Do you feel stuck in the personality you were born with, regretting that you’re not more outgoing, less of a worrier, and just plain nicer to other people? Are you afraid that, as you get older, you’re falling short of your goals of being all of the above? There’s a tendency for people to believe the old adage of the famous psychologist William James who asserted that personality is set in plaster by the age of 30. Or you might be lured into agreeing with the Freudian perspective that our personalities are through changing by the age of 5 (or perhaps 12). Either way, you might feel discouraged and hopeless about never being the kind of person you always imagined you could be.
From another point of view, however, the motivation to change your personality could be the very inspiration you need to set the wheels in motion. The most difficult step in the process of changing your personality is recognizing that such change will make you happier. Having made that decision, you could theoretically embark on a program of structured activities that would lead you to where you want to be in those desired traits. The only thing holding you back, at that point, is the conviction that no one’s personality can ever really change.
Consider the April 2016 episode involving Donald Trump during his run for the Republican nomination for U.S. President. After winning the New York State primary, Trump’s advisors declared that Trump would now settle down into a more “Presidential personality.” He was going to become kinder, gentler, and more considered in his thinking, comments, and general demeanor. This announcement led to considerable skepticism among political analysts, who themselves were of the belief that personality is basically immutable. Trump might seem, on the outside, to be softer and more thoughtful, they argued, but his aggressive and combative style could never change. In fact, Trump’s decision to change lasted only a day or two. Before long, he was announcing that if he’d projected a more Presidential image, he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he had. Trump’s lack of willingness or ability to transform only confirmed the popular belief that no one can ever really change, even if they believed, as in Trump’s case for a short time, that it was to their advantage to do so.
Reinforcing that view of personality as stable is the general gist not only of James, Freud, and Trump, but of one of the most well-known theories in the field of personality at the moment. According to the Five Factor Model, as originally conceptualized, you are high or low virtually at birth on a set of five basic traits which each have six sub-traits or facets. Part of your psychological constitution, just like your eye color, are your standings on these 30 qualities. A shy kid? You’re bound to be an introverted adult. Never made your bed despite your mom’s constant reminders? Then you’re low on conscientious for sure, and will always be doomed to live a sloppy life.
Fortunately, the view that personality is unchangeable is changing. We know from considerable research on aging conducted based on the Five Factor Model (Terracciano et al., 2005) that some personality traits, and facets of those traits, modulate over time. Part of the reason for this, when these changes occur in later life, is that some of the high scorers on less desirable or healthy traits are no longer in the population to be measured in their later years. The risky ones die because of their high-risk taking behaviors, those low on conscientiousness die because of their unhealthy habits, and people high on neuroticism may be gone from the population because they engaged in heavy use of alcohol and drugs. Those left standing in later adulthood are the conscientious, the agreeable, and the emotionally stable. On the Five Factor trait of openness to experience, the ones who are high in this quality may live longer because they maintain a more intellectually engaging lifestyle. Extroverts may have an advantage in living longer because their outgoing behavior garners more support from family and friends in their networks.
With that said, what if you would like actually to change now so that you can be one of those from an early demise at the end of your life? In all probability, one of the traits you might like to change about yourself the most is how introverted or extroverted you are. In a society that values extroverts, being able to socialize easily and often would seem like a desirable trait to have. Whether or not this is true is another matter, but if you feel your inner extrovert needs to balance your outer introvert, it may seem like a desirable step to take.
The theory that personality change is possible, and achievable, was put to the test in a pair of experiments conducted by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychologists Nathan Hudson and Christopher Fraley (2015). Undergraduates taking a personality psychology course participated in 16-week intensive intervention in which they were coached in making the changes they desired in their personalities on the Five Factor traits. At the start of the intervention, the students indicated that yes, they wished to become higher on the traits on which they received initially low scores. In fact, the people who wanted to change on extroversion (i.e. become more extroverted) actually did appear to become more extroverted. Changes in 3 of the other 4 traits (the exception was openness to experience) also occurred for those who wanted those traits to change.
Obviously, then, it’s more than introversion that can change over time, as the people in this study seemed to be able to alter their emotional stability, agreeableness, and conscientiousness as well. The findings for introversion/extroversion, however, seemed slightly more robust. In particular, people who wanted to become more extroverted learned ways to act in a more extroverted manner. In turn, their more extroverted behaviors seemed to alter their own self-assessments of how extroverted they were.
The key to change, as noted by Hudson and Fraley, is to make a specific plan to change specific behaviors. Don’t just say you’re going to be “more outgoing and sociable.” Instead, decide that on this particular day, you will make the effort to initiate an interaction with someone else whom you don't know very well. You will call the person you recently met and arrange to go somewhere together. The change intervention didn’t work when it was general; only when it was specifically tied to an actual behavior the person could enact.
Once you start to change those behaviors, you’ll start to change the way you see yourself. That change in identity may provide the key to personality trait change. You change the narrative from “I’ve always been an introvert” to “I’ve usually engaged in introverted behavior.” Seeing yourself as in charge of your personality rather than being run by it may be the key to having your personality suit instead of define you.
To sum up, fulfillment requires that we sometimes step out of our comfort zones of who we think we are. If you want to change your personality, you can take charge of that process by focusing on those very behaviors that can ultimately change your self-definition and your happiness with who and what you are.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016
Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits?. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 109(3), 490-507. doi:10.1037/pspp0000021
Terracciano, A., McCrae, R. R., Brant, L. J., & Costa, P. J. (2005). Hierarchical linear modeling analyses of the NEO-PI-R Scales in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. Psychology And Aging, 20(3), 493-506. doi:10.1037/0882-79184.108.40.2063