Does Personality in Young Adulthood
Determine Personality in Old Age?
Lest you think the controversies underlying adult development and aging do not reflect ongoing debate, consider the case of personality in adulthood. Perhaps no other topic in gerontology has resulted in such heated debates as whether people’s basic personality remains the same throughout adulthood or undergoes fundamental change. As we explore in detail in Chapter 9, numerous theories have been developed just to account for the data on this one topic.
Consider yourself and other adults you know. Is the person labeled "class clown" in high school likely to be as much of a fun-loving person 10, 20, or 30 years later? Will the shy person who would never ask anyone to dance be as withdrawn? Or will these people be hardly recognizable at their various class reunions? Probably in your experience you’ve encountered both outcomes; that is, some people seem to remain the same year after year, whereas some people seem to undergo tremendous change. Why is that?
For one thing, it depends on how specific you get in looking at aspects of a person’s personality. In the case of a very specific trait, such as shyness, you will probably see overall stability across adulthood. But if you look at a more global aspect such as the degree to which a person is concerned with the next generation, then you are more likely to find change.
What does this mean? Certainly, it means you have to be very careful in making general statements about stability or change. It also means you have to be quite specific about what you are interested in measuring and at what level of complexity. We will encounter many more examples of both stability and change throughout the book that reflect both these needs.
For example, it is known that some forms of Alzheimer’s disease are genetically linked. However, whether one actually gets Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly even how the disease progresses, may be influenced by the environment. Specifically, an environmental trigger may be needed for the disease to occur. Moreover, some evidence indicates that providing a supportive environment for people with Alzheimer’s disease improves their performance on cognitive tasks, at least for a while (Camp, 2001).
So in order to understand a newborn’s future we must simultaneously consider his or her inborn, hereditary characteristics and the environment. Both factors must be considered together to yield an adequate account of why we behave the way we do. To explain a person’s behavior and discover where to focus intervention, we must look at the unique interaction for that person between nature and nurture.
18 CHAPTER 1
The Stability-Change Issue. Ask yourself the following question: Are you pretty much the same as you were 10 years ago, or are you different? How so? Depending on what aspects of yourself you considered, you may have concluded that you are pretty much the same (perhaps in terms of learning style) or that you are different (perhaps in some physical feature such as weight). The stability-change issue concerns the degree to which people remain the same over time, as discussed in the Current Controversies feature. Stability at some basic level is essential for us (and others) to recognize that one is the same individual as time goes on. But we also like to believe that our characteristics are not set in concrete, that we can change ourselves if we so desire. (Imagine not being able to do anything to rid yourself of some character defect.)
Although there is little controversy about whether children change in some ways from birth through
age 18, there is much controversy about whether adults do as well. Much of the controversy over stability and change across adulthood stems from how specific characteristics are defined and measured. How much we remain the same and how much we change, then, turns out to be a difficult issue to resolve in an objective way. For many gerontologists, whether stability or change is the rule depends on what personal aspect is being considered and what theoretical perspective one is adopting.
The Continuity-Discontinuity Controversy. The third major issue in developmental psychology is a derivative of the stability-change controversy. The continuity-discontinuity controversy concerns whether a particular developmental phenomenon represents a smooth progression over time (continuity) or a series of abrupt shifts (discontinuity). Continuity approaches usually focus on the amount of a characteristic a person has, whereas discontinuity approaches usually focus on the kinds of characteristics a person has. Of course, on a day – to-day basis, behaviors often look nearly identical, or continuous. But when viewed over the course of many months or years, the same behaviors may have changed dramatically, reflecting discontinuous change. Throughout this book, you will find examples of developmental changes that appear to be more on the continuities side and ones that appear to be more on the discontinuities side.
An example of continuity is discussed in Chapter 6: reaction time. As people grow older, the speed with which they can respond slows down. But in Chapters 8 you will read about an example of discontinuity: How people approach problems, especially ones with complex and ambiguous features, undergoes fundamental shifts from young adulthood through middle age.
Within the discontinuity view lies the issue of how adaptable people are in situations as they age. Baltes and colleagues (1998; Baltes et al., 1999) use the term plasticity to describe this in relation to people’s capacity. Plasticity refers to the belief that capacity is not fixed, but can be learned or improved with practice. For example, people can learn ways to help themselves remember information, which in
turn may help them deal with declining short-term memory ability with age. Although plasticity can be demonstrated in many arenas, there are limits to the degree of potential improvement, as we will see in later chapters.
The Universal versus Context-Specific Development Controversy. The universal versus context-specific development controversy concerns whether there is just one path of development or several. Consider the! Kung tribe, who live in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana in southwest Africa (Lee, Hitchcock, & Biesele, 2002). If you were to ask an older! Kung “How old are you?” you would quickly learn that the question has no meaning. !Kung also do not keep track of the number of years they have been alive, the number of children they have, or how often they move. !Kung mothers can describe in detail each of their children’s births, but they leave it to others to figure out how many children this adds up to. To the! Kung, age per se is unimportant; when asked to describe people who are “younger” or “older,” they give the names of specific people. Social roles among the! Kung also do not differ by age; for example, women in their 20s and 60s all tend gardens, draw water from wells, and take care of children.
Life among! Kung adults contrasts sharply with life among adults in the United States, where age matters a great deal and social roles differ accordingly. Can one theory explain development in both groups? Maybe. Some theorists argue that such differences are more apparent than real and that development worldwide reflects one basic process for everyone. According to this view, differences in development are simply variations on a fundamental developmental process, much as Hershey, Nestle, Lindt, and Godiva chocolates are all products of the same basic manufacturing process.
The opposing view is that differences between people may not be just variations on a theme. Advocates of this view argue that adult development and aging are inextricably intertwined with the context in which they occur. A person’s development is a product of complex interactions with the environment, and these interactions are not fundamentally
the same in all environments. Each environment has its own set of unique procedures that shape development, just as the “recipes” for chocolates, computers, and pens have little in common.
The view adopted in this book is that adult development and aging must be understood within the contexts in which they occur. In some cases, this means that contexts are sufficiently similar that general trends can be identified. In others, such as the! Kung and U. S. societies, these differences prevent many general statements. In Levar’s case with his granddaughter, it may be a blend of the two.
1. What are some examples of the biological, psychological, sociocultural, and life-cycle forces of development?
2. What are the major issues in each of the controversies underlying adult development and aging?
3. What are the three distinct processes of aging?