Bryan Caplan  

What is Maturity - and Who's Got It?

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Like most interesting words, "maturity" is hard to define.  The most literal definition is just "how much you act like an adult."  But since adult behavior varies widely, and we often call some adults "immature," that's not very helpful.  As far as I can tell, the most important components of maturity are:

1. Orientation toward work rather than play.

2. Taking a long-run view rather than acting impulsively or spontaneously.

3. Being serious rather than silly.

4. Identifying with - and taking the side of - older people.

A colleague disputed a more primitive version of #3.  In his view, what people do in their free time can't affect their "maturity."  I say he's wrong.  I'm quite open to the view that maturity is over-rated, but in ordinary usage there is definitely such a thing as "immature humor."  The Three Stooges is immature, and if you enjoy it, so are you. 

So who's mature, and who's not?  The most obvious generalization is that maturity increases with age.  By my criteria, it's not a necessary truth, but nonetheless hard to deny.  Further conjectures:

Higher-IQ people probably tend to be a little more mature, but primarily because they score higher on #2.

Educational attainment and maturity are more tightly linked: People higher in #1, #2, and/or #3 are naturally more successful in school.

Perhaps more controversially, by all four measures, women are (a) more mature than men at a given age, and (b) mature at a faster rate.  I'm not confident that this is true cross-culturally.  Remember this piece claiming that gender gaps are bigger in more "modern" societies?   But at least in the modern U.S., the maturity gap seems pretty obvious.


1. Are there any important components of maturity that I'm missing?

2. Are you aware of any data against which we can test my conjectures?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (39 to date)
Michael Keenan writes:

"Maturity", meaning "how much you act like an adult", covers a multitude of adult-like attributes - some good (like taking responsibility for mistakes), some not-necessarily-good (like being serious).

So maturity is a big category, one that obscures much with its size. Consider a "mature" way to handle a relationship conflict, like calmly explaining why you feel the way you do, versus an "immature" way, such as initiating a screaming match. Does this sense of maturity have much to do with enjoying immature humor? I think these two concepts covered by "maturity" have little to do with each other; the word is overloaded with two meanings.

When discussing a word in the absence of a use for the word, we can become unhinged. To take the Zen proverb about the tree falling in the forest too literally: the word "sound" has two meanings, one being "acoustic vibrations"; the other being "an auditory experience". Arguments can rage unless the participants ensure that they use the same definition. Perhaps they should taboo the word "sound" and talk instead of auditory experiences and acoustic vibrations.

Taboo the word "maturity" and find out what you really want to know. If your colleague had said "what people do in their free time can't affect how responsibly the behave in their working and personal relationships]" you might have agreed with him, or at least you could have argued about it in greater detail. Trying to cram disdain for immature humor into the same category as conscientiousness seems to me an awkward fit.

agnostic writes:

The GSS must have questions related to all of those.

On 2), women are more impulsive than men. Any study of sex differences in personality shows that. It's not clear that that's the opposite of "taking a long-run view," though. What if I want to minimize regret as I age? Then I will impulsively indulge in guilty pleasures right now, so that I'll have plenty of enjoyable memories as I get older. I won't be as weighed down by missed opportunities.

It's really a question of what thing in the future you're optimizing. Immature and mature people are both optimizing for their future selves, with immature people minimizing the sting of regret, and mature people minimizing the poking of guilt.

As for age, it's more curvilinear, increasing through age 65 or so, and declining afterward. People that age go on spending sprees for their grandchildren, since they don't have a long future ahead of themselves. For the same reason, they don't take themselves so seriously and can goof around more. And they've worked long enough; time to have more fun.

On 4), one of the first EconTalk podcasts on inheritance mentioned that daughters are about twice as likely to care for elderly relatives than are sons, even controlling for the carer's income (since the opportunity cost of caring would be greater for men, who make more money).

Missing component -- ability to forgive and move on.

agnostic writes:

Actually, daughters caring more than sons for elderly relatives -- you'd probably want to check this for genetic strangers who need care. Women are more oriented toward their narrow family and a few friends, whereas men are oriented toward really big groups.

Maybe who donates more to elderly-related charities, controlling for income.

roo writes:

It's accepting that there are some things you want but will never have, and that that's ok.

Patrick writes:

Consideration of the effects your actions will have on other people. In other words, anticipatory empathy.

Liam writes:

What if your job is to be silly? Like your 3 Stooges example. In their private life they were normal, mature adults. So they support points 1 and 2 by acting contrary to point 3. And this is not limited to comedic actors. Fox news constantly says silly things in total seriousness and consider themselves exceptionally mature. And on point 4, I completely disagree. There are a large number of irrational seniors and 50 something who I can not identify or take sides with and I can guaruntee there are a bunch you know too.
Being mature is just simply acting responsibly when it's appropriate. All other times you are free to be yourself.

Moqi writes:

having life experience and using it to judge and to make decisions?

mineralstoffe writes:

Maturity is the ability to control anger and settle differences without violence or destruction. Maturity is patience. It is the willingness to pass up immediate pleasure in favor of the long-term gain. Maturity is perseverance, the ability to sweat out a project or a situation in spite of heavy opposition and discouraging set-backs.

Liam writes:

Not necessarily life experience. Common sense can make for some very mature children and they in turn can make good decisions without the necessity of life experience.

SheetWise writes:

Mature people are honest, and genuine in the way they represent themselves.

dw writes:

any chance you'd consider reversing your correlation on High IQ/#2?

Ryan Vann writes:

Maturity is just a catch all phrase for people who approach life in the way you like it. Naturally, immaturity is the exact opposite. Basically, it is an empty word that frustrated people level at those they don't understand and can't get leverage over. Children for instance, are not immature; adults often just don't understand what motivates them and don't know how to appeal to them with incentives.

David Beckworth writes:

Houw about this:

Maturity = low discount rate

J. Mauad writes:

To be spontaneously responsible for your actions. To assume your own faults and mistakes, without blaming others for them.

Thomas Boyle writes:

If we view having children as a form of consumption, i.e., play, then women are less mature on metric 1.

More generally, if we view activities as being a mixture of "work" and "play," where the "play" element is the intrinsic reward of the activity to the participant, and "work" is the other benefits (cash or material in-kind benefit), then I'd argue that women are markedly less mature on your metric 1. They are strongly biased toward social/caring professions (emotionally rewarding to the participant) and raising children (which, for most families, is a form of consumption, i.e., "play") rather than toward professions whose primary reward is the money (dirty, dangerous, and/or impersonal and boring jobs). While any of these activities may be "a lot of work," so is mountain climbing or kayaking. It is the intrinsic reward to the participant, not the level of effort required, that distinguishes work from play.

Horatio writes:

I think you're wrong about women being more mature at all ages. While this certainly seems true until ~20 years of age, maturity levels of men surpass women at this age, at least for my generation. Perhaps older generations were different.

If we take J. Mauad's definition:
To be spontaneously responsible for your actions. To assume your own faults and mistakes, without blaming others for them.

Women are less mature than men from ~20 to old age, at which point they appear equally mature. I agree with your reservation about culture affecting the relative maturity levels of men and women. In many Latin American countries, women are more mature than men at all ages.

Steve Horwitz writes:

Why I oughta....

I just wish to register my objection to the Stoogephobia on display here. Many very mature people love the Stooges, particularly for the way that they punctured the pomposity of the rich and powerful, including a couple of great anti-Hitler shorts in the 1940s.

I generally agree with Bryan's categories here, but judging people's maturity by how they, in the broadest terms, recreate seems wrong. The whole point of "play" is often to let go of the very factors that define our more general maturity.

Tom Crispin writes:

Maturity is understanding when childish behavior is inappropriate.

David R. Henderson writes:

Ditto Steve Horwitz.
Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

FDS writes:

Though I suspect that Bryan is a mature adult, and though I love this blog, I think the commenters have a much better idea of what maturity is than Bryan, at least based on his post. By his standard, Ted Kaczynski is mature. Some of the most serious, hard-working people are utterly incapable of forming adult relationships, completely inflexible, have no healthy degree of self-awareness, disdian work-life balance, take no time to relax or enjoy life (which can absolutely involve being silly)and can be shockingly self-absorbed and cruel.

John Jenkins writes:

I don't think that you will be able to define maturity without importing value judgments (i.e., something is "immature" because you don't like it).

From the comments, it's clear that when people refer to someone as mature, they mean that person is "someone like me."

Robin Hanson writes:

This is an excellent question. Many dictionaries define maturity is "fully developed" or "ready or ripe." So this suggests that it depends on the social roles that adults are expected to fill. Traditionally women were more ready at an early age to fill their social roles, while men had to take longer to prove themselves and build up various forms of capital. So yes women were more mature, but because more preparation was required for male adult roles.

I also suspect that men forming stronger same-gender pair bonds is also relevant; one often must act more kid-like to signal a strong pair bond.

agnostic writes:

It's also worth looking at the difference in variances among men and women. Part of the confusion about how mature men are is that they are probably more diverse, as they are in many other traits (IQ, height, etc.).

I think we have an accurate hunch that men are over-represented in the tails of childlike silliness and refusal to grow up, as well as stoic paternal discipline.

Lee Kelly writes:

The pretension of maturity is immature, e.g. young girls trying to appear older by doing "grown-up" things.

A mature person is so by habit/reflex/nature, and can be behave silly without embarrasment on occassion. Being mature often means being self-conscious and then saying "the heck with it," while the immature person is self-conscious and lets it rule them.

Isegoria writes:

Of the four points you list, the second — taking a long-run view rather than acting impulsively or spontaneously — stands out to me as best fitting most people's use of mature.

I might rephrase it as seeing beyond one's own immediate needs, because maturity involves accepting responsibility for how one's actions affect others.

guthrie writes:

Part of the problem I see is that 'maturity' many times translates into 'taking yourself seriously' and 'repressing "insane", "obscene", or "unoriginal" ideas'. A child writing a story about being chased down a mouse-hole by a giant spider is of no concern, but a 15 year old might be seen as 'needing help'.

Unfortunately this leads to all kinds of irrationalities and assumptions concerning our behavior and that of those around us that have nothing really to do with some objective definition of 'maturity'.

Context also seems important (per Tom, above). There are jokes I'd repeat at a bar that I'd never repeat at work.

And I also agree with Steve that the Stooges and others like Mack Sennett (Keystone Kops) get maliciously thrown under the bus in these kinds of discussions (of course, if they were so thrown on film, it would be hilarious)!

EM writes:

The factors Caplan lists seem to lead to the conclusion that to be mature, one must also be "stodgy" or "grumpy" or "boring." Not so.

A more Aristotelian definition would likely involve:
(1) Having a strong sense of personal responsibility and taking action to fulfill one's responsibilities.
(2)Having a sense of socially appropriate behavior and acting accordingly, where socially appropriate behavior is consistent with responsible (principled) behavior.

Mature people do not lack the ability to have fun - indeed, they should have the most fun because they know how to do so in a considerate and appropriate way. Likewise, they have a well-developed sense of when to be serious and when to be silly - but that doesn't mean they are always serious. They are not necessarily oriented to work rather than play but they know when to prioritize each. They work hard and they play hard. They may or may not take the side of older people, depending on whether the "side" is consistent w/ (1) & (2) above.

So, Aristotle was all about finding the mean between extremes. And, the ability to discern said "mean" is likely the best summary of "maturity" that I know of.

Matt writes:

Great Topic, Bryan.
Older generations might consider initiation into adulthood (first beer, first vote, moving out of the house) as a possibility, but not mine.

How about the attainment of certain abilities; getting a date, asking for a raise, getting a job, haggling, confrontation skills, grilling a steak etc. Most kids aren't very good at any of that.

This might tie in with your #2, but how about resposibility and ownership of the different variables and relationships in your life. If a QB doesn't chew out his WR after dropping a pass the coach is likely to say that that is a problem with maturity. The QB sees the drop as the WR's problem and not his own.

Jonathan Goff writes:

I would say for #3 that it isn't so much seriousness vs. silliness per se, but the ability to be serious when seriousness is required. Joviality isn't a sign of immaturity, it's only when someone can't sober up and focus that I'd call it immature.

Or maybe maturity is overrated.


RL writes:

I think maturity involves, at least, recognizing and dealing with one's responsibilities, not putting off for tomorrow what one can accomplish today. I hope eventually to say more on this...

Forrest Gump writes:

Mature is as Mature does.

Mike Kenny writes:

I think an odd thought--elderly people might have a shorter time horizon because they're going to die soon, so they act in ways that to others might seem childish, because their actions don't look far into the future.

I'm actually not sure if this really is the case, but it's a funny thought to think old people might act in an immature fashion, though they are about as mature as you can get in a more literal interpretation of the term.

Anyway, I think Richard Posner wrote about elderly having a shorter time horizon than I suppose middle-aged people.

CJ Smith writes:

1. Orientation toward work rather than play.

This isn't a free choice, it's a result of trying trying to get better toys to play with. Example: At 5, you are satisfied with a toy car provided by your parents; at 25, you want your own car, but have to assume the financial burdens of gas and insurance, at 45, you want a Mercedes, and have to earn and spend enough to support your status symbol. Given the choice and the resources to do it, most people of any age would choose play over work. Consider star athletes, corporate CEOs and other multi-millionaires and their families - they play not because they are immature, but because they have the resources to allow them to. Conversely, those people that claim that they would rather work than play just have not consciously realized that work to them is play - enjoyable diverting activity. Broad generalizations - bankers bank because they enjoy moving huge amounts of money around; professors teach because they love examining concepts and opinions; bloggers blog because they have no other productive work to do -g-.

2. Taking a long-run view rather than acting impulsively or spontaneously.

Relative to what time frame? My wife gets lost going into and out of a gas station, because she does not conceptualize where she is relative to the entrances and exits - does this make her less mature than me? I realize that in 10 billion years or so the Universe will either implode into a super black hole or suffer from entropic heat death - does this make me the most mature person on this blog? Hardly (a fact I am rather proud of).

3. Being serious rather than silly.

This one is completely baseless. Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Shakespeare, political cartoonists, political satirists - these folks aren't immature per se - they are using humor as a statement on the ridiculousness that exists in everyday society. As the old saw goes, "You can either laugh about it or cry about it." The fact that the Stooges and Mel Brookes lampoon Hitler via slapstick routines and musical comedy, rather than writing a essay on the eco-social problems of fascism does not make them or the criticism any less mature or more mature - it makes the commentary more accessable to a larger number of people. More people saw and remember Tina Fey's SNL skits on Sarah Palin than saw and remember the actual interviews and speeches.

That being said, I think that many of your blogs, including this one are quite silly. Does that mean YOU are immature?

4. Identifying with - and taking the side of - older people.

Specious ageism - you identify with the social group you consider yourself part of. The groups just include large members with a greater range of ages and overlap with prior groups. Kindergarteners identify with the people they have access to - other 3-5 year olds; high schoolers, other teens; college students, 20-somethings; DINKs(dual income, no kids), mid-20's to mid 30's or more; "the middle class," 30's to 50's; "over the hills" 50-75; "retirees" 55+. Each group tends to, as we would expect, "take the side of" and look out for, their own special interests. Each group copnsiders itself mature, and the preceding groups less so. Should we consider you less mature than David, and David less mature than Arnold, simple because (on photo appearances only guys) you are the youngest, Dave appears to be older, and Arnold appears to be slightly older?

I think your attempt to "define" the biological concept of maturity in terms of self and societal perception merely demonstrates your own biases and preconceptions. You perceive yourself as mature, those things that you perceive you have that others don't must be what makes them immature.

AJablokov writes:

"Funny"...if you say "Watching fat people slip and fall down makes me laugh", is that immature? Do mature people actually find that less funny, do they just know how to pretend that they don't, or, (my choice) do they have a lot of different things they find funny, some of them complex, and some of them subtle, so that fat people falling down is only one of their pleasures, and one they can dispense with in favor of other considerations?
Maturity is more complex than immaturity.

Immaturity has no choice about itself, while maturity does. Maturity contains much of what we call immaturity (though probably not all of it), while the reverse is not true.

Dan writes:

"Higher-IQ people probably tend to be a little more mature, but primarily because they score higher on #2."

I'd suspect also on #1, as a consequence of incentives from childhood onwards. If you can best gain appreciation from work (which, in childhood/education, means brain-work) rather than making people laugh, you'll develop that skill.

[FWIW, I'm also agin maturity. Criticize somebody else as 'immature', and my opinion of you drops dramatically]

TDoc writes:

I work in an industry where the rapidly changing landscape often forces the older generation to adapt themselves to the newer methods in order to survive.

Therefore, No. 4 (Identifying with - and taking the side of - older people.) could give out wrong impression. Instead, the ability and willingness to identify themselves with younger folks increases the level of maturity perceived by colleagues.

john Elliott writes:

For what it is worth, I recently finished/published a book basically on this very subject. I am continually astonished at Tea Party rallies, Presidential candidates who do not believe evolution, an Oklahoma doctor/US Senator who strongly proclaims that porn leads to becoming gay, and the list go on and on. We are fortunate to live in an incredibly advanced country but are surrounded by people who 'know' they will go to heaven and meet their ancestors, swear their prayers are answered and they 'know' they will go to heaven. The book is a free E-Book and can be brought up at :

O.T. writes:

A child is someone who claims to be an adult, while an adult is someone who knows there is a thin line between childhood and adulthood.

Or, if you want to be cynical about it, one could say maturity is surrendering to the world and accepting one is powerless to change it.

LS writes:

"3. Being serious rather than silly."

Lots arguing about that one. I think "There's a time and place for everything" is more accurate. There's room for both levity and sobriety.

A bigger (and more sober) sense of perspective, keeping in mind that billions of people went through everything imaginable before you were even born, and will again in the future after you are gone.

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