A leopard can’t change its spots

"Of course the zip is stuck, why do you even bother? You know the rules!"(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

“Of course the zip is stuck, why do you even bother? You know the rules!”
(Many thanks to Eleanor Rule for the drawing)

‘A leopard can’t change its spots’ is a phrase often used to suggest that someone’s personality, especially if it is bad, will not change, even if they pretend it has. This is a question of whether our personality can change over our lifetime or if it’s an unchanging structure.

Personality is widely defined as characteristics which account for consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaviour. These personality traits are stable over time and across different situations. These definitions suggest that there is truth behind the idiom; that a leopard cannot change its spots. However there is some evidence to suggest otherwise.

There are some extraordinary cases of personality change such as that of Phineas Gage. He was an American railroad construction foreman who, in 1848, had an accident which resulted in a large iron rod being driven through his skull, damaging most of his frontal lobe. Surprisingly, he survived this accident though he lost his inhibitions both socially and emotionally. This case changed the face of neuroscience as it was the first case to suggest that personality and behaviour were specifically localised within the brain.  However, this is a special case; can a leopard change its spots without suffering severe brain damage?

In 2003, Srivastava et al. performed a study that aimed to find out if personality altered in early and middle adulthood. McCrae and Costa’s 5 factor theory of personality states that personality traits arise from biological causes and reach full maturity in early adulthood, around about 30 years old. This implies that there is little or no change on any personality dimension after early adulthood. Haan et al. (1986) believed that social roles, life events and social environments that change during an individual’s life are factors that have an important influence on basic personality traits. Srivastava et al. found a lack of support for McCrae and Costa’s theory and in some cases, evidence that contradicted their theory. They found that the personality trait of conscientiousness showed a major change during early and middle adulthood, particularly early adulthood. This period of life is often when people are beginning jobs and entering into committed relationships, events that are linked to conscientiousness. The personality trait of agreeableness also showed a significant change later in life when adults are typically caring for children. These findings suggest that people’s personality continues to develop well into middle adulthood.

All of these results indicate that a leopard can (and does) change its spots up until middle adulthood as our personalities develop as we experience the major turning points in life. Our spots/personality then becomes more permanent across different situations and through time, that is if you don’t suffer any brain damage…

Posted on December 3, 2012, in Developmental psychology, Individual differences and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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