As hypothesized, older women scored moderately higher on Neuroticism and Agreeableness than older men, and on all specific components of these domains. Older women scored higher on the Aesthetic Interest, while older men scored higher on the Intellectual Interest component of Openness. The consistency of these findings across different points in the lifespan is consistent with the notion that biological and sociocultural forces responsible for this gender differentiation do not diminish in old age.
FFM traits have traditionally been considered to have strong biological bases, with heritability estimates on the order of .5 (Loehlin, McCrae, Costa, & John, 1998
). This would suggest relatively persistent gender differences across the lifespan as well as across culture. Our results are congruent not only with prior findings in adult samples but also with reports by Barefoot and colleagues (2001)
of higher levels of depression, and by Lowe and Reynolds (2006)
of higher levels of anxiety in older adult women. The persistence of earlier socialization processes (Eagley, 1987
) could also factor into such findings, such as norms permitting women to disclose more negative feelings (e.g., Reynolds, 1998
). In later life, women are also confronted with a number of gender-specific age-related role transitions (i.e. mother to grandmother) and health issues (i.e. osteoporosis, increasing risk of breast and ovarian cancer) which may maintain the gender gap in Neuroticism observed at earlier ages (Sinnott & Shifren, 2001).
Agreeableness findings are also consistent with well-replicated results from earlier life phases (Costa et al., 2001
; Feingold, 1994
). Both evolutionary and social role theory explanations have been proffered for the consistent finding that women tend to be more nurturing. Evolutionary explanations emphasize the adaptive advantage for reproduction and preservation of offspring conferred by sensitivity and nurturance (Buss, 1995
), while social role theory attributes female nurturant behavior to feminine gender role socialization (Eagley, 1987
). These explanations appear equally applicable to older adults, or at least suggest that gender differentiation on Agreeableness achieved earlier in life remains in older adulthood.
As in younger samples (Costa et al., 2001
), men evinced more Intellectual Interests, and women more Aesthetic Interests. In explanations of such differences among adults, Costa and colleagues have (2001)
have noted that men favor more information-oriented occupations, while women prefer aesthetically oriented occupations (Costa, McCrae, & Holland, 1984
). It remains unclear whether this is a cause or result of gender differentiation on these aspects of Openness, but a reasonable hypothesis would be that personality and vocation mutually influence one another: Gender differences in intellectual and aesthetic pursuits may emerge during schooling, leading to different educational and career trajectories. Spending one's work years in occupations congruent with one's basic tendencies may in turn strengthen those tendencies, entrenching gender differentiation in these aspects of Openness. Of course, there are many men who favor aesthetic pursuits and many women who favor intellectual activities, so gender differences are averages only about which individuals vary.
Exploratory analyses of other subcomponents showed that men scored moderately higher on the Activity dimension of Extraversion, which assesses dispositional energy levels and physical vigor. This finding appears congruent with literature on physical exercise and activity in older adults suggesting that men engage in more ambulatory walking and other forms of physical exercise (Lee, 2005
). Findings at earlier points in the lifespan suggest that women score slightly higher on the NEO-PI R Activity facet. The pattern may be truly reversed in old age, perhaps as a result of the higher incidence of osteoporosis in older women compared to men, or may be dependent on the measurement differences between this NEO-FFI subscale and that of the NEO-PI R.
A final interesting comment concerns the magnitude of the difference between men and women on Agreeableness. While the present effect size we found for Neuroticism (d =
.52) was nearly identical to that reported in earlier work on adult samples (d
= .51 in Costa et al., 2001
), the effect size observed for Agreeableness in the present study (d
= .35) is somewhat less than that observed in prior work on adults (d
= .59 in Costa et al., 2001
). One possible explanation for this is the differences in measures and analytic strategies between this study and that one. However, another interesting possibility is that gender differences on Agreeableness do actually diminish to some degree in older adulthood as a result of shifting role demands (Sinnot & Shifren, 2001
). For instance, Guttman's (1987)
cross-over hypothesis postulates that men may become less assertive and dominant with age after establishing themselves in careers and turning attention to parenting, whereas with age women may become less nurturing and more assertive after shifting their focus from motherhood to career or other interests. Such shifts would explain attenuation in the Agreeableness gender gap in later life. Perhaps future work can investigate this issue directly.
Our results must be considered in the context of a few qualifications. First, the present results are based primarily on self-report. McCrae et al. (2005)
replicated patterns of trait differences in observer reports of young adults. A similar replication in older adults is required to rule out reporting bias. Second, we used the NEO-FFI rather than the NEO-PI R, so we were unable to thoroughly investigate the full complement of gender differences observed at the specific facet level of the latter instrument. Future work might examine NEO-PI R facet gender differences in older adults. Third, our sample was recruited from random sampling of visits to a primary care clinic and, while potentially representative of general older community samples, may be different in some ways. Community based survey studies may address this.
Taken on balance, these results represent an important extension of prior findings to an elderly cohort. In old age, as well as midlife and young adulthood, women score higher than men on Neuroticism and Agreeableness. Gerontological research incorporating personality measures may wish to consider the implications of these gender differences for a variety of different lifespan research areas, including health. The gender differences in Neuroticism and Agreeableness that are by now well-established in younger samples appear persistent across the lifespan.