Fact Checking Personality Development Research

Many models of science postulate a feedback loop between theories and data. Theories stimulate research that tests theoretical models. When the data contradict the theory and nobody can find flaws with the data, theories are revised to accommodate the new evidence. In reality, many sciences do not follow this idealistic model. Instead of testing theories, researchers try to accumulate evidence that supports their theories. In addition, evidence that contradicts the theory is ignored. As a result, theories never develop. These degenerative theories have been called paradigms. Psychology is filled with paradigms. One paradigm is the personality development paradigm. Accordingly, personality changes throughout adulthood towards the personality of a mature adult (emotionally stable, agreeable, and conscientious; Caspi, Roberts, & Shiner, 2005).

Many findings contradict this paradigm, but these findings are often ignored by personality development researchers. For example, a recent article on personality development (Zimmermann et al., 2021) claims that there is broad evidence for substantial rank-order and mean-level changes citing outdated references from 2000 (Roberts & DelVeccio, 2000) and 2006 (Roberts et al., 2006). It is not difficult to find more recent studies that challenge these claims based on newer evidence and better statistical analyses (Anusic & Schimmack, 2016; Costa et al., 2019). It is symptomatic of a paradigm that these findings that do not fit the personality development paradigm are ignored.

Another symptom of paradigmatic research is that interpretations of research findings do not fit the data. Zimmermann et al. (2021) conducted an impressive study of N = 3,070 students’ personality over the course of a semester. Some of these students stayed at their university and others went abroad. The focus of the article was to examine the potential influence of spending time abroad on personality. The findings are summarized in Table 1.

The key prediction of the personality development paradigm is that neuroticism decreases with age and that agreeableness and conscientiousness increase with age. This trend might be accelerated by spending time abroad, but it is also predicted for students who stay at their university (Robins et al., 2001).

The data do not support this prediction. In the two control groups, neither conscientiousness (d = -.11, d = -.02) nor agreeableness increased (d = -.02, .00) and neuroticism increased (d = .08, .02). The group of students who were waiting to go abroad, but also stayed during the study period also showed no increase in conscientiousness (d = -.22, -.02) or agreeableness (d = -.16, .00), but showed a small decrease in neuroticism (d = -.08, -.01). The group that went abroad showed small increases in conscientiousness (d = .03, .09) and agreeableness (d = .14, .00), and a small decrease in neuroticism (d = -.14, d = .00). All of these effect sizes are very small, which may be due to the short time period. A semester is simply too short to see notable changes in personality.

These results are then interpreted as being fully consistent with the personality development paradigm.

A more accurate interpretation of these findings is that the effects of spending a semester abroad on personality are very small (d ~ .1) and that a semester is too short to discover changes in personality traits. The small effect sizes in this study are not surprising given the finding that even changes over a decade are no larger than d = .1 (Graham et al., 2020; also not cited by Zimmermann et al., 2021) .

In short, the personality development paradigm is based on the assumption that personality changes substantially. However, empirical studies of stability show much stronger evidence of stability, but this evidence is often not cited by prisoners of the personality development paradigm. It is therefore necessary to fact check articles on personality development because the abstracts and discussion section often do not match the data.

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