The Black Box of Meta-Analysis: Personality Change

Psychologists treat meta-analyses as the gold standard to answer empirical questions. The idea is that meta-analyses combine all of the relevant information into a single number that reveals the answer to an empirical question. The problem with this naive interpretation of meta-analyses is that meta-analyses cannot provide more information than the original studies contained. If original studies have major limitations, a meta-analytic integration does not make these limitations disappear. Meta-analyses can only reduce random sampling error, but they cannot fix problems of original studies. However, once a meta-analysis is published, the problems are often ignored and the preliminary conclusion is treated as an ultimate truth.

In this regard meta-analyses are like collateralized debt obligations that were popular until problems with CDOs triggered the financial crisis in 2008. A collateralized debt obligation (CDO) pools together cash flow-generating assets and repackages this asset pool into discrete tranches that can be sold to investors. The problem is when a CDO is considered to be less risky than the actual debt in the CDO actually is and investors believe they get high returns with low risks, when the actual debt is much more risky than investors believe.

In psychology, the review process and publication in a top journal give the appeal that information is trustworthy and can be cited as solid evidence. However, a closer inspection of the original studies might reveal that the results of a meta-analysis rest on shaky foundations.

Roberts et al. (2006) published a highly-cited meta-analysis in the prestigious journal Psychological Bulletin. The key finding of this meta-analysis was that personality levels change with age in longitudinal studies of personality.

The strongest change was observed for conscientiousness. According to the figure, conscientiousness doesn’t change much during adolescence, when the prefrontal cortex is still developing, but increases from d ~ .4 to d ~ .9 from age 30 to age 70 by about half a standard deviation.

Like many other consumers, I bought the main finding and used the results in my Introduction to Personality lectures without carefully checking the meta-anlysis. However, when I analyzed new data from longitudinal studies with large national representative samples, I could not find the predicted pattern (Schimmack, 2019a, 2019b, 2019c). Thus, I decided to take a closer look at the meta-analysis.

Roberts and colleagues list all the studies that were used with information about sample sizes, personality dimensions, and the ages that were studied. Thus, it is easy to find the studies that examined conscientiousness with participants who were 30 years or older at the start of the study.

Study NWeightStart1Max.IntervalES
Costa et al. (2000)22740.4441990.00
Costa et al. (1980)4330.08366440.00
Costa & McCrae (1988)3980.0835646NA
Labouvie-Vief & Jain (2002)3000.0639639NA
Branje et al. (2004)2850.064224NA
Small et al. (2003)2230.046866NA
P. Martin (2002)1790.03655460.10
Costa & McCrae (1992)1750.0353770.06
Cramer (2003)1550.03331414NA
Haan, Millsap, & Hartka (1986)1180.02331010NA
Helson & Kwan (2000)1060.02334247NA
Helson & Wink (1992)1010.0243990.20
Grigoriadis & Fekken (1992)890.023033
Roberts et al. (2002)780.024399
Dudek & Hall (1991)700.01492525
Mclamed et al. (1974)620.013633
Cartwright & Wink (1994)400.01311515
Weinryb et al. (1992)370.013922
Wink & Helson (1993)210.00312525
Total N / Average51441.00411119

There are 19 studies with a total sample size of N = 5,144 participants. However, sample sizes vary dramatically across studies from a low of N = 21 to a high of N = 2,274. Table 1 shows the proportion of participants that would be used to weight effect sizes according to sample sizes. By far the largest study found no significant increase in conscientiousness. I tried to find information about effect sizes from the other studies, but the published articles didn’t contain means or the information was from an unpublished source. I did not bother to obtain information from samples with less than 100 participants, because they contribute only 8% to the total sample size. Even big effects would be washed out by the larger samples.

The main conclusion that can be drawn from this information is that there is no reliable information to make claims about personality change throughout adulthood. If we assume that conscientiousness changes by half a standard deviation over a 40 year period, the average effect size for a decade is d = .12. For studies with even shorter retest intervals, the predicted effect size is even weaker. It is therefore highly speculative to extrapolate from this patchwork of data and make claims about personality change during adulthood.

Fortunately, much better information is now available from longitudinal panels with over thousand participants who have been followed for 12 (SOEP) or 20 (MIDUS) years with three or four retests. Theories of personality stability and change need to be revisited in the light of this new evidence. Updating theories in the face of new data is at the basis of science. Citing an outdated meta-analysis as if it provided a timeless answer to a question is not.

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