Possible Personalities: Wiebke Bleidorn

By Maya Weeks - How do different environments change the way we act, think, and feel? What lasting impacts do experiences have on our behavior and mindset? Associate Professor of Psychology Wiebke Bleidorn studies the relationships between genes and their environments, environmental influences on personalities, and personality-trait change in relation to life events.

Dr. Wiebke Bleidorn directs the Personality Change Lab and serves as associate editor for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Social Psychological and Personality Science, and Collabra: Psychology. Trained in behavioral genetics and personality psychology, she got her start by “studying genetic and environmental influences on individual differences.” 

In the early 2000s, a few influential studies showed that personality traits can and do change, opening up a new area of research at the intersection of personality, developmental, and social psychology. In this new area, Bleidorn was able to ask, “What is it that drives these changes?”

“It’s almost impossible to pin down measurable environmental influences on personality differences,” says Bleidorn. Yet her curiosity about the relationships between genetics, behavior, and environment persists. “How do genes and environment interact? Why is it that certain personalities, for example, are attracted to certain environments, which may then have an impact on their personality?” 

Key to Bleidorn’s approach is the assertion that without an environment, there can be no behavior. “Genes are not causal,” she says. “They need an environment for genes to be expressed.” The difficulty of measuring such expressions, and the traits they manifest, is part of what makes this work so interesting to Bleidorn. 

Certain traits, like conscientiousness, are adaptive—that is, beneficial in certain environments such as school or college. Others, like neuroticism, can be maladaptive. Maladaptive personality traits predict health issues and even mortality, according to some research. It follows, then, that environments may have measurable impacts on health and well-being—impacts that vary from one person to the next.

Putting the pieces together

Bleidorn’s recent work focuses on how life events can lead to changes in personality. A recent literature review coauthored with Christopher Hopwood and Richard E. Lucas, titled ‘Life Events and Personality Trait Change,’ addresses various life contexts in which individuals’ personality traits may change: romantic relationships, marriage, divorce, parenthood, widowhood, school and college, first jobs and new jobs, unemployment, and retirement. 

The paper finds positive personality trait changes in relation to the first romantic relationship and the transition from school to college or work. But much research remains to be done in the field. “There’s no one big theory that explains it all,” Bleidorn says. “We are putting the pieces together.”

“There’s no one big theory that explains it all,” Bleidorn says. “We are putting the pieces together.”

 

The paper concludes that future work “should use multimethod assessments to capture personality change across multiple years in large samples with designs capable of ruling out potential confounds.” The authors also suggest that new research exploring personality changes “is likely to start with behavioral changes, typically in response to situations or in pursuit of goals.” 

Retirement and personality change

Elsewhere, Bleidorn has chosen to study retirement, which she regards as a major life event. “We currently know little about the impact of life events on personality development in middle and old age.” Her paper Personality Trait Development Across the Transition to Retirement,’ co-authored with UC Davis graduate student Ted Schwaba, works to change that.

Bleidorn and Schwaba studied six hundred and ninety retirees in the Netherlands over seven years. Participants reported on their personality, retirement status, and several other psychologically relevant variables at least six times over the duration of the research period. Their study that retirement is associated with changes in multiple personality traits: “In the month after retirement, participants experienced sudden increases in openness and agreeableness followed by gradual declines in these traits over the next five years. Emotional stability increased before and after retirement. The transition to retirement was not associated with changes in conscientiousness or extraversion. Further, we found significant individual differences in development across the transition to retirement for each personality trait but could not identify any moderators that accounted for these individual differences.” 

Bleidorn and Schwaba note that “it may be difficult to generalize these results to groups for whom retirement may be a qualitatively different experience.” In this case, a pertinent research question in personality development and life events should, according to Bleidorn and Schwaba, also ask “‘when and how does trait change occur?’”

Interdisciplinary aspirations

Beyond the Personality Change lab, Bleidorn often works with other psychologists, including Richard Robins and Christopher Hopwood, her husband. She is also interested in interdisciplinary collaboration. For example, in order to find out how a person arrives in adulthood as a confident or conscientious person, Bleidorn sees collaborations with economists as potentially helpful and exciting.

She also is considering working with Study Abroad participants to explore how their personality traits may change in response to exposure to new people and places. Perhaps this research will begin to answer another of Bleidorn’s ongoing questions: How can we provide a context for people to develop in the best possible ways? 

Learn more about Wiebke Bleidorn.

Filed under: