People’s personalities obviously influence their career choices.  It’s no surprise that shy people tend not to sell used cars or that first responders tend to like stimulation and excitement more than, say, librarians do.  What may be less obvious is that people’s jobs can then influence their personalities.  

These are the key conclusions from research that we carried out looking at the effects of work on personality development over a 50-year period from childhood to adulthood. We found that children’s personality traits when they were 6 to 12 years old were associated with their occupational choices to some degree, but we also found many examples of ways in which the jobs people had predicted their personality traits as adults.

We analyzed data from the Hawaii Personality and Health Cohort, which includes data from more than 2000 children on the Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai who underwent a personality assessment conducted by their elementary school teachers almost 50 years ago. Since then, more than 1300 of those kids have been located and studied as adults. Our study was conducted with nearly 600 of these people, who provided information about their employment and personality traits.

At both time points—in childhood and adulthood—we measured the five broad personality factors that form the core of human personality—Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Openness.  

We then used Holland’s model of occupations to classify people’s jobs into six basic categories—Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, or Conventional.  Realistic work involves manual tasks and doing things with one’s hands. Investigative work involves problem solving or research. Artistic work involves being creative or expressive. Social work involves caring for, helping, or teaching others. Enterprising work involves commerce or business. Conventional work involves service-oriented tasks, administration, or following procedures.

We then analyzed these data to understand how occupations relate to personality development from childhood to adulthood. Our results showed that the relationship between personality and occupations goes in both directions. For example, children higher in Openness—who are highly curious and intellectual—were more likely to work in Investigative or Artistic jobs as adults. But then, in turn, working in these kinds of Investigative or Artistic jobs were associated with higher Openness later in adulthood. Personality affected people’s occupation choices, but then those jobs affected their personality down the road.

So, sometimes, our traits as children make us more or less interested in different kinds of work activity. We develop occupational interests and choose a career that fits with our personality. Our daily experience of work then serves to reinforce and strengthen those aspects of personality that led to our interests in the first place.

However, we also found many examples in which occupations predicted adult personality in ways that were not linked to childhood personality. For example, no matter what their personalities were like as kids, people who worked in occupations that were highly Social tended to be higher on Extraversion and Agreeableness later in adulthood, and people working in occupations that were highly Realistic tended to be lower in Agreeableness later on.

These examples reflect what we describe as personality development that occurs through simply “inhabiting” an occupation. Many people select or just end-up in a career for reasons other than their personality traits or interests. Economic necessity, random opportunity, or the influence of other people may all play a part. This is different from gravitating to a job based on one’s personality and interests.

What was striking in our findings was that, regardless of the journeys that people took through life to get to their occupations, the kind of work that they experienced predicted their traits later in adulthood. Indeed, in some cases, work experiences were a stronger indicator of adulthood personality than childhood traits were.

Our study has implications for how we think about personality and work. We might often assume that trying to attain an optimal fit between our work and our personality limits our job options because only a small number of occupations suit our traits and interests. However, people can grow to fit their jobs over time as their traits develop in ways that make them a better fit for their occupations. In this sense, our study suggests that work is a potential source positive psychological change and growth.

For Further Reading

Woods, S. A., Edmonds, G. W., Hampson, S. E., & Lievens, F. (2020). How our work influences who we are: Testing a theory of vocational and personality development over fifty years. Journal of Research in Personality85, 103930.

Stephen Woods is Professor of Organizational Behaviour and HRM at University of Liverpool Management School, and an Occupational Psychologist whose research interests are focused on personality at work.

Grant Edmonds is a Research Scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, whose research interests are focused on understanding the mechanisms linking personality to physical health across the lifespan.