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Observe the Child, See the Adult

A new study compares teachers’ assessments of schoolchildren with interviews given by those same people as adults. It suggests our personalities are pretty much set early on.
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At what age do our personalities form, and how stable do they remain for the rest of our lives? When you observe a child, can you really see the man or woman they will grow into?

Such questions have longed been pondered by theorists and explored by artists, including the creators of the compelling Upseries of documentaries. But hard data on the subject is, understandably, scarce.

That makes a new study, just published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, unusually interesting to students of human behavior. It compares teachers’ assessments of Hawaiian schoolchildren with interviews given by those same individuals as middle-aged adults.

It finds that, four decades later, the traits noticed by the teachers were still very much in evidence, albeit in somewhat different form. After more than half a lifetime, an individual “remains recognizably the same person,” according to the research team, led by psychologist Christopher Nave of the University of California, Riverside.

Between 1959 and 1967, teachers in selected Hawaiian elementary schools formally evaluated the personalities of more than 2,400 students from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. The list of attributes they considered, such as “adaptability,” “impulsivity” and “spitefulness,” varied somewhat from place to place and year to year, but there was considerable overlap.

Over the past 12 years, more than 450 of those former students have visited a Honolulu clinic and “completed an extensive battery of medical, physical and cognitive measures, as well a semi-structured personality interview,” the researchers report. Nave and his colleagues randomly selected 144 of them, all of whom agreed to having their interviews videotaped.

Trained undergraduate research assistants watched the tapes and evaluated the behavior of the participants using a standard set of ratings. Those scores were then compared with the evaluations made in first, second, fifth or sixth grade.

It turns out those teachers were both perceptive and prescient.

“Children rated as ‘verbally fluent’ (under instructions that define the term as referring to unrestrained talkativeness) displayed dominant and socially adept behavior as middle-aged adults,” the researchers report. “Early ‘adaptability’ was associated with cheerful and intellectually curious behavior.”

In contrast, “Children rated as low in ‘adaptability’ were observed, as adults, to say negative things about themselves, seek advice, and exhibit an awkward interpersonal style. Children rated low in ‘verbal fluency’ by their teachers were observed, as middle-aged adults, to seek advice, give up when faced with obstacles, and exhibit an awkward interpersonal style.”

There were still other matches. “Early ‘impulsivity’ was associated with later talkativeness and loud speech,” the researchers write. “Early-rated tendencies to ‘self-minimize’ (defined as ‘tends to minimize one’s own importance; humble; never brags of shows off’) were associated with adult expressions of insecurity and humility.”

Undoubtedly, more analyses will arise from this valuable data set. It would be interesting to compare the long-term accuracy of the first- and second-grade evaluations compared to those made in fifth and sixth grades.

But these results help Nave and his colleagues make their larger point: While context is a crucial component in determining how people act, personality — a fundamental force that drives behavior — appears to be a constant.

My 9- or 10-year-old self, who studiously scoured the newspaper for suitable stories and oversaw our classroom’s current events bulletin board, would no doubt agree.