Old Dogs, New Tricks: Why Personalites Change After 70

New research in Germany shows that something triggers after decades of adulthood controls. And no, it's not retirement or grandparenthood that explains the changes.

Go ahead and smile...
Go ahead and smile...
Wiebke Hollersen

BERLIN — "People never change..." It's one of those phrases we say among family, mostly with a sigh of resignation. Grandpa's the way he is because he was always that way, you know about teaching new tricks to old dogs. Mostly this refers to character, for example, just how open and easygoing Grandpa is. Or is not.

Historically, such popular notions were backed up by psychological research. "It had been recognized that during the course of a life, personality traits stabilize, and research mostly wasn't conducted with those over 30 or 50," says Jule Specht, a psychologist at Berlin's Free University.

So she conducted further research, and what she found was that many people change markedly at about age 70. That's the time in development at which one in four people takes on entirely different personality traits, Specht has found.

With her colleagues Maike Luhmann and Christian Geiser, Specht evaluated data from two large population studies in Germany and Australia. The German data comes from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), a study conducted over a long period with thousands of people questioned each year since 1984. The data is invaluable for psychologists researching patterns in lives.

Specht and her colleagues evaluated material from 2005 to 2009, during which more than 23,000 people offered regular input about their character traits. Participants were between the ages of 16 and 82 and were asked to evaluate their personality traits according to criteria psychologists refer to as the "Big Five" — emotional stability, openness to new experience, easygoingness with others, conscientiousness, and the degree of intro or extraversion that indicates whether a person tends to be withdrawn or outgoing.

From these traits, psychologists determine personality types. Specht and her colleagues found three main types among the participants, which is what they expected. Most people belong to the "under-controlled," "resilient" or "over-controlled" personality types. Resilient people, robust and resistant, are the ones that function best in daily life. These people are self-contained, capable, and seldom suffer from psychological issues. About half the 30-year-olds in Germany, Specht says, belong to this type.

Many of them, mainly young men, were "under-controlled" in their youth. Under-controlled people tend to be impulsive and stubborn, hostile to rules, and aren't overly conscientious about the way they do things.

"This personality stabilizes around 30," Specht says. This maturing could be biologically determined or explained by socialization hammered home in daily life. Anybody who wants to keep a job, for example, better learn to follow certain rules.

"Over-controlled" people tend to change their traits less as they mature. They remain emotionally sensitive, tend to be nervous, and are particularly dependable in their relations with others. Men and women are represented in approximately equal numbers in the different personality types. And they usually stay in that type for a while when they are over 30.

Among the middle-aged, Specht says, there were "relatively few changes" over the course of the four years that she evaluated. Among those over 70, on the other hand, all sorts of things began to happen. Their personalities changed in all possible directions. They were less controlled, lived more impulsively, or they achieved greater self-esteem and inner peace. Others turned into "over-controlled" personalities. All this applied to older Australians and Germans, men and women alike.

Her and him. Photo: Katinalynn

The researchers were surprised by the changes in character traits in older people, and so far have been unable to determine what drives these changes. After having tested for the influence of several different factors, they are only sure about what doesn't explain the changes.

Why it doesn't happen

For example, older people do not change because of retirement, becoming grandparents, because their partner of many years dies, or because they develop health problems. "These things do play a role but it's not particularly big," Specht says. The changes are also not genetic. Research has shown that genetic differences in older age largely determine a person's mental capacities, and the influence of their environment decreases.

The psychologists now want to research the possibility that people change their character traits in older age because they sense the end of life approaching. There has been research showing that people reaching the end of life reevaluate what's important. "In advanced age, people tend to work on themselves," Specht says. "They don't try to change others but rather themselves."

Do new traits better suit the different life circumstances of older age? Does not having to go to work every day engender a decreased desire in being productive? Or is it that older people can't keep up certain traits — for example, conscientiousness or nervousness — because they have less of the energy required to do so?

It could also be that Specht and her colleagues haven't yet discovered what's driving these personality changes in older folks "because we don't have an overview of all the changes and influence factors at that age," she says. Most researchers are relatively young, including 28-year-old Specht.

The psychologists have thus begun to make research trips to old people's homes in Berlin, hoping that residents will tell them what it means to be old.

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]


Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos


• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.


"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.


$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.


What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️


"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."


An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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