Ever wonder if that quiet girl who hid in the back corner of the classroom ever burst out of her shell? Perhaps she became a whiz at computers. And what about the class clown? Did all his attention-grabbing antics develop into a charm that would later earn him big bucks selling timeshares in Bermuda?
New research shows that in most cases the personalities displayed very early in life — as young as preschool — will stay with us into adulthood. The wallflowers will stay shy and reticent, though they will learn in time to be a little more sociable and assertive. And the average kids, the more resilient ones, will remain so.
But there is an interesting exception: The study found that as the most noisy and rambunctious kids hit their 20s, they still were more aggressive than the others yet they had become considerably more withdrawn than they were earlier in life. The researchers suspect that negative feedback from peers over the years makes these kids more self-conscious and quiet.
"At first, their impulsive behavior may appear 'cool,' gaining them social recognition," says the study’s lead author Jaap Dennissen, a professor of psychology at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. "However, as people grow up and are expected to act more mature, such impulsive behavior is increasingly rejected. Because of this expected rejection by peers, [they] may act in an increasingly shy manner.”
The new study, which appears in the February issue of the Journal of Personality, followed 103 kids for 19 years, starting when they were age 4 and ending when they hit their early 20s. To get an initial sense of the preschoolers’ personalities, the researchers surveyed both teachers and parents when the children were ages 4, 5 and 6. Based on the observations of their parents and teachers, the children were identified as having one of three personality types: overcontrolled, undercontrolled or resilient.
The overcontrolled kids were generally the ones most of us would categorize as shy: quiet, self-conscious, uncomfortable around strangers. “Overcontrollers control their emotions too much,” explains Dennissen. “So they are less able to act ‘natural’ and ‘spontaneous.’ Because they are so slow to warm up, they are seen by others as shy.”
Undercontrollers have too little control over impulses, Dennissen says. “When they feel frustrated they may act aggressively towards others, notwithstanding the negative consequences.”
The resilient kids are the ones in the middle who are good at modulating their emotions, interacting with others and bouncing back from adversity.
Some mature faster than others
Over the course of the study, Dennissen and his colleagues checked back in on the kids through questionnaires filled out by the parents every year up until the children were 10, and then again when the children reached the ages of 12, 17 and 23.
Interestingly, compared to the resilient children, both undercontrollers and overcontrollers took longer to move into adult roles, such as leaving home, starting a romantic relationship or finding a career. Accomplishing these milestones requires social adeptness that over- and undercontrollers may take longer to develop.
Ultimately, though, no matter which group kids start out in, they usually turn out just fine in the end, experts say. One factor that may help things along is a part-time job during the teen years, according to Dennissen. He and his colleagues found that such work experience led to lower levels of aggressiveness among both over- and undercontrolled kids. With the early job experience, teens learn some of life’s rules, such as that aggression generally doesn’t pay, Dennissen explains.
One thing that isn’t clear from the new study is whether actual personalities were changing with time — or just behaviors.
Even though behaviors, such as shyness, appear to change as kids get older, the underlying personality may remain the same, says Jerome Kagan, an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University. So someone may remain an introvert on the inside but work at being more outwardly sociable.
An earlier study by Kagan and his colleagues used MRI scans to show that the brains of young adults who were identified as shy when they were toddlers worked differently than those who had been more extroverted as kids.
Kagan faults the new study for not looking at the impact of social class on behavior. Kagan, who has spent a lifetime studying whether personality changes with age, says that a host of factors, including class, can make a huge difference in how kids mature.
Kids from middle- and upper-class homes realize pretty quickly that they are from a privileged class, Kagan says. This gives them confidence. Those from poor and/or blue collar homes may become angry at their starting place in the world and that can lead to more aggression.
Other researchers believe that brain wiring — and hence personality — may actually change depending on what types of experiences people have as they grow up.
It’s quite possible that life events change the brain’s biology, says Rebecca L. Shiner, an associate professor of psychology at Colgate University and an associate editor of the Journal of Personality.
“There may be genuine changes at the biological level,” Shiner says. “We don’t yet know enough about that. The research out there suggests that there is moderate stability to personality by the time we reach age 3, but also that tremendous change occurs even up until the 50s. We need to figure out what causes change.”
Rounding off the 'sharp edges'
Parents should understand that just because kids start out over- or undercontrolling doesn’t mean they can’t succeed in life, says Daniel Hart, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children and Childhood Studies at Rutgers University.
By taking the time to teach overcontrolling kids social skills that seem to come naturally to the more resilient ones, parents can help their children overcome, or at least compensate for, shyness, Hart says. In the same way, undercontrollers can be taught to rein in their emotions and be more sensitive to others.
“There are studies that show you can round off the sharp edges of personality,” Hart says.
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.