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Home > Research Articles > Eccentric people more extreme as they age

New Scientist

Sunday, June 30, 2002

Eccentric people more extreme as they age Odd and eccentric behaviour increases with age - but flamboyant behaviour becomes less pronounced, according to a new UK study.

The team at Imperial College, London followed up 202 patients with diagnosed personality disorders. The patients' ages varied widely, with an average of 35. They were categorised into one of three groups. The first, "odd or eccentric", included people diagnosed with schizoid, schizotypal or paranoid personalities. The second, "flamboyant", were antisocial or histrionic. And the third, classified as anxious or fearful, had been diagnosed as having strong obsessional or avoidant personality traits.

Twelve years later, the team re-assessed 88 per cent of the patients (the others had died or refused reassessment). And they found a significant change in personality status over time. The personality traits of patients in the flamboyant group had become significantly less evident, whereas the personality traits of the odd or eccentric and anxious or fearful groups were more pronounced.

"The tendency to be a little odd or eccentric can often be kept under control in younger people, as they modify their behaviour to social norms," says Peter Tyrer, professor of public mental health at Imperial College, who led the study.

"But as people get older there is evidence of reduced plasticity of the nervous system, which makes them less adaptable and increases expression of their odd personality traits," he says.

However, it is not clear why antisocial or histrionic people become less flamboyant as they get older, he says. Previously, most psychiatrists thought personality disorders remained stable over time, says Tyrer. But the new findings could have important implications, he says. "Whilst flamboyant, antisocial behaviour often decreases with age, people often become more suspicious in character. And it's worrying that a lot of world leaders are old men who are less adaptable and prone to conspiracy theories. Stalin was completely paranoid by the end."

A degree of eccentricity can be welcomed by society, however. Tyrer was Spike Milligan's gardener when he was at medical school. "Milligan managed to make a virtue out of his oddness, although he did get more paranoid as he got older," Tyrer told New Scientist.

Epidemiological studies suggest that between eight and 10 per cent of the UK population suffers from a personality disorder. Journal reference: Lancet (vol 359 p 2253)