Social Relationships, Transitions, and Personality Development Across the Life Span

Authored by: Frieder R. Lang , Franziska S. Reschke , Franz J. Neyer

Handbook of Personality Development

Print publication date:  April  2006
Online publication date:  February  2014

Print ISBN: 9780805847161
eBook ISBN: 9781315805610
Adobe ISBN: 9781317778073


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Changes of social relationships are part and parcel of personality development over the life course. The continuity and coherence of personality is manifested in the enduring ways in which individuals shape and manage their social relationships. The social world reflects the individual's concerns and behaviors, which in turn reflect affordances of the social environment. Over the past two decades, the theoretical and empirical understanding of change and continuity of personality over the life course has seen enormous growth (Caspi, 1998; Roberts & Caspi, 2003; Roberts & DelVecchio, 2000). However, the dynamic role and functions of social relationships in the lifelong stabilization and continuity of personality is still not well understood. For example, there is no quantitative review of the stability or change of social environments over the life course (see Neyer, 2004; Roberts & Caspi, 2003). One possible explanation for this apparent gap of knowledge lies in the dynamic and interwoven nature of social contexts at various phases of the life course. Moreover, social relationships typically are multidimensional, malleable, and characterized by mutuality and interdependence. Any change in mood, trait characteristics, attitudes, or affect of one partner in a relationship affects the other person and, thus, requires the other to adjust. For example, since the birth of his first child, Peter has become less irritable and more reliable over the years. Mary, his wife (as well as everyone else), expresses greater joy in being with Peter than ever before. But in what ways do such changes of social relationships contribute to the continuity and stabilization of personality over the life course? In this context, personality is defined as a set of relatively stable behaviors, feelings, or cognitions that characterize an individual's behavior consistently across different contexts. Personality characteristics can be classified with respect to their plasticity, stability, and malleability over the life course in two broad classes (Asendorpf & van Aken, 2003): Core personality characteristics such as the Big Five personality are relatively stable, whereas surface personality characteristics are less stable and more closely intertwined with relationship influences.

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