Friday 18 January 2019

Mary Kenny: The leopard changes its spots

A new study claims we change "out of all recognition" between ages 14 and 77

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Here's a blinding flash of the obvious: a study carried out at the University of Edinburgh has found that people change over the course of their lives. Between the ages of 14 and 77, profound shifts of personality occur: individuals alter "beyond recognition", according to the Scottish project - which was led by Mathew Harris, an academic brainbox, and examined the mental health of Scots over six decades.

Traits that were evident in adolescence faded. Back in the 1950s, young teenagers were assessed for characteristics such as self-confidence, perseverance, stability of mood, conscientiousness, originality and desire to learn.

A sizeable number of the same individuals were tested again recently, at the age of 77, and the boffins concluded that only two of these character traits - conscientiousness and stability of mood - remained consistent. Harris and his team were also puzzled as to why these two traits remained, whereas others often vanished into thin air.

You know what happens? Life wears you down. The feminist Gloria Steinem once said that "life breaks all of us in the end". The researchers put this in more scientific lingo: "A wide range of genetic and environmental factors likely contribute to change in personality traits over time and it is not yet clear why some traits might be more affected by these factors than others."

I have seen some of those changes take place - simply through the process of weary experience - and the slow, dawning realisation that many, if not most, of your dreams are unlikely to be fulfilled: that marriages, entered into with rapture, descend into sordid quarrelling; that children, born into morning joy, may grow to be disturbed adolescents and then suicidal adults; that the idealistic values of shining youth collapse into the disillusion of corrupt systems.

I'm now watching a generation move into middle age - people in their 40s and 50s whom I first knew as children and adolescents - and sometimes it's heartbreaking to see the hand that life has dealt them. I have seen optimism falter, hope dashed and blithe spirits turn dark and bitter.

It's not the grey entering their hair: it's the iron that enters the soul.

So - why wouldn't personalities change over that lifespan, from 14 to 77? People have to survive and adapt as best they can. Self-confidence will be undermined and perseverance dented. Originality and desire to learn takes a shocking hit when you come to realise that there are a heck of a lot of people out there who are a lot more original and keen of intellect than you are.

Yeats lamented at the way in which life's course can change people - for him, for the worse - in his poem Why Should Not Old Men be Mad?. He offered the melancholy reflection that: Some have known a likely lad / That had a sound fly-fisher's wrist / Turn to a drunken journalist.

My husband used to quote those lines ruefully. Yet there's always another side to the story. Maybe the lad who was a talented angler found he couldn't make a penny piece out of fishing; maybe he earned a decent living toiling in the print trade and better enjoyed a few drams at Davy Byrne's with mates than sitting by a lonely riverside with a fishing rod?

Real life sometimes leads you in ways dictated by necessity. And along the route you not only lose illusions, but, to the bewilderment of the Edinburgh eggheads, your personality changes and adjusts.

And there's got to be an upside too. Some characteristics are discarded with the passage of time, and some are improved. Gradually, over the years, I have learned to correct a once almost-incorrigible unpunctuality. The mobile phone is said to facilitate lax timekeeping because meeters can always text a message saying, "I'm running late," but it's had the almost opposite effect on me. Gone are the days when I might be an hour, even two hours, late for a meeting (or even a meal).

Maybe it's not the mobile phone: maybe it's the well-observed fact that older people are usually more reliable, not because they were born that way, but because they have learned to become more reliable. You have more awareness of the impact of careless or selfish behaviour on others. That's a good outcome, isn't it? It demonstrates the plasticity of the brain in its ability to learn from experience.

Some traits don't alter - some can be magnified, and not always in a good way: the brilliant talker becomes the garrulous bore, the careful planner becomes the obsessive control freak. But if many changes are adjustments from a process of disappointment and disillusion, some may be a wise mellowing.

In Mike Mills' film 20th Century Women, Annette Bening plays an unconventional woman, Dorothea, who has resisted social conformity and lived her own life with a commitment to honesty, but, at 55, she suddenly baulks at some of the 'hardcore feminism' that a younger woman seems to be pushing at her 15-year-old son (urging him to repeat the word 'menstruation, menstruation', as a feminist-friendly exercise). Openness and honesty have their limits: Dorothea is adjusting.

I've seen how life changes people. Yet for all the slings and arrows which we have to suffer, I still believe we can aspire to change for the better.


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