I frequently get this question, for which I’ve had no convincing data to respond: Do personality trait levels change as the result of menopause? I’ve decided to look for an answer. In a recent survey of the published research literature, I found no information. So, in lieu of answers from the known literature, I turned to my database. The U.S. norm group for our WorkPlace Big Five Profile™ personality assessment contains a balanced sample of 1,200 working adults. A detailed description of this norm group is available in our professional manual (available by ordering from firstname.lastname@example.org).
Within our sample, we have 167 females in the 32-40 age bracket, as compared with 79 in the 51-60 bracket. I compared their scores on the 23 subtraits of the WorkPlace Big Five Profile™ to determine whether they increased, decreased, or stayed the same over this range.
I found that 15 of the 23 traits changed over this transitional range for females, with eight traits showing no change. The largest change was a decrease in ambition, with an effect size of .37. Effect size is a way of describing how great the difference between two averages is, based on the variability or consistency of individual scores—if everyone scores similarly, then small differences can have a large effect, but if everyone’s scores are all over the place, then you must have a larger difference in means in order to have a large effect size—around .2 is a small effect, around .5 a moderate effect, and .8 or over is a large effect. So, .37 is considered a moderate effect, but by no means large. In everyday language, it means that there is a moderate tendency for some females to show less interest in achievement after the change of life. However, it is highly likely that women who were driven to high achievement before the change maintain their achievement level after the change, and that the decrease among females is to be found among the less ambitious or driven, who would likely tend to drop off somewhat. Here are the 15 traits that showed moderate to small changes, from greatest change to least change for women:
- Ambition/drive decreased, with an effect size of .38
- Perfectionism decreased, .37
- Concentration increased, .34
- Activity level decreased, .27
- Reserve increased, .25
- Interest in others’ needs decreased, .21
- Trust increased, .21
- Tact decreased, .21
- Tendency toward agreement/avoiding conflict increased, .16
- Attention to detail increased, .15
- Organization decreased, .14
- Imagination decreased, .13
- Change tolerance decreased, .11
- Resilience decreased (needing more time to rebound from a crisis), .10
- Worry/anxiety increased, .09
I would be interested in your observations on these changes. Here are mine:
- None of the changes are large, so no sweeping generalizations are possible.
- Yes, some females exhibit changes over the time before, during, and after menopause, but such changes are not inevitable for every female, nor are they necessarily permanent if or when they occur.
- I would like to find a way to analyze the data to determine which females undergo these changes. For example, I suspect that females who are already at an extreme are likely to stay there, whereas persons not so extreme are the ones who account for most of the movement. A strong neatnik is less likely to back off her neatnikness that a more moderate neatnik.
- The stereotypical perception that menopause results in major changes in mood or behavior is not justified for females as a group—based upon our full-time working women sample. However, some individuals may exhibit major changes. More likely than not, the mood swings that some women (especially those more prone to the negative emotions, such as anxiety and anger) experience during this transition are temporary, with the typical female returning to the same set points for traits that were exhibited prior to menopause.
- If a woman’s traits are at different levels after menopause, then it is likely that the changes would be found among these 14 traits. But for the vast majority of women, don’t expect trait changes as the result of menopause. You are justified in expecting temporary states, just as you can expect temporary states among men.
- We do not if the causes of these changes are menopause, the normal effects of aging, or something else. All we can say is that they follow menopause.
For your information and consideration, here are the eight traits that did not change:
- Optimism/interpretation of events
- Tendency for taking charge
- Comfort with Complexity
Meanwhile, what’s going on with the guys? I thought it only fair to take a look at the men over this same time span. I conducted an identical analysis with the 179 men in our balanced norm group in the 32-40 age group, and the 87 men in our 51-60 group—all full-time working men. As with other studies, males show more extremes than females—larger effect sizes but fewer changes in trait levels. Here is how the males changed over the same period as the females, listed from largest change to smallest, as measured by effect size:
- Reserve increased, as it did with females, but with twice the effect size, .43
- Warmth decreased, .34 (no change in the females)
- Tendency toward agreement/avoiding conflict also increased, and with twice the effect size, .32
- Interest in others’ needs increased, opposite from the females’ decrease, and with a similar effect size, .26
- Imagination decreased, as with the females, but with twice the effect size, .26
- Tendency to take charge decreased, .24 (no change in the females)
- Sociability decreased, .19 (no change in the females)
- Activity level increased , .19 (decreased among the females)
- Ambition/drive decreased, as with females, but with only half the effect size, .18
- Humility decreased somewhat, .18 (no change in the females)
- Tolerance for change decreased, .17, similar to the females
What do I make of these comparisons?
- Males and females changed similarly on five traits: more reserved/less vocal, less likely to embrace conflict, less active imaginations, decreased ambition, and less welcoming of change
- Males changed in four areas while females showed stability: less warmth and sociability, decreased tendency to take charge, and somewhat more pride
- Females changed in eight areas where males showed stability: perfectionism decreased, concentration increased, trust increased, tact decreased, attention to detail increased, organization decreased, resilience decreased, and worry increased.
- Males and females diverged on two traits: females showed a greater priority on their own needs, while males showed greater interest in others’ needs; additionally females showed a decline in activity level, while males showed a small rise.
- Males and females remained stable as a group on only four traits: temper/anger, optimism, comfort with complexity, and methodicalness.
- Women, known for their tendency to be more relationship-oriented, exhibited stability in that arena, while men showed decreased warmth, sociability, assertiveness, conflict engagement, and tendency to take charge, suggesting a decreased interest in maintaining quality relationships on the part of some men.
- Men known for their ambition and self-absorption, showed a movement away from self—more interest in others’ needs, decreased tendency to embrace conflict and more likely to be agreeable, less outspoken/more reserved, decreased bossiness/tendency to take charge, and decreased ambition. Some have called this the “grandpa effect”—goin’ fishin’ with the grandkids more preferable to some than steppin’ out with an adult partner.
Admittedly this is a cross-sectional and not a longitudinal study, and a longitudinal study would be preferred. However, these findings suggest that we should try to find longitudinal data that confirm or challenge these modest changes. My lesson from this brief analysis is that most peoples’ trait levels—male and female—are the same after midlife as before, that a few show decreases or increases, that during the transition some people exhibit temporary states that dissipate, and that, in general most people remain at the same trait level throughout adulthood.