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Can You Change Your Personality?

Research suggests that personality may not be as fixed as you think.

Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Personality defines us and how we interact with the world. Though there are different theories about what personality really is and how our basic personality traits are first formed, the general consensus is that personality is shaped by early life experiences and tend to stay stable over time. According to the most widely accepted model of personality, there are five basic personality dimensions that can define us as individuals. Each of the"Big Five" traits—openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—have a cluster of related traits that shape our emotions and behaviours in a wide variety of situations.

The personality traits we have as adults tend to grow out of the kind of temperament we had as infants and toddlers. Much like the Big Five adult personality factors, there are also different kinds of temperament that seem to arise out of the interaction between our genetics and the upbringing we receive as children. Differences in temperament can also influence how children are treated by caregivers and children their own age. This can result in children having life experiences that can reinforce early differences in temperament and lay down the kind of personality they have as adults. It can also lead to their developing dysfunctional personality patterns that can develop into full-blown personality disorders later in life.

That said, personality changes can still occur depending on new life experiences. People who have experienced severe emotional trauma or life-changing events can experience significant personality changes as well. Even the kind of social roles we take on can change personality. First-time parents or people heavily invested in new jobs can find themselves becoming more conscientious as their new responsibilities force them to change how they think, feel, and behave in general. People in new romantic relationships can find themselves becoming more conscientious about their partners' well-being as their perspective on the world changes. As our lives change, so do our personalities.

For that matter, simply growing older can mean significant personality changes. As we become more mature, we (usually) become more agreeable, conscientious, and develop greater emotional stability. As we grow more comfortable with our sense of self, our personality can change as well to match how we see ourselves. With this in mind, many different treatment methods aimed at dealing with personality disorders such as antisocial or histrionic personality disorder usually involve teaching patients how to alter destructive personality patterns. These personality patterns are often extremely difficult to change, but it may depend on how motivated people are to try.

But do most people really want to change their personalities? While we tend to admire people who are more extraverted or conscientious than we are, how many of us are really willing to put in the effort to make the kind of long-term changes that can alter personality traits? According to a recent research study by psychologists at the University of Illinois, most people are dissatisfied with their own personality and wished to change in a more positive direction. For each of the Big Five personality factors, only thirteen percent reported being satisfied with themselves as they were.

As for whether people really can alter their personality traits, the evidence is a little more controversial. Though many people try to change their personalities, either through counseling or by developing their own self-improvement program (e.g., taking public speaking courses to become more social and outgoing), it's still debatable how effective these approaches are in the long run. With this in mind, Nathan Hudson and R. Chris Fraley of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a study to see whether research subjects could change measurable aspects of their personality.

Their study, which was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involved two experiments using adults recruited from an introductory psychology class. In the first experiment, one hundred and thirty-five participants were told that they were part of a "personality study" that took six weeks to complete.

At the beginning of the study, each participant was told about the Big Five personality factors and rated themselves on each factor using an online rating form on the study website. They were then asked to decide how many personality traits they wanted to change over the course of the study. That included, in some cases, coming up with different ways of achieving this change: Half of the participants in the personality change group also took part in a "change plan" condition in which they were asked to complete a brief writing task asking, "What would it look like if you attained your desired changes?"

In weekly sessions, they were reminded of their goal and completed additional writing assignments to measure their progress. Half of the participants in the study were placed in the control condition and simply given feedback on their personality and completed assignments in what the results meant.

In the second experiment, with a similar number of participants, Hudson and Roberts replicated their first experiment but focused on changes in daily behaviour that were linked to the personality traits that participants wanted to change. They also used more comprehensive personality rating measures to reinforce the personality change process.

What the researchers found was that participants were able to make significant personality changes over the course of both 16-week studies. For example, people who wanted to become more extraverted tested as being higher in extraversion by the end of the study period. Along with changes in how they responded to personality testing, they also reported significant changes in their daily behaviour which matched the personality changes they wanted to make. For example, people who described themselves as being more extraverted by the end of the study also reported interacting more easily with other people and doing daily activities that matched their more extraverted nature.

Even using comprehensive change plans and weekly booster sessions, however, the actual amount of personality change that took place was modest at best. Despite guidance from researchers, sixteen weeks was likely not long enough for comprehensive personality changes to occur. Still, as the researchers point out, changing patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving can eventually lead to permanent changes in different personality traits. One possible reason for this kind of personality change is that people often change their very social identity as well, including how they see themselves. In other words, people who see themselves acting more extraverted may come to view themselves as being more extraverted as a result.

And what do these results suggest? Over the course of our lifetime, we often become more agreeable and conscientious due to greater emotional maturity. Is this just a natural part of aging—or do our personalities change because we work to make ourselves more agreeable and conscientious? Recognizing that personality can be changed can lead to more effective treatment for people with personality problems as well as those who are resistant to change. All too frequently, patients insist that they are incapable of change when actually they are either unwilling or afraid to try.

Despite their positive findings, the researchers warn that their results are based on self-report and that the length of time involved was likely too brief to ensure permanent personality changes in many people. Still, people appear capable of altering personality traits if they are motivated to do so and take part in psychological interventions that can help with the change process.

So spare a thought for what you would like to change about your own personality. Saying "I can't help myself" may not be a valid excuse after all.

More from Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.
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