exercising free will, but at the end of the process, when we are middle-aged, it feels almost inevitable that we have ended up the way we have.
I should caveat this by saying that I probably have 25 years left and it’s possible that my party-loving self may come roaring back to life. There are moments when I’m attending education conferences, chatting to fellow wonks in the bar after dinner, when I get a glimpse of the person I used to be. It’s a feeling of freedom, of the oppressive need to be sensible being lifted, and I interrupt my companions to ask if they know of any casinos nearby. They look at me very oddly, as if a complete stranger has suddenly accosted them, and the conventional social restrains soon envelop me.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Edinburgh study is that some characteristics were stable over the course of the subjects’ lifetimes. According to Dr Harris, these were conscientiousness and stability of mood. That tallies with my own experience, and it’s telling that those two characteristics are more measurable than those which are said to have changed, such as originality.
My suspicion is that the study’s findings have been exaggerated and the conventional wisdom about how much our personalities change in our lifetimes is broadly correct.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.