About the author: Piotr Pluta, MSc in organizational psychology, is the managing director responsible for the consultative services in Human Factors AS, company behind the Diversity Icebreaker.
This question comes up a lot in the Diversity Icebreaker workshop, because of participants’ natural curiosity: ‘Was I always Blue?’, ‘Did my colour change because of my work?’, ‘Will my Green preference fade away, will I become more Blue and Red?’ etc., they may be asking themselves.
Facilitators and consultants are also quite curious, but they phrase this question slightly differently: ‘Do you have any research on whether the preferences change as we age?’
As this topic seems to be quite interesting I decided to share our best understanding of this matter in this blog.
To really test whether the preferences change as we age, we’d need to have what one calls ‘longitudinal studies’ of Red, Blue and Green, i.e. following and testing the same group of individuals with long enough time intervals in between, at different ages. There’s not too many psychological models of individual differences, which has been investigated that way. The majority of studies of this kind are related to personality traits (see Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer 2006 for review). Indeed some changes seem to be taking place when we age, for example:
people increase in social dominance (a facet of extraversion), conscientiousness, and emotional stability, especially in young adulthood ([from]age 20 to 40). In contrast, people increase on measures of social vitality (a 2nd facet of extraversion) and openness in adolescence but then decrease in both of these domains in old age (…). Of the 6 trait categories, 4 demonstrated significant change in middle and old age.
(Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer 2006)
On average, however, none of these changes seems to be very dramatic in nature, i.e. it is unlikely that someone who scores one standard deviation above the population’s mean on Openness to experience at the age of 16 would score one standard deviation under on that same trait when he or she reaches 80.
Back to the Diversity Icebreaker: since we know from our own studies that there are consistent correlations between DI’s three categories and different personality traits (Ekelund & Langvik, 2008), we could attempt to form predictions as to the possible age-related changes in preferences for Red, Blue and Green. Extrapolating from the abovementioned changes observed in personality traits, we could hypothesise that:
- a) between ages 20 to 40, people increase on their preference for Blue (as we know that Conscientiousness increases and that there’s a positive correlation between Conscientiousness and Blue),
- b) they may also increase on Red (longitudinal personality studies reveal an increase on Social dominance, which is a facet of Extraversion, which is correlated with Red),
- and c) preference for Green decreases in older age (people seem to decrease on Openness to experience, which correlates with Green), and so forth…
However, Red, Blue and Green correlate with the personality traits to various degrees and although some correlations are quite high and consistent (observed in different cultures, e.g.), the DI preferences are not equivalent with personality traits. They’re not exactly the same. For example, in one study, the correlation between Extraversion and Red was .31, between Openness to experience and Green .55, and between Conscientiousness and Blue it was .31 (all significant at p<.001 level; see Pluta, Ekelund & Ekelund 2013, pp. 49-52). These correlations would have to be on the magnitude close to 1 for one to assert that, e.g. Red is the same as Extraversion.
That means that there are other variables, beyond personality traits, that can influence one’s preferences for Red, Blue or Green. From our studies we know that models of cognitive styles and values also correlate significantly with Red, Blue and Green, and these variables may change differently than personality traits or don’t change at all as we age… and, so far there’s a research gap in psychological studies to determine that.
To sum up: Red, Blue and Green may change to some extent as we age, because they’re correlated with personality traits and these do change. However, it is unlikely that these changes will be very dramatic. So, we need to take the hypotheses a)-c) above cautiously.
Although we don’t have longitudinal studies, we have some studies comparing different age groups (cohorts) on Red, Blue and Green:
What we can observe in the diagram above, is that groups with 49+ years old above score higher on Blue; at the same time, these same groups score lower on Green. This may seem to somewhat provide support for the hypotheses a) and c), but in reality, we’re dealing with different groups of individuals here, so by no means these differences constitute evidence for any of the hypotheses. Red seems to be going down from the youngest to the oldest groups, only ever so slightly.
So, this study doesn’t tell us much about whether there are some tendencies to change one’s preferences as one gets older. An equally valid explanation would be that when a person was born – any given era, with its social, economic and political context – influenced development of certain preferences. Was the world more Blue in the 50’s? Has it become bit more Red in the more recent decades? Of course, we cannot infer about that from this study either.
Note also that the differences between these age groups are minimal – the biggest gap between the age groups is of approx. 2 points (for Blue and Red, between the <29 years old and >60 years old), which is less than 1/3 of a standard deviation.
I sometimes share that explanation with some of the more curious participants, when they ask whether their scores can and will change. Some also experience that they “had become Bluer after working couple of years in a particular organization” or “after starting to study engineering”; others say that ‘no, they’ve chosen this or that line of specialization because they’re Blue and always has been!’
Another consideration came from a DI train-the-trainer workshop participant, Joe Kearns (member of SIETAR Europe’s board). He wrote to me in an e-mail: “Another factor that could possibly change or influence results of older and younger participants is that as you get older you probably do know yourself better, have more experience to know how you behave, and you have less need to say what you think people want you to say! Particularly in a work environment younger people, in my experience are more open to, and have a greater need to, adapt to fit the cultural environment. As we get older we are more confident of our own views and are more likely to express them honestly.”
Although we don’t have any research that could shed more lights on these hypotheses, I think Joe’s rational is likely correct. At least in principle, we may answer self-scoring personality tests differently when we’re older because we (hopefully) have gained insight and perhaps – as Joe indicates – possibly feel less of a pressure for social desirability.
Final, technical note:
We conducted a number of test-retest studies on a smaller (than the longitudinal studies) time scale. Participants filled out the questionnaire twice, with different time intervals – e.g. 2 weeks in one group and 9-12 months in another. In either of the groups, the correlations between the first and second test result were quite high: around .80 (see Pluta, Ekelund & Ekelund 2013, p. 26). This means that, at least within this short time span, one’s scores change insignificantly.
To conclude, please note that this blog post was only about whether the preferences change as we age. Not about whether we can develop our preferences – or rather – competencies and skills related to either of the colours. You may want to glance at the Diversity Icebreaker Personal Workbook to get some ideas about that topic.