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"Personality plasticity in later adulthood: Contextual and personal resources are needed to increase openness to new experiences": Correction to Mühlig-Versen, Bowen, and Staudinger (2012).


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Reports an error in "Personality Plasticity in Later Adulthood: Contextual and Personal Resources Are Needed to Increase Openness to New Experiences" by Andrea Mühlig-Versen, Catherine E. Bowen and Ursula M. Staudinger (Psychology and Aging, Advanced Online Publication, Jul 30, 2012, np). In the article, there was an error in Table 1. In the line "Internal control" the values under the "VC" heading should have been: M (SD) 36.42 (4.67) and under Range should have been [25- 45]. (The following abstract of the original article appeared in record 2012-19850-001.) The central objective of the present study was to investigate whether it would be possible to facilitate increases in openness to new experiences in later adulthood. Specifically, we investigated whether individuals with higher internal control beliefs (personal resource) provided with training to successfully prepare them for a challenging volunteering context (contextual resources) would increase in openness. Participants of the training program (n = 148, 44-72 years, Mage = 62.80) and a control group of volunteers (n = 92, 46-80 years, Mage = 63.01) were assessed 3 times: before the training program (T0), after the training program (T1), and 1 year later (T2). As expected, there was a significant training by internal control beliefs interaction such that participants of the training program with higher internal control beliefs increased significantly in openness relative to control participants between T1 and T2. The current study provides evidence for the plasticity of personality in later adulthood and confirms the importance of both personal and contextual resources. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved).
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Personality Plasticity in Later Adulthood: Contextual and Personal
Resources Are Needed to Increase Openness to New Experiences
Andrea Mu¨hlig-Versen, Catherine E. Bowen, and Ursula M. Staudinger
Jacobs University Bremen
The central objective of the present study was to investigate whether it would be possible to facilitate
increases in openness to new experiences in later adulthood. Specifically, we investigated whether
individuals with higher internal control beliefs (personal resource) provided with training to
successfully prepare them for a challenging volunteering context (contextual resources) would
increase in openness. Participants of the training program (n 148, 44 –72 years, M
62.80) and
a control group of volunteers (n 92, 46 80 years, M
63.01) were assessed 3 times: before
the training program (T0), after the training program (T1), and 1 year later (T2). As expected, there
was a significant training by internal control beliefs interaction such that participants of the training
program with higher internal control beliefs increased significantly in openness relative to control
participants between T1 and T2. The current study provides evidence for the plasticity of personality
in later adulthood and confirms the importance of both personal and contextual resources.
Keywords: openness to new experiences, personality change, plasticity, intervention, internal control
One of the central tenets of lifespan psychology is that human
development is characterized by a considerable degree of plas-
ticity (Baltes, 1987; Kessler & Staudinger, 2007; Lerner, 1996;
Staudinger, Marsiske, & Baltes, 1995). Plasticity denotes the
potential for the modifiability of developmental trajectories
within an individual (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger,
2006). Numerous studies have provided robust and strong evi-
dence of the plasticity of cognitive development across the life
span (e.g., Lövde´ n, Bäckman, Lindenberger, Schaefer, &
Schmiedek, 2010). For instance, cognitive training interven-
tions stimulate more positive patterns of cognitive development
across a range of indicators (Lindenberger & Kray, 2005).
Recently, evidence has been presented that physical fitness
interventions can stimulate positive cognitive development in
later adulthood and old age (Colcombe & Kramer, 2003;
Voelcker-Rehage, Godde, & Staudinger, 2011). In contrast to
the cognitive domain, very little is known to date about the
plasticity of personality development (Böhmig-Krumhaar,
Staudinger, & Baltes, 2002). This seems to be the result of
heavy debate within the field regarding whether personality
develops at all after age 30, let alone whether there is plasticity
in this development (Baltes et al., 2006; Costa & McCrae, 1994;
Helson, Kwan, John, & Jones, 2002). Furthermore, the lack of
interest in the plasticity of personality development may be
related to a lack of consensus about which patterns of person-
ality development are most desirable. In the case of cognitive
development, it seems more obvious that to remember more is
better than to remember less, and to process information more
quickly and accurately is more desirable than to process more
slowly and less accurately (for the relativity of this argument,
however, see, e.g., Baltes et al., 2006).
In the present study, we tested the plasticity of one person-
ality characteristic, namely, openness to new experiences (here-
after, openness). Openness involves attentiveness to inner feel-
ings, active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, preference for
variety, and intellectual curiosity (Costa & McCrae, 1992).
Individuals high on this trait welcome change and seek new
experiences, whereas people low in openness tend to be more
conventional in their beliefs and behavior and prefer familiar
routines to new experiences. We selected openness as the focus
of this study for two reasons: (a) Openness has repeatedly been
identified as an important correlate of personality maturity as
indexed by constructs such as ego level, wisdom, personal
growth, and purpose in life (Compton, Smith, Cornish, &
Qualls, 1996; Mickler & Staudinger, 2008; Schmutte & Ryff,
1997; Staudinger, Lopez, & Baltes, 1997), and (b) openness
typically declines after midlife (Donnellan & Lucas, 2008;
McCrae et al., 1999; Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006).
Thus, it may be useful to investigate whether it is possible to
avoid decreases or to stimulate increases in openness among
This article was published Online First July 30, 2012.
Andrea Mu¨hlig-Versen, Catherine E. Bowen, and Ursula M. Staudinger,
Jacobs Center on Lifelong Learning and Institutional Development, Jacobs
University Bremen, Bremen, Germany.
Andrea Mu¨hlig-Versen is now at Department of Educational Science,
Bremen University, Bremen, Germany.
This research was supported by the German Federal Ministry of Family,
Seniors, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) to Ursula M. Staudinger. Andrea
Mu¨hlig-Versen fulfilled parts of the requirements for her doctoral thesis
within this project.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ursula M.
Staudinger, Jacobs Center on Lifelong Learning and Institutional Devel-
opment, Jacobs University Bremen, Campus Ring 1, 28759 Bremen, Ger-
many. E-mail:
Psychology and Aging © 2012 American Psychological Association
2012, Vol. 27, No. 4, 855– 866 0882-7974/12/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0029357
older adults, and if so, to identify the personal and contextual
conditions that facilitate the positive plasticity of openness.
Is There Plasticity of Personality Characteristics
During Adulthood?
A variety of longitudinal studies have demonstrated event-
related plasticity in the Big Five personality traits, that is, neurot-
icism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and open-
ness (Bagby, Joffe, Parker, Kalemba, & Harkness, 1995; Costa,
Herbst, McCrae, & Siegler, 2000; Lambert & Supplee, 1997;
Piedmont, 2001; Roberts & Chapman, 2000; Robins, Caspi, &
Moffitt, 2002; Trull, Useda, Costa, & McCrae, 1995). For exam-
ple, analysis of data from the Duke Longitudinal Study demon-
strated that the experience of divorce increased neuroticism and
decreased extraversion among men, whereas the opposite pattern
was evident for women (Costa et al., 2000). Experiencing tense,
dissatisfying, and abusive relationships has been associated with
increases in neuroticism (Roberts & Chapman, 2000; Robins et al.,
2002). In contrast, work satisfaction has been associated with
decreases in measures of neuroticism in women (Roberts & Chap-
man, 2000). There are also several studies showing that psycho-
therapeutical interventions can stimulate changes in personality
traits (Bagby et al., 1995; Lambert & Supplee, 1997; Piedmont,
2001; Trull et al., 1995). Three months of treatment have been
found to stimulate decreases in neuroticism (Bagby et al., 1995;
Trull et al., 1995), as well as increases in agreeableness (Trull et
al., 1995) and increases in extraversion (Bagby et al., 1995). These
findings suggest that particular contextual resources such as pos-
itive work experiences or clinical interventions can foster person-
ality plasticity.
To the best of our knowledge, so far only one study has
investigated the potential for increases in openness after a multi-
modal intervention (Piedmont, 2001). During this program, par-
ticipants (chronic polysubstance abusers) met 6 hr/day, 5 days/
week for 6 weeks. The aim of the treatment program was to
empower participants to overcome their addiction and to find
employment. The pre-post intervention comparison revealed a
significant increase in participants’ openness. Unfortunately, how-
ever, no control group was included in this study, and the selective
sample may limit the generalizability of the results. Still, the
findings of this study suggest that fostering an individual’s sub-
jective sense of personal efficacy and procurement of skills that
help people to practically master new situations (e.g., vocational
skills), together with entry into new situations in which they can
apply their skills (e.g., vocational contexts), seem to be supportive
of increases in openness.
Both Contextual and Personal Resources Are Needed
to Support Plasticity in Openness: Competence
Training and Internal Control Beliefs
Individuals are more likely to want to approach novel situations
(i.e., be high in openness) if they feel that they can cope with new
contexts and if past experiences in novel situations have been
positive. In contrast, novel situations may be appraised as threat-
ening (and thus avoided) if the individual feels that he or she lacks
the appropriate resources for dealing with the situation or feels
uncertain about the outcome, especially if aspects of the novel
situation have been associated with negative outcomes in the past
(Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
Contextual Resources
Training that helps people develop the competences to master a
certain novel situation increases the likelihood that the novel
situation will be appraised as a challenge, instead of a threat, as
well as the likelihood that the challenge will be mastered. In turn,
successful experiences in a challenging situation may increase the
likelihood that the individual will seek novel situations in the
future. In other words, training together with mastering a new and
challenging situation may stimulate an increase in openness (cf.
Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Piedmont, 2001).
Contextual Effects Differ Depending on Personal
It is has been demonstrated that contexts (such as training) do
not exert the same effects on different individuals (e.g., Elder,
1998). The degree and direction of (personality) plasticity depend
not only on the contextual resources available to the individual,
such as training and/or experience in new contexts, but also his or
her personal resources (Greve & Staudinger, 2006; Staudinger et
al., 1995). Certain personal resources may serve as “general pur-
pose resources” that predispose individuals toward the mainte-
nance of resources or toward gaining resources across situations
(Baltes et al., 2006; Hobfoll, 1989). One such general purpose
resource is an individual’s internal control beliefs (e.g., Aldwin,
Sutton, & Lachman, 1996). Internal control beliefs reflect a per-
son’s conviction that his or her ability to perform certain tasks or
achieve certain outcomes depends on his or her own behavior,
skill, effort, or personal characteristics (Levenson, 1981; Rotter,
1966). In comparison, external control beliefs refer to the convic-
tion that an outcome is a function of chance, luck, or fate, or is
under the control of powerful others (Levenson, 1981).
Evidence suggests that individuals with higher internal control
beliefs are more likely to profit from competence training and
experiential interventions than those with lower internal control
beliefs. People with higher internal control beliefs tend to have
more positive attitudes toward training opportunities because they
expect that training will result in tangible benefits and are more
motivated to learn (Renn & Vandenberg, 1991). Furthermore,
perceiving a contingency between one’s own actions and outcomes
makes it more likely that an individual will proactively engage in
behaviors (e.g., use strategies, skills) to influence a situation (Al-
dwin et al., 1996; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). For instance, people
with higher levels of internal control have a higher tendency to
purposefully try to control their health through diet and exercise
(Lachman & Prenda Firth, 2004). People with higher internal
control beliefs are also attracted by situations in which they believe
that their personal abilities can exert control over the environment
(Julian & Katz, 1968; Kabanoff & O’Brien, 1980). Given a higher
motivation to learn, greater tendency to apply strategies to a
situation, and motivation to exert control over an environment,
there may be more transfer from training to the situation among
people with higher internal control beliefs. Finally, there is evi-
dence that having high internal control beliefs helps to buffer
against contextual stressors (Callan, Terry, & Schweitzer, 1994;
Cohen & Edwards, 1989; Seeman & Robbins, 1994; Terry, 1991),
which may likewise help people with higher internal control be-
liefs to better master a novel and possibly stressful situation.
Internal control beliefs, however, may also have negative effects
with regard to openness if the person lacks the necessary compe-
tencies for successfully coping with a challenging situation and in
turn attributes stress or failure to his or her own abilities and
behavior, resulting in a reluctance to approach other novel situa-
tions. Furthermore, the tendency of internally controlled people to
use problem-focused coping strategies will result in success only
to the extent that the person has the appropriate “tools” and
strategies. In short, it is the particular combination of internal
control beliefs with the knowledge and skills of how to best master
a situation (provided, for instance, by training) that should result in
more positive attitudes toward novel and potentially challenging
In sum, we argue that the particular constellation of higher
internal control beliefs in combination with a training program and
the actual experience of a challenging new situation has the po-
tential to stimulate increases in openness. Empowering people to
master a new, challenging situation through training should result
in increased openness, especially for people with high internal
control beliefs because such individuals are more likely to (a)
experience the situation as a challenge, as opposed to a threat; (b)
exert more control over the situation by proactively engaging in
appropriate behaviors; and (c) attribute the positive experience to
their own actions and capabilities.
A Quasi-Experimental Longitudinal Intervention
Study of the Plasticity of Openness
In the present study, we hypothesized that a special constellation
of contextual and personal resources would stimulate increases in
openness. We had the opportunity to pursue this question by
evaluating the effects of a volunteer training program and subse-
quent volunteering experience on openness. The training program
was designed to (a) foster volunteers’ sense of efficacy as well as
(b) provide volunteers with practical skills for mastering a volun-
teer project. After the training program, participants continued to
engage in volunteer activities. We assumed that participation in the
volunteer training program and subsequent volunteering activities
would stimulate increases in openness, especially for participants
with higher internal control beliefs.
To test our hypothesis about the effects of the training/
volunteering intervention, we needed to compare any changes in
openness in this experimental group with changes in openness in a
comparable control group. A control group of nonvolunteers does
not provide an appropriate comparison for testing our hypothesis
because any observed differences between the training/volunteer
participants and the nonvolunteers might be due to (a) differences
between volunteers and nonvolunteers across a range of possible
confounding characteristics (e.g., Herzog & Morgan, 1993; Penner
& Finkelstein, 1998; Shmotkin, Blumstein, & Modan, 2003; Wil-
son & Musick, 1997) and/or (b) the activating effects of volun-
teering in general, which have been previously demonstrated
(Morrow-Howell, Hinterlong, Rozario, & Tang, 2003; Thoits &
Hewitt, 2001; Van Willigen, 2000), as opposed to the effects of the
training/volunteering intervention. Furthermore, we can assume
that volunteers who self-select themselves into a training program
are even more positively selected than volunteers in general. We
therefore compared participants of the training/volunteering pro-
gram (volunteer training group: VT) with a control group of
volunteers who participated in similar volunteer projects and were
on the waiting list for the training program (volunteer control
group: VC). We evaluated changes in openness between baseline
(T0) and after the completion of the training (T1) as well as after
1 year of volunteering experience (T2).
We expected that only those VT participants with higher inter-
nal control beliefs would profit from the competence training in
terms of increases in openness (between T0 and T1). We tenta-
tively hypothesized that the increases in openness would at least
remain stable, if not further increase, between T1 and T2. This
latter hypothesis was based on the assumption that VT participants
with higher internal control beliefs would be more likely to gain
more from the training program in terms of initial learning and
transfer and attribute outcomes and success to their own effort.
This constellation, in turn, may be conducive to stimulating the
interest in learning about and participating in other new experi-
ences. Thus, it might also be possible that, in the sense of an
upward spiral, increases in openness continued between T1 and T2
for VT participants with higher internal control beliefs.
The VT and VC groups were recruited from a special training
program in Germany (Erfahrungswissen fu¨r Initiativen; in English:
experience for volunteering initiatives). Thirty-five volunteer
agencies participated in the study. The VT group consisted of those
participants of the second wave (2003/2004) of the training pro-
gram who were also willing to take part in our study (n 148,
participation rate: 72%). Study participants did not differ from
study nonparticipants in terms of age, gender, or education. Indi-
viduals of the VC group were on the waiting list for participation
in the training program (n 92). Members of the VC and VT
groups had already been active as volunteers with a volunteer
agency before participating in or applying for the volunteer train-
ing program. Hence, the present study compared two active and
engaged groups of volunteers.
No significant differences between
the VC and VT groups were found across a range of demographic
variables, subjective health, and cognition, as displayed in Table 1.
We had no specific hypotheses regarding changes in openness among
the VC participants. Because volunteering older adults are a positively
selected group, we assumed that the VC group would show no decline—as
is usually the case in unselected samples of older adults (see Footnote
2)— but rather stability in openness.
To verify the positive selection bias of volunteers, we compared the
characteristics of the VT and VC groups with a group of rather inactive
adults. The nonvolunteering control group (NVC) consisted of nonvolun-
teering (or otherwise active and engaged) older adults (n 105) recruited
through newspaper advertisements. NVC participants were matched with
regard to age, gender, and education as closely as possible with the VC and
VT participants. As expected, NVC participants were less open, reported
lower internal control beliefs, and had lower scores on measures of crys-
tallized and fluid intelligence. NVC participants were assessed at T0 and
T1 and showed no significant changes in openness. The full statistics
regarding the NVC participants can be obtained on request.
Openness. Openness was assessed at all three measurement
points (T0, T1, T2) with the German version of the NEO-Five
Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI; Borkenau & Ostendorf, 1993). Par-
ticipants responded to each of the 12 items on a 5-point Likert
scale ranging from 1 (applies very well)to5(does not apply at all).
An example item is “I often try out new and exotic foods.”
Reliabilities were satisfactory, with Cronbach’s alphas ranging
from .80 to .88 across measurement points.
Internal control beliefs. Internal control beliefs were assessed
at T0 with the IPC scale (Krampen, 1981), a German version of
Levenson’s (1981) Locus of Control Scale. Participants answered
eight items on internal control beliefs with a 7-point Likert scale
ranging from 1 (applies very well)to7(does not apply at all). An
example item is “When I make plans, I am almost certain to make
them work.” Reliability was satisfactory, with Cronbach’s alphas
ranging from .60 to .70 across measurement points.
Control variables.
Demographics and subjective health. We assessed demo-
graphic characteristics and subjective health to help ensure that the
two groups did not differ from each other and also to assess selectivity
due to attrition. At the first measurement point (T0), participants
indicated their age, gender, education, marital status, living arrange-
ments (living alone, living with others), occupational status, and
subjective health on a short questionnaire. Subjective health was
assessed with a single item and a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1
Characteristics of the volunteer projects. To check whether
the volunteering experiences varied across the VT and VC groups, we
asked participants at T2 to indicate the (a) number of projects con-
ducted during the past year as well as provide a short (b) project
description, which we then coded as administrative work, sports-
related, providing training to others, or work within the social domain.
Using single items and 5-point Likert scales, we asked participants to
evaluate their volunteer work according to several dimensions: their
satisfaction with their volunteer work over the past year, the degree to
which their project fulfilled their expectations, unpleasant experiences
encountered during the project, and the degree to which they self-
determined their projects. Participants also indicated whether the
projects were self-initiated and self-conducted (yes/no).
Cognition. There is evidence that openness and cognition are
related (e.g., Sharp, Reynolds, Pedersen, & Gatz, 2010). We therefore
investigated potential baseline differences between groups as well as
possible participation/attrition effects with regard to baseline fluid and
crystallized intelligence. Both fluid and crystallized intelligence were
assessed at T0 and T1. We used scores on the Digit Symbol Substi-
tution Test of the HAWIE-III (Tewes, 1991; a German version of the
Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale—Revised; Wechsler, 1981) as an
indicator for fluid intelligence (perceptual speed). Scores indicate the
number of digits correctly assigned within 90 s (maximum 100). We
used scores on the Mehrfachwahl-Wortschatz-Intelligenztest-B
(Lehrl, 1995), also called the Spot-a-Word test, as an indicator for
crystallized intelligence. Scores indicate the number of correctly iden-
tified words (maximum 37).
Design and Procedure
The baseline measurement (T0) took place before the training
program. A trained project member administered all measures in a
Table 1
Sample Characteristics by Quasi-Experimental Group
(N 148)
(N 92)
M (SD) Range % M (SD) Range %
Age, [years] [44–72] 63.01 (6.30) [46–80]
Gender (women/men) 59.5/40.5 62/38
Education, [years] 13.45 (3.58) [9–18] 12.80 (3.61) [9–18]
Marital status
Married 59.5 57.6
Single 6.1 13
Divorced/separated 20.9 14.1
Widowed 10.1 12.0
Long-term relationship 3.4 3.3
Living alone 35.8 37
Occupational status
Full-time employed 2 7.6
Retired 78.4 72.8
Part-time employed 7.4 5.4
Unemployed 10.8 12
Other 1.4 2.2
Subjective health 3.11 (0.73) 1–5 3.06 (0.80) 1–5
Fluid intelligence 50.60 (11.46) 27–93 48.74 (12.45) 17–93
Crystallized intelligence 32.13 (2.85) 18–36 48.74 (12.45) 17–37
Internal control 36.37 (3.55) 23–45
Baseline Openness 3.59 (0.52) 2–4.58 3.57 (0.51) 2–4.75
Note. VT Volunteer Training Group; VC Volunteer Control Group. Statistics refer to the variables with imputed missing values. EM imputed values
have been rounded to the nearest integer for the categorical variables.
group setting at each volunteer agency (see sample description
above). The VT and VC groups were assessed on the same day,
although at different times. Participants first completed two cog-
nitive tests and then other performance measures that were not part
of the present study. Afterward, participants were given a pre-
stamped return envelope including the demographic questionnaire
and the self-report measures. Participants were asked to complete
the questionnaires at home and send them back as soon as possible.
The first postintervention measurement point (T1) took place after
completion of the training seminars, about 4 months after T0, and
followed the same procedure. One year after the short-term follow-
up, participants completed a mail-in assessment of the self-report
measures (T2). Participants were then debriefed about the study in
Training Program
Members of the VT group participated in a training program
developed and conducted by the German Federal Ministry of
Family, Seniors, Women, and Youth. The training program took
place nationwide between 2002 and 2006 at 35 volunteer agencies.
The aim of the training program was to provide volunteers with
competencies relevant for volunteering activities and to support
them in initiating their own personal volunteering project(s) in
their neighborhood or community. Participants attended three sem-
inars that each lasted for 3 days. Group sizes of the seminars
ranged from nine to 16 people. The first seminar dealt with the
development of a new role identity in the context of civic engage-
ment. An important prerequisite for a new role identity is to come
to terms with oneself. Hence, participants were encouraged to
think about themselves, to critically reflect about their weaknesses
and strengths, and finally to focus on their expectations and con-
ceptions with regard to being a volunteer. After this guided process
of critical self-reflection, participants devised a personal volun-
teering project. The second and third seminar of the curriculum
focused on some of the practical as well as personal competencies
and skills that are needed to successfully engage in volunteering
projects. Participants were taught various practical skills (e.g.,
organizational skills, group leading skills) relevant to volunteering.
Furthermore, the training program was designed to foster the
relevant personal competencies to help prepare participants to face
and master potential challenges of initiating and implementing
their own volunteering projects.
Statistical Analyses
Attrition. To examine predictors of complete versus incom-
plete participation, we conducted a binary logistic regression anal-
ysis with “complete/incomplete” as the dependent variable sepa-
rately within the VT and VC groups. Age, gender, health, social
class, and intelligence are typically associated with incomplete
participation in longitudinal studies (Lindenberger et al., 2001)
and, hence, were entered as predictors in the model with education
as a proxy for social class, along with internal control beliefs and
baseline openness, because these were our main variables of in-
Volunteer projects. We compared post hoc volunteering
project descriptions and evaluations to check for potential differ-
ences in the number, type, and nature of the volunteer projects
between the VT and VC groups.
Missing values. With the exception of the project description
variables, which were measured only at T2, missing values were
low (10%).
Missing values were imputed using the expectation-
maximization algorithm available in the MVA (missing value
analysis) module of SPSS 19 (see Allison, 2009, for a thorough
description). The imputation model included all person-related and
project-related variables previously mentioned and was run sepa-
rately for the VT and VC groups.
Main analysis. The data were analyzed with HLM 6.06
software to account for the nonindependence of time points (Level
1) within individuals (Level 2) and of individuals within volunteer
agencies (Level 3; Raudenbush, Bryk, & Congdon, 2004). We
separately modeled the change trajectories between T0 and T1 and
between T1 and T2. Membership in the VT (dummy) and internal
control were entered on Level 2 as predictors of the intercept and
the piecewise slope terms. The interaction term Internal Control
Training (internal control grand-mean centered prior to calcula-
tion; Aiken & West, 1991) was then likewise added to the Level 2
equation as a predictor of the intercept and piecewise slope terms.
On the basis of the attrition analyses (see Results section), we
included gender as a statistical control. We also included a dummy
variable indicating whether participation was complete (0) or in-
complete (1) as a second statistical control (e.g., Hedeker &
Gibbons, 1997). Continuous variables on Level 2 were group-
mean centered and agency aggregates were included on Level 3
(grand-mean centered; Chan, 1998; Enders & Tofighi, 2007). To
tease apart the interaction between time, internal control, and
training, we conducted simple slope analyses for three-way inter-
actions as described by Preacher, Curran, and Bauer (2006) using
the online interactive simple slope calculator available at http://
Follow-up analyses. Members of the VT and VC groups
differed with respect to the number of volunteer projects com-
pleted (see Results section). However, because the variable “num-
ber of projects” was only assessed retrospectively at T2, there was
a rather high level of missing data on this variable (see Footnote 3).
Consequently, we ran follow-up analyses with number of projects
as an additional control variable using (a) the raw data (n 127)
and (b) the imputed data on this variable to avoid compromising
the power and data quality of the main model.
To rule out the possibility that possible training effects in
participants with higher internal control beliefs could be reduced to
differences and changes in cognitive functioning, we included
measures of crystallized and fluid intelligence at T0 and T1 on
Level 1 as predictors of change in openness between T0 and T1 in
a separate follow-up analysis. In line with the main model, gender
and incomplete participation were included as statistical controls.
The distribution of missing data across variables was as follows: age
(9.2%), gender (6.3%), education (3.3%), family status (1.7%), living
arrangement (2.5%), occupational status (7.9%), subjective health (2.5%),
fluid intelligence (14.6%), crystallized intelligence (9.2%), internal control
(1.3%), baseline openness (0.4%), number of projects (47.1%), met expec-
tations (36.7%), unpleasant experiences (37.1%), self-determination
(37.1%), conducted independently (40.8%), and self-initiation (37.1%).
Sample Attrition
Among VC and VT participants, there were four patterns of
participation: complete participation, 47%; no participation at T1,
21%, no participation at T2, 16%; and no participation at T1 and
T2, 15%. The distribution of participation patterns did not differ
between the VT and VC groups,
(3) 5.35, p .15. These
participation (attrition) rates are comparable to those found in
other longitudinal studies (e.g., Pushkar, Reis, & Morros, 2002;
Rook & Sorkin, 2003; Manners, Durkin, & Nesdale, 2004). Age,
gender, education, subjective health, fluid intelligence, crystallized
intelligence, internal control, and baseline openness did not predict
complete or incomplete participation within the VC group ( ps
.08). Within the VT group, gender (female) was associated with
incomplete participation, 〉⫽⫺0.88, SE 0.38, p .05, odds
ratio 0.42. Namely, male VT participants were more likely to
drop out of the study than female VT participants. None of the
other variables (age, education, subjective health, fluid intelli-
gence, crystallized intelligence, internal control, and baseline
openness) were significant predictors of complete or incomplete
participation within the VT group (ps .07).
Volunteer Projects
Table 2 provides an overview of the characteristics of the
volunteer projects by group. Significantly fewer projects were
conducted by members of the VT group (M 2.12 projects, SD
1.49) compared with members of the VC group (M 3.36 proj-
ects, SD 2.04), F(1, 125) 15.48, p .001. There were no
significant differences between the VT and VC groups with regard
to the distribution of type of project,
(4,169) 4.21, p .38.
One-way analyses of variance did not suggest that there were any
differences as to how members of the VT and VC groups evaluated
their volunteer project experience in terms of their satisfaction
with the project, the degree to which their project fulfilled their
expectations, unpleasant experiences encountered during the proj-
ect, or the degree to which they self-determined their project ( ps
.10). There were also no differences as to whether the projects
were self-initiated,
(1,151) 2.34, p .13, or self-conducted
(1,142) 0.11, p .75.
Main Results
The major question of the study was whether the openness
trajectories of participants of the VT group with higher internal
control beliefs differed from the openness trajectories of other
participants. Table 3 displays the results of the HLM analysis. The
final model included a random intercept, a random slope term from
T0 to T1, and a fixed slope from T1 to T2. Results from the empty
model indicated that 40% of the variance in openness was related
to time and measurement, 57.8% was related to individual char-
acteristics, and 2% was related to volunteer agencies.
Baseline openness. Consistent with the comparison of the
sample characteristics, participation in the training intervention did
not predict baseline differences in openness. Neither internal con-
trol nor the internal control by training interaction was signifi-
cantly related to baseline differences in openness.
Change in openness, T0 to T1. Overall, participants’ open-
ness did not change between T0 and T1. There was no main effect
of training participation on changes in openness between T0 and
T1. Internal control did not predict changes in openness between
T0 and T1. However, as predicted, the internal control by training
interaction did indeed predict change in openness from T0 to T1.
Change in openness, T1 to T2. Overall, participants’ open-
ness did not change between T1 and T2. There was no main effect
of training on change in openness between T1 and T2. Internal
control did not predict changes in openness between T1 and T2.
However, in line with predictions, again the internal control by
training interaction predicted change in openness from T0 to T1.
Simple slope analyses. Even though the overall effect of the
internal control by training interaction was significant in the main
model (see Table 3), the simple slope analyses indicated that
participants in neither the VT nor the VC group increased in
openness between T0 and T1, independent of their level of internal
control beliefs at baseline (ps .13). However, training partici-
pants with higher internal control increased in openness between
T1 and T2, 〉⫽0.34 (0.10), t(232) 3.31, p .001, at 1 SD
above mean internal control. More specifically, training partici-
pants with internal control at least 0.24 SD above the mean (34.5%
of the VT sample) significantly increased in openness between T1
and T2. In comparison, although there was a trend that VC par-
ticipants with high internal control changed in openness between
T1 and T2, 〉⫽0.18 (0.10), t(232) 1.74, p .08, at 1 SD above
the mean, there was no indication of a significant increase in
openness among VC participants, even for participants with very
high internal control beliefs, 〉⫽0.23 (0.13), t(232) 1.78, p
.08, at 2 SD above mean internal control beliefs. Neither VT nor
VC participants with low internal control changed in openness
between T1 and T2, 〉⫽⫺0.12 (0.10), t(232) ⫽⫺1.23, p .22,
and 〉⫽0.08,(0.12), t(232) 0.69, p .49, respectively, at 1 SD
below mean internal control. Figure 1 depicts the patterns of
change in openness across all time points for the VT and VC
Table 2
Characteristics of the Volunteer Projects by Quasi-Experimental
Group at T2
M (SD)%M (SD)%
Number of projects
2.12 (1.49) 3.36 (2.04)
Type of project
Administrative work 20.5 20.1
Training of others 26.8 22.5
Social work 48.2 52.1
Sport 3.6 4.1
Project evaluation
Satisfaction 3.59 (0.84) 3.56 (0.95)
Met expectations 3.49 (0.78) 3.56 (0.92)
Unpleasant experiences 2.27 (0.73) 2.25 (1.03)
Self-determination 3.62 (0.94) 3.34 (1.09)
Self-initiated (yes) 59.3 46.7
Conducted independently
(yes) 39.1 36.4
Note. VT volunteer training group; VC volunteer control group.
Statistics refer to the raw data (n 127). Ranges of the project evaluation
scores were all from 1 to 5.
Differences between VT and VC group significant at p .05.
groups with low and high levels of internal control (1 SD)
controlling for gender and incomplete participation.
Follow-Up Analyses
Number of projects. Including number of projects as a
control variable did not alter the results of the main analyses as
described above with regards to the effects of internal control,
training, and the internal control by training interaction on either
baseline or changes in openness according to both (a) the analysis
including the raw data for number of projects with the reduced
sample size and (b) the analysis with imputed data for number of
Changes in cognition. Baseline openness was significantly
related to baseline crystallized intelligence, 〉⫽0.03 (0.01),
t(230) 2.65, p .01, but not baseline fluid intelligence (p
.32). Neither crystallized nor fluid intelligence at baseline was
related to change in openness between T0 and T1 (p .71 and
p .95, respectively). Change in openness from T0 to T1 was
related to changes in crystallized intelligence, 〉⫽0.06 (0.03),
t(338) 2.24, p .03, but not changes in fluid intelligence
( p .61). It is important to note that the internal control by
training interaction remained a significant predictor of change
in openness between T0 and T1 when fluid and crystallized
intelligence were included as time-varying covariates, 〉⫽0.06
(0.03), t(338) 2.07, p .04.
(a) Model controlled for gender, incomplete participation, and number of
projects (imputed data). Baseline openness: training, B ⫽⫺0.01 (0.02), t(231)
0.12, p .90; internal control, B 0.00 (0.01), t(231) 0.07, p .94; Internal
Control Training, B ⫽⫺0.01 (0.01), t(231) ⫽⫺1.32, p .19. Change in
openness, T0 to T1: training, 〉⫽0.10 (0.09), t(231) 1.08, p .28; internal
control, 〉⫽ 0.03 (0.02), t(231) –1.46, p .15; Internal Control Training,
〉⫽0.07 (0.03), t(231) 2.69, p .01. Change in openness, T1 to T2: training,
〉⫽ 0.04 (0.09), t(528) 0.47, p .64; internal control, 〉⫽0.01 (0.01), t
0.8, p .43; Internal Control Training, 〉⫽0.04 (0.01), t(528) 2.86, p .01.
(b) Model controlled for gender, incomplete participation, and number of projects
(raw data). Baseline openness: training, 〉⫽ 0.09 (0.11), t(120) 0.86, p
.39; internal control, 〉⫽0.01 (0.02), t(120) 0.58, p .56; Internal
Control Training, 〉⫽ 0.01 (0.02), t(120) 0.31, p .75). Change in
openness, T0 to T1: training, 〉⫽0.18 (0.14), t(121) 1.24, p .22; internal
control, 〉⫽ 0.02 (0.03), t(121) 0.71, p .48; Internal Control Training,
〉⫽0.05 (0.03), t(121) 1.88, p .06. Change in openness, T1 to T2: training,
〉⫽ 0.02 (0.13), t(331) 0.16, p .87; internal control, 〉⫽0.00 (0.02),
t(331) 0.23 p .82; Internal Control Training, 〉⫽0.06 (0.02), t(331)
3.16, p .001.
Table 3
HLM Statistics for Main Model (T0, T1, and T2)
Variable BSE t
Baseline openness
Average baseline openness
3.36 0.07 48.37
Agency mean internal control
0.01 0.02 0.48
Agency proportion incomplete participation
0.07 0.16 0.45
Agency proportion women
0.25 0.22 1.12
0.02 0.06 0.42
Internal control
0.01 0.01 0.49
Internal Control Training
0.01 0.01 1.01
Incomplete participation
0.10 0.07 1.46
0.23 0.06 3.73
Change in openness, T0 to T1
Average slope T0 to T1 0.02 0.09 0.25
Training 0.08 0.08 1.03
Internal control 0.03 0.02 1.64
Internal Control Training 0.07 0.03 2.65
Incomplete participation 0.03 0.15 0.19
Gender 0.06 0.11 0.52
Change in openness, T1 to T2
Average slope T1 to T2 0.13 0.10 1.33
Training 0.02 0.09 0.23
Internal control 0.01 0.01 1.02
Internal Control Training 0.04 0.02 2.97
Incomplete participation 0.30 0.13 2.29
Gender 0.03 0.11 0.25
Random effect SD Variance component df
Level 2 intercept 0.29 0.08 162 257.30
Level 2 slope, T0 to T1 0.41 0.17 196 327.56
Level 1 0.40 0.16
Level 3 intercept 0.07 0.00 31 51.68
Note.T0 before training program; T1 after training program; T2 1 year after training program. Results
with unstandardized coefficients and robust standard errors.
df 31.
df 232.
df 532.
p .05.
p .01.
p .001.
In this study, we set out to provide further evidence for one of
the central tenets of lifespan psychology, namely, that there is
plasticity of development throughout the life span well into old age
(Baltes et al., 2006). We investigated the plasticity of human
development not in the well-researched area of cognitive function-
ing, but rather in the domain of personality. We tested whether a
training course designed to foster psychological as well as practi-
cal competence in volunteering and the application of the training
in volunteering practice (contextual resources) combined with high
internal control beliefs (personal resource) would stimulate in-
creases in openness for active volunteers.
It is noteworthy that our study avoided some of the pitfalls that
are usually connected with research in the area of volunteering
such as the issue of sample selection bias. To avoid this problem,
we recruited a control group of active volunteers as opposed to a
sedentary control group. The analyses indicated that the VT and
VC participants were equivalent with regard to demographic char-
acteristics, subjective health, fluid and crystallized intelligence,
internal control, and baseline openness. In line with previous
research about the positive selectivity of volunteers (Herzog &
Morgan, 1993; Penner & Finkelstein, 1998; Shmotkin et al., 2003;
Wilson & Musick, 1997), comparison of the VT and VC groups
with a comparison group of inactive, nonvolunteers demonstrated
that both the VT and VC participants indeed had higher fluid
intelligence, internal control, and baseline openness than relatively
inactive, nonvolunteering older adults (see Footnote 2).
Contextual and Personal Resources Are Needed to
Activate Personality Plasticity
All in all, the study confirmed the hypothesis that personality
plasticity in openness can be observed in older adulthood if indi-
viduals have access to a facilitative combination of contextual and
personal resources. This finding was not compromised when con-
trolling for potentially confounding variables such as number of
volunteering projects, gender and incomplete participation, and
fluid and crystallized cognition as time-varying covariates.
Our results indicate that volunteering on its own (i.e., VC;
irrespective of internal control beliefs) is related to stability in
openness in later adulthood (rather than decline) but not to an
increase in openness. Furthermore, our results show that it is not
enough to provide training to volunteers in order to trigger positive
plasticity in openness. Rather, it seems that the same training has
differential effects on individuals. Analogously, there is evidence
accruing in the realm of cognitive plasticity that the same training
intervention has differential effects on individuals depending on
their genetic characteristics (polymorphism val/val vs. met/met;
Voelcker-Rehage, Jeltsch, Godde, & Staudinger, 2012). In that
sense, it may be useful, if not necessary, to investigate personal-
ized plasticity, that is, the conditions that facilitate plasticity for
specific (types of) individuals as opposed to plasticity as such
(Staudinger, 2010). Of course, personalization may not only be
investigated with regard to genotypes but also personality charac-
teristics and other person variables (e.g., internal control beliefs).
Our results demonstrate that the positive effect of the training
for volunteers with higher internal control beliefs only emerged
over time. Although there were significant differences between the
change in openness between T0 and T1 between the VT and VC
groups based on internal control beliefs (significant interaction
effect), increases in openness for the members of the VT group
with higher internal control became significant only between T1
and T2 (simple slope analyses). This pattern of results suggests
that the actual application of learned skills plays an important role
with regard to observing increases in openness. Applying skills
and practicing a new role may increase the likelihood for success
and positive experiences in the volunteering setting, which in turn
further increases the openness of those participants who attribute
such positive outcomes to themselves. This latter aspect of our
findings is in line with earlier results (cf. Piedmont, 2001) indi-
cating that it was the combination of training and its application
that resulted in personality change.
Our findings add to the literature that has demonstrated that
people with higher internal control beliefs can better profit from
certain contexts because they are more active (Menec & Chipper-
field, 1997; Parsons & Betz, 2001; Wolk & Kurtz, 1975; Ziegler &
Reid, 1979), are better able to buffer contextual stressors (Callan et
al., 1994; Cohen & Edwards, 1989), and have more positive
attitudes toward training opportunities as well as demonstrate more
motivation to learn (Noe & Schmitt, 1986; Renn & Vandenberg,
1991). Our results are suggestive of a “positive spiral” such that
people with initially high levels of internal control beliefs and
know-how (provided by training) tend to profit from challenging
situations (i.e., pursuing volunteering projects; see also Aldwin et
al., 1996).
As found by a number of empirical studies, openness is associ-
ated with many positive outcomes. It has been discussed as the
most central concomitant of personality maturity (Compton, 2001;
Schmutte & Ryff, 1997; Staudinger et al., 1997). Openness is also
positively correlated with ego development (Hogansen & Lanning,
2001; Kurtz & Tiegreen, 2005; McCrae & Costa, 1980), emotional
complexity (Kang & Shaver, 2004), maturity of coping strategies
Figure 1. Changes in openness among volunteer training (VT) and vol-
unteer control (VC) group participants as a function of internal control
beliefs (controlled for gender and incomplete participation). Note. High
and low internal control refers to 1 SD above and below the mean,
p .001; all other slopes are nonsignificant.
(Costa, Zonderman, & McCrae, 1991), and general and personal
wisdom (Mickler & Staudinger, 2008; Staudinger, Dörner, &
Mickler, 2005). In addition, openness seems to constitute a per-
sonal resource that helps people to continue to try out new roles,
which may be especially necessary during retirement when indi-
viduals must actively seek new contexts for activity and engage-
ment. Hence, openness may be supportive of life satisfaction at
older ages (Stephan, 2009). Finally, higher levels of openness also
have been recently linked to decreased risk for Alzheimer’s dis-
ease (Duberstein et al., 2011). It is possible that over a lifetime,
people who are more open expose themselves to a greater variety
of life situations, which in turn acts as a sort of “natural” cognitive
intervention that mediates the link between openness and Alzhei-
mer’s disease risk.
Despite the positive associations between openness and a range
of positive outcomes particularly relevant for older adults, open-
ness tends to decline after young adulthood under current circum-
stances of aging (Donnellan & Lucas, 2008; McCrae et al., 1999;
Roberts et al., 2006). We interpret the results of this study as
evidence that age-related declines in openness do not necessarily
constitute a “natural law” of personality development. Rather, we
speculate that providing individuals with more of an incentive to
continue to venture in new and challenging contexts, in combina-
tion with the procurement of the objective and subjective “tools”
for succeeding in new environments, has the potential to yield
increases rather than declines in openness in later adulthood. This
argument is in line with results from a longitudinal study of twins,
which suggests that changes in openness across adulthood are
almost entirely related to environmental opposed to genetic
sources (Bleidorn, Kandler, Riemann, Angleitner, & Spinath,
Possible Mediating Mechanisms
This first study concentrated on establishing the fact that per-
sonality plasticity in old age can be promoted at all. Our results
indicate that changes in openness between T0 and T1 cannot be
reduced to changes in cognition between T0 and T1. Future work
should address other potential mediating mechanisms that might
be associated with training and internal control beliefs, such as
whether participants actually learned new skills and competencies,
applied more of the learned skills and competencies in the volun-
teering context, and/or whether they really felt more in control. We
have suggested that people with internal control beliefs may have
been able to profit more from the training intervention in terms of
learning and transfer gains. Given that having high internal control
beliefs is an important factor for buffering contextual stressors
(Callan et al., 1994; Cohen & Edwards, 1989; Terry, 1991), it also
may be the case that members of the VT group with higher internal
control beliefs felt in control of the situation as opposed to
stressed, which may have increased their attraction to further novel
contexts. It may be justified to speculate that the training and
volunteer experience represented what Rappaport (1984) called an
empowering context. Empowerment has been described as the
result of programs designed to foster the active participation of the
individual (Rappaport, 1984). Such empowering programs provide
training and opportunities to increase skills, competencies, and
social support, and to encourage participants to become active, to
use their own talents, and thus to develop. Becoming part of an
empowering context has been shown to enhance the sense of
independence and self-determination in older participants (Perkin-
son, 1993). Certainly, more detailed knowledge about the mediat-
ing processes underlying the current results will be essential when
striving toward the systematic implementation of interventions to
promote increases in openness.
Limitations and Suggestions for Future Research
The results of this study are restricted to a highly selective
group, that is, volunteers, who were more open to new experiences
to begin with, and had higher baseline measures of fluid and
crystallized intelligence and internal control compared with a
comparison group of nonvolunteers. It may be more difficult to
stimulate changes in openness among people with initially lower
levels of these personal resources. However, other intervention
work has shown that it is actually easier to increase levels of
functioning from lower baseline levels (e.g., Lövde´n et al., 2010).
Furthermore, the volunteer participants were motivated to enter the
volunteering and training context. It may be that our results are
limited to individuals who feel able to master a context (i.e., in
terms of higher internal control beliefs) in addition to wanting to
enter a context. The same pattern of results may not hold for
individuals unwillingly confronted with a new situation. We can
speculate that stimulating individuals with lower baseline levels of
openness and less motivation to enter new contexts may necessi-
tate more powerful incentives and more intensive preparation.
Another limitation is that a fairly significant proportion of the
participants did not complete the three measurement points. We
statistically controlled for the potential effects of incomplete par-
ticipation. However, our results should be interpreted in light of
this limitation. Furthermore, it may be interesting for future studies
to test the even longer term development of openness following
training and subsequent volunteering experience.
Finally, the current study relied on a self-report measure of
openness. Obviously, self-report measures have certain limitations
(Clark, Collins, & Henry, 1993). Future research would profit from
including behavioral indicators such as entering new social con-
texts, eating new food or engaging in new activities, including
ratings from others, such as spouses and/or trainers, and/or using
diary methods.
To our knowledge, this is the first study that has systematically
investigated the impact of an intervention on older individuals and
found increases in openness. The findings underline that certain
personal characteristics and empowering contextual factors need to
act together for the promotion of openness to occur. Hence, the
results provide evidence for personalized plasticity (Staudinger,
2010). An implication of the present study is that it is not sufficient
to provide opportunities for older individuals to participate in
society. Rather, it is also necessary to provide opportunities to
learn and develop the competencies to be successful in such new
activities, to provide incentives that encourage older adults to learn
new skills, and to identify individuals able to profit from a specific
training. Applying and further compiling such knowledge would
not only benefit the individual enormously, but will also become
increasingly indispensable in societies of longer lives.
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Received November 16, 2010
Revision received May 7, 2012
Accepted May 7, 2012
Correction to Mühlig-Versen, Bowen, and Staudinger (2012)
In the article “Personality plasticity in later adulthood: Contextual and personal resources are needed
to increase openness to new experiences” by Andrea Mühlig-Versen, Catherine E. Bowen, and
Ursula M. Staudinger (Psychology and Aging, Vol. 27, No. 4), there was an error in Table 1. In the
line “Internal control” the values under the “VC” heading should have been: M (SD) 36.42 (4.67)
and under Range should have been [25– 45].
DOI: 10.1037/a0031374
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Full-text available
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