Less Mature With Age

Our personalities tend to become more “mature” as we age from teens into adults, and then into older adults. But our personalities become less mature as we age from kids into teens:

Hypotheses about mean-level age differences in the Big Five personality domains, as well as 10 more specific facet traits within those domains, were tested in a very large cross-sectional sample (N = 1,267,218) of children, adolescents, and adults (ages 10–65) assessed over the World Wide Web. The results supported several conclusions. First, late childhood and adolescence were key periods. Across these years, age trends for some traits (a) were especially pronounced, (b) were in a direction different from the corresponding adult trends, or (c) first indicated the presence of gender differences. Second, there were some negative trends in psychosocial maturity from late childhood into adolescence, whereas adult trends were overwhelmingly in the direction of greater maturity and adjustment. Third, the related but distinguishable facet traits within each broad Big Five domain often showed distinct age trends, highlighting the importance of facet-level research for understanding life span age differences in personality. (more)

Many like to think that we become more “mature” as we age because our experience with life teaches us the wisdom of mature behavior. They then presume that teens would be better off acting more maturely, and should be forced to do so if necessary.  However, this “maturity as learning” theory conflicts with the fact that we become less mature as we become teens.  An alternate theory, that better accounts for the above patterns, is that we are programmed to have different personalities and attitudes at different ages, because for our distant ancestors those attitudes were useful at those ages.  Beware too easily assuming that others would be better off if they were more like you.

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  • Chip

    Do people really think that maturity increases consistently as we age? My friends and family have only received condolences when their kids hit puberty, for people realize that puberty is a rocky time period. I think most peoples naive understanding of maturity includes a caveat that all bets are off with teenagers. Most of us know how powerful teenage hormones are, from first hand experience.

    • My own thought exactly. We’re going to use one famous decline in maturity for 10 years or so, with an obvious cause (puberty), to argue against any overall increasing trend over the human 120-year lifespan?

      That’s a serious stretch. It’d be like saying, the folk theory that we mature as we age is clearly incorrect because, as measured by the latest psychological tests, babies become less mature and more unpleasant to others when they reach the Terrible Twos.

      • Peter Scott

        Personally, I would love to see how maturity changes over a human 1000-year life span. Get enough people to live for a very long time, and that would be one hell of an interesting experiment.

  • livelyraff

    Or possible that it has less to do with the evolution of individuals and more to do with differing social responsibilities influencing individuals?

  • Nikki

    Its unfortunate, the time it takes, for scientific insight regarding young people to actually influence how we approach matters pertaining to them.

    It has been well understood for years that teenagers do not function as well on an adult of child’s sleep cycle, yet we continue to enforce it through hours of operation in the education system.

    Most likely the education they get while in the High School years would be more effective if school started later.

    • “Most likely the education they get while in the High School years would be more effective if school started later.”

      This hasn’t been tested yet? It seems so easy to do, low hanging fruit.
      I understand school bus systems and maybe rush hour traffics are the primary reasons for early school starts, but if one could demonstrate huge achievement benefits for specific age groups from different study/sleep cycles it would at the least result in a payoff of academic celebrity.

      • Nikki

        Yes, there definitely has been research.

        I think one of the reasons for ignoring the findings has to do with how life in some ways has been getting easier and easier in the West so that each generation ends up thinking the one after them is in some way behaving in a lazy manner–creating a bias in our interpretation of adolescent behavior.

        Adolescents reporting wanting more sleep translates as laziness in the minds of many adults, laziness that needs to be disciplined. Indeed discipline is in order, but wrongly placed discipline may actually be wasting money put into education.

        Traffic is a relavant matter. I wonder how much it factors into policy decisions regarding education.

      • Doug S.

        Yes, it’s been tested. It’s fairly well established. And school officials ignore the findings.

  • y81

    My interpretation would be that (i) our behavior is almost entirely determined by the levels of various hormones, (ii) what we consider “mature” behavior is simply the behavior produced by hormonal levels that characterize adults and (iii) there is no particular reason to assume that the behaviors characteristic of each age are adaptive, it might be that there are other reasons for the hormonal levels in question, and the resulting behaviors are pure artificacts.

  • ‘Teenager’ is way too new a concept and life stage for there to be almost any evolutionary history associated with it. Whatever evolutionary pressures shaped personality development in the past are likely to now be absent or so different as to be unrecognizable.

    If these patterns persist, that is not a validation of their usefulness in the modern world. It only means that they are not so destructive as to decrease reproductive fitness. Evolution isn’t careful optimization, it is the elimination of the totally unworkable.

    –Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    • There has always been an evolutionarily important “young adult” period, no matter what it was called. Yes the environment has changed, but that applies to all ages; it doesn’t mean teen behavior is less well adapted than other age behavior.

      • Ray

        There has never been a widespread, prolonged adolescent phase as we have now.

  • blink

    This looks like an example of counter-signaling. Assume teens and adults are capable of sending a “maturity” signal, though kids are not. Most adults send the maturity signal so at first glance we have a separating equilibrium. Teens counter-signal by sending an “immaturity” signal to distinguish their type from adults. This assumes that “teens” and “adults” are not entirely determined by age or there would be no need for signaling and counter-signaling.

  • Evan

    ‘Teenager’ is way too new a concept and life stage for there to be almost any evolutionary history associated with it. Whatever evolutionary pressures shaped personality development in the past are likely to now be absent or so different as to be unrecognizable.

    This is actually the key. “Teenager” did not exist as a concept in the past, instead people of that age were generally treated as adults. So their minds have evolved to expect to be treated as adults. When they are treated as children instead they get understandably upset. It has nothing to do with powerful hormones and everyone to do with being treated badly by adults.

    If the government monitored your behavior constantly, controlled what time you could leave your house, controlled what media you were allowed to read and watch, wouldn’t let you have sex, and forced you to work at a boring job eight hours a day for free, you’d get pretty mad too. Parents who complain that their teenagers are ungrateful because they’ve given them a lot of time and effort are completely missing the point. That’s like a totalitarian government complaining that their citizens are ungrateful for wanting freedom of speech when they’ve given them free food and health care.

    So why do teenagers actively resist maturity? Because in the ancestral environment, one response to persecution was to band together with other persecuted people and form your own distinct counter-faction or tribe. The instinct to do that still exists, even though it doesn’t make much sense in this context. So teenagers band together and form their own subculture that is distinct from the adults. This subculture develops its own values that actively reject the values of the culture they oppose. This includes the value of maturity.

    So why do teenagers decline in maturity? Short answer, because they live in a totalitarian society.

    ***Note that I am not a teenager, and that when I was I an extremely well-behaved homebody who didn’t understand why the other teenagers were being rebellious. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the reason I was so mellow was because I didn’t want to do any of the things most teenagers are upset that they aren’t allowed to do. In other words, like a lot of people, I was only defending the freedoms that I was using, and ignoring the abridgement of freedoms that I had no use for. It’s a mistake that I’m ashamed of, and that I’m trying to correct for.

    • Doug S.

      What Evan said.

  • Mark Kleiman has made the same point about the hour when school starts (though in the context of crime reduction). His view is that teachers and parents dropping off kids like the time to commute.

    I was similar to Evan, but with a less diminished sense of smugness. I also oppose drug laws but look down on drug cartels, in the imperfect status quo they are engaging in unsurprising but destructive behavior. Three cheers for abject surrender.

  • Mark T

    I’ve always thought that teens’ propensity to stay up all night has an evolutionary reason. Similarly, re the propensity of the elderly to sleep lightly and restlessly at night. These habits make it more likely that, at night, there is someone vigilantly guarding the campsite or village. They also enable the most productive adults to rest as much as possible to work the next day, so a division of labor as well.

    Somewhere on the savannah lie the bones of a family whose teenagers went to sleep “at a reaonable hour”.

  • Perhaps this is linked to the major pruning of synapses which takes place in the brain during adolescence.

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