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Debunking the Grumpy Old People Stereotype

Many people stereotype older adults as “grumpy,” particularly older men. We hear about an older person being irritable and think “Ah, well, she’s older.” As if that’s somehow an explanation based around the idea that all seniors are irritable. And if you’re irritable in your 30s, will you be even more irritable as you age? Does personality change with age? The fact is, there’s quite a bit of research out there studying exactly how personality changes with age. And guess what we’re finding consistently? There is no general trend toward getting more disagreeable or grumpy as you age. In fact, the opposite is true. Let’s take a look at the data.

The Big Five

If you don’t read a lot of psychology studies, you need to know one thing: most personality studies in contemporary psychology measure results based on what are called “The Big Five” traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Here’s a quick review of how those traits are generally described.

Extraversion: In most studies, extraversion is the term used to measure things like sociability, outward expressiveness, or excitability.

Agreeableness: Many psychologists use “agreeableness” to measure altruism, affection, kindness, or trust.

Openness: This one covers things like imagination or insight. It can also measure openness to new relationships. Young people, for instance, usually score higher in openness than middle-age or older adults.

Conscientiousness: This term is used to describe levels of impulse control, organization, goal-setting, or thoughtfulness.

Neuroticism: Many psychologists measure anxiety, moodiness, or any type of emotional instability under the term “neuroticism”.

What the Research Says

According to a study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH),  a statistically significant change was found in 75% of personality traits in old age (defined in the study as 60 years and over). This implies that not only do our personalities change as we age, they can change quite a bit! Another study from the American Psychological Association found that we change the most on “agreeable” in terms of the Big Five traits, and that was true for people in their 30s all the way through their 60s. But rather than agreeableness scores going down, they actually rose, which completely invalidates the idea of older people being grumpy!

So where do we get that idea from? Well, there is some evidence that “openness” scores decrease with age, which could mean that people are less open to forming new relationships. It could also point to a decreased openness to new experiences, which may be where we get the stereotype of older people being “set in their ways.” That said, those lower scores might also suggest that as we age, we simply choose to spend more time with a tighter-knit circle of friends and family.

Another NIH study looked at these personality trajectories on a global scale, and found that the same stereotypes about youth and impatience and age and inflexibility permeate all cultures across the globe. However, all the studied stereotypes tended to exaggerate differences across age groups. This implies that while our personalities may change as we age, even to a significant degree, on a global generational level we don’t see the same type of major changes. That research might indicate that much of the personality changes we see come from our own personal experiences rather than from the process of aging itself. Diseases or disorders like Alzheimer’s or frontotemporal dementia, anything that can include cognitive impairment, can also have a huge effect on personality.

Stereotypical “grumpy older people” are clearly less widespread than we like to assume. If you think a loved one may have cognitive impairment that’s affecting their personality, you might want to consider talking to your doctor.