Social Investment Theory is a concept that focuses on the idea that individuals make social decisions based on various factors such as the expected rewards, costs, and benefits associated with those decisions. Accordingly, as an individual moves through life, the changing social environments impact personality. The theory particularly focuses on the significant life transitions from adolescence to adulthood and how these transitions contribute to personality development.
Jenifer Lodi-Smith and Brent Roberts define social investment as “investment in, and commitment to, adult social roles.” They add that “the primary adult social roles that define social investment are centered in work, family, and community” (2007). According to social role theory, the major life changes associated with these social investments that typically occur as an adolescent moves into young adulthood accounts for the normative personality changes that follow.
Social Investment Theory is an offshoot that intertwines research from several other notable theories such as:
- Developmental Theories
- Life Course Theory
- Role Theory
- Big Five Personality Trait Theory
- Adaptation Psychology
Social Investment Theory hypothesizes that personality matures in young adults because of environmental changes such as new social roles, responsibilities, and age related normative expectations.
According to the Social Investment Theory, individuals have a limited amount of resources, such as time, energy, and emotional support, which they can invest in different relationships and social activities. These investments can be seen as an allocation of resources in the hope of obtaining certain benefits or returns.
The theory suggests that individuals engage in social investments when they perceive that the potential rewards outweigh the costs involved. Rewards can include emotional support, companionship, social validation, or access to resources or opportunities. On the other hand, costs can involve time, effort, compromise, or emotional stress.
However, the balance of rewards and costs shift in alignment during significant life transitions. Young adult life, marked by movement from childhood homes, entering into new relationships and moving from education into new career paths, create new reward structures, altering rank-order of priorities. Consequently, these transitional shifts impact the maturation of personality traits. Moving from school into a career oriented job requires new commitments. Likewise, moving from the family home into intimate relationships requires a different balance of give and take.
The Big-Five Personality Trait Theory vs. Social Investment Theory
Research specifically identifies the impact of young adulthood on changes in traits of agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability; as measured from traits from the five-factor theory. Boer et al., wrote “the transition from student life to working life tends to happen in a life phase in which clear personality maturation is observed: individuals tend to become more agreeable, emotional stable, and conscientious” (2019). While Big-Fiver personality trait theory and social investment theory both acknowledge that young adulthood is significantly associated with personality changes, the two theories diverge on the underlying causes of these changes.
Big-Five Personality Trait Theory and Personality Trait Changes
In this theory, the concept of social exchange plays a crucial role in personality maturation and development. Social exchange refers to the process of individuals engaging in social transactions with others, where they give and receive resources, support, and benefits. These exchanges can occur in different types of relationships, such as friendships, romantic partnerships, or professional collaborations. Accordingly, age-specific roles have a significant impact on personality development.
According to the five factor theory “personality trait development is largely determined by intrinsic biological maturation, with only a negligible role of life experiences” (van Scheppingen, et al., 2016). Basically, the theory proposes that the significant changes occurring at the end of adolescence and the transition into young adulthood is a natural biological process of maturation. Personality growth occurs naturally, much like physical growth, naturally during different stages of development. Perhaps, we could say that personality hits a natural biological directed growth spurt during the transitional phase between adolescence and young adulthood.
Brent Roberts explains that according to the five factor perspective “traits remain so stable in adulthood that they are ‘temperaments’ and are impervious to the influence of the environment.” He continues, “in terms of the personality traits, the five-factor theory clearly states that trait develop through childhood and reach maturity in adulthood and are thereafter stable in ‘cognitive intact individuals and that this pattern holds across cultures” (Roberts, Walton, & Viechbauer, 2006).
Social Investment Theory and Personality Changes
While the five trait theory ways heavy on the nature side of the nature-nurture debate, social investment theory gives more weight to the nurture side. Social investment theory argues that “investment in age-graded social roles, such as spouse, parent, and employee, is a key influence on personality development (Bleidorn, et al., 2013). Basically, according to social investment theory, it is the change of social environments that change identity processes, rank -order of priorities, and eventually influence change in personality traits.
Neither theory suggests that personality traits flip, they just experience age related normative changes. Typically, research has discovered that traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness increase while behaviors associated to neuroticism soften.
Most research refers to adaptive changes. However, in neurosis, an individuals pattern of adapting to change may be maladaptive, relying on unhealthy defense mechanisms instead of helpful adaptations. Because of the enormous demand associated with adult social roles, the increased stress of new demanding normative behaviors may ignite destructive magnifying of unhealthy adaptations already in place. An individual already on the fringes may further disengage form normative behaviors setting life long patterns that inhibit rather than expand opportunities for growth.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
In summary, Social Investment Theory provides a framework to understand how age related roles and expectations impact personality development.
*Bleidorn, W., Klimstra, T., Denissen, J., Rentfrow, P., Potter, J., & Gosling, S. (2013). Personality Maturation Around the World. Psychological Science, 24(12), 2530-2540. DOI: 10.1177/0956797613498396
*Boer, L., Klimstra, T., Branje, S., Meeus, W., & Denissen, J. (2019). Personality Maturation during the Transition to Working Life: Associations with Commitment as A Possible Indicator of Social Investment. European Journal of Personality, 33(4), 1. DOI: 10.1002/per.2218
Lodi-Smith, J., & Roberts, B. (2007). Social Investment and Personality: A Meta-Analysis of the Relationship of Personality Traits to Investment in Work, Family, Religion, and Volunteerism. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(1), 68-86. DOI: 10.1177/1088868306294590
Roberts, W. Brent; Walton, Kate E.; Viechtbauer, Wolfgang (2006). Patterns of mean-level change in personality traits across the life course: a meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin 2006, Vol. 132, No. 1, 1–25. DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.132.1.1
van Scheppingen, M., Jackson, J., Specht, J., Hutteman, R., Denissen, J., & Bleidorn, W. (2016). Personality Trait Development During the Transition to Parenthood. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(5), 452-462. DOI: 10.1177/1948550616630032