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Development of Conscientiousness Over the Life Span

By: , Posted on: May 4, 2015

International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavior SciencesThe following excerpt is taken from the Conscientiousness article in the recently published Second Edition of the International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences.

While personality traits are relatively stable, they also demonstrate a degree of malleability and retain the capacity to change across the life. This means that conscientiousness is not a static construct, but can change over time – with individuals either increasing or decreasing with age. There are multiple ways to conceptualize this change.

First, change can be thought of in terms or rank order stability – that is, how a person ranks on a trait compared to others. The rank order stability of conscientiousness increases steadily with age until plateauing between the ages of 50 and 70 (Caspi et al., 2005Roberts and DelVecchio, 2000). This means that an individual who is above average on conscientiousness as a child will likely be above average on conscientiousness as an older adult.

However, these traits also remain open to outside influences and can change and develop over time. Mean level changes, or how a trait changes in absolute terms, also occur across the life span. In general, mean level changes in personality traits occur in the direction of greater psychological maturity (Roberts et al., 2008). Unsurprisingly, conscientiousness is part of this general trend toward maturity, and typically individuals increase in conscientiousness throughout the life span. Across a number of cross sectional and longitudinal studies conscientiousness was found to increase from young adulthood up to the age of 60 (Roberts et al., 2003bSoto and John, 2012). This normative pattern of development replicates across a number of different cultures and countries, including Germany, Italy, Portugal, Croatia, South Korea (McCrae et al., 1999). Out of all of the Big Five traits, conscientiousness is the trait that evidences the largest increases, with increases as large as one full standard deviation across the life span (Roberts et al., 2005b).

While conscientiousness tends to increase across the life span, the rate and direction of change differs depending on age. Young adulthood has been identified as an especially important period for personality development and is possibly the period when personality traits change the most (Roberts et al., 2006b). In late childhood and adolescence, conscientiousness may demonstrate a negative trend before beginning to increase in young adulthood and continue to increase throughout adulthood (Soto et al., 2011). In old age, there is some recent evidence that conscientiousness may again demonstrate declines (Wortman et al., 2012). In general, findings regarding the trajectory of change in old adulthood are less cohesive than those for young and middle adulthood, as not all studies find older adults lower in conscientiousness (Allemand et al., 2008Jackson et al., 2009).

The longitudinal studies of development that identify declines in conscientiousness during old age may differ from the studies that do not find declines in older adulthood in part because of the measures used to assess conscientiousness. Although conscientiousness as a whole generally increases across the life span, the facets of conscientiousness may each have unique developmental trajectories, demonstrating different trends from one another as well as from conscientiousness overall. Several studies examining the specific patterns of the development of conscientiousness facets find evidence for differences in development across the facets. For example, self-control increases across young adulthood and old age (Jackson et al., 2009Soto et al., 2011). Industriousness demonstrates a similar pattern, increasing across the life span, though some evidence suggests that most of the changes occur earlier in adulthood (Jackson et al., 2009Soto and John, 2012Terracciano et al., 2005). Evidence regarding the development of responsibility suggests steady increases throughout the life span (Jackson et al., 2009). Conventionality does not show differences from young adulthood to middle adulthood, but older adults were found to be significantly more conventional than middle-aged adults (Jackson et al., 2009). Finally, the facet of orderliness differs from previous facets, as orderliness undergoes virtually no changes across the life span (Jackson et al., 2009Soto et al., 2011Soto and John, 2012). Overall, increases in conscientiousness earlier in life can be thought of as mainly resulting from increases in impulse control and industriousness, while increases in later adulthood are driven by changes in impulse control, reliability, and conventionality.

While the majority of people increase in conscientiousness as they age, there is a significant amount of people who do not change at all on conscientiousness, or perhaps even decrease (Lüdtke et al., 2011). These variations in development are thought to occur because of the unique experiences people go through and the roles that they take on throughout life (Lodi-Smith, 2007). While it is still unclear what experiences drive changes in conscientiousness, a number of studies have begun to associate life experiences with changes in conscientiousness.

Some of the most influential experiences relate to achievement, particularly achievement within academic settings. Students tend to increase in conscientiousness during their final year of high school, likely in preparation for the new responsibilities they anticipate taking on in college or in the workforce (Bleidorn, 2012). However, individual experiences are important as not everyone follows this pattern. Those who are not invested in school tend to change less compared to those that do invest in school. Similarly, failing an exam is associated with decreases in conscientiousness compared to those that did not fail an exam (Lüdtke et al., 2011).

About the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Second Edition

This 26 Volume, second edition offers a source of social and behavioral science reference material that is broader and deeper than any other. The new edition is the ideal starting point for your research as entries are thorough and complete with references enabling you to push research forward. With over 7,000 authoritative contributors and more than 3,900 articles, the Encyclopedia empowers you to achieve more in your research.

Click here for an overview of the trends examined in the Encyclopedia

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About the Editor

james wrightJames D. Wright is an author, educator, and the Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Central Florida. Wright also serves as the Director of the UCF Institute for Social and Behavioral Sciences and as honorary Editor-in-Chief of the journal Social Science Research. His previous editing experience also includes a twenty-year stint as editor of the Aldine de Gruyter book series Social Institutions and Social Change, two editions of the Handbook of Survey Research (Academic Press, 1983; Emerald Publishing, 2010), and service on the editorial boards of numerous journals. He is the author of 21 books and scholarly monographs on topics ranging from homelessness to research methods to NASCAR, and he has published more than 300 journal articles, book chapters, reviews, essays and polemics.

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