Shy Scorpions and Moody Frogs
Some aspects of our personality are a bit easier to change than others.
Posted Jan 14, 2020
There’s an old fable, told by many therapists and analysts, which paints a bleak picture of our ability to change who we are and how we act. The story tells of an unlikely encounter, on a river’s edge, between a scorpion and a frog:
A scorpion, which cannot swim, asks a frog to carry it across a river on the frog's back. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung by the scorpion, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung the frog despite knowing the consequence, to which the scorpion replies: "I couldn't help it. It's in my nature."
The story of the Scorpion and the Frog (in some versions, it’s a tortoise instead of a frog) is believed to have originated in Russian folklore and tells us something about how difficult it is for people to change, if they even can.
Personality is a psychological framework that we use to describe people’s stable traits. Their general ways of being, of acting, and of feeling. Is someone generally gregarious or introverted? Do they tend to be negative and pessimistic, like Eeyore, or bouncy and giddily optimistic, like Tigger? Do they stick with a task until it’s done or are they more distractible? These are some of the dimensions that make up our inherent nature, our personality. And many of us, myself included, have a strong belief that, like the scorpion, we can’t really change these parts of ourselves all that much. No matter how hard we try.
It turns out, that I was wrong. The scorpion can change its nature.
Hudson, Fraley, Chopik, and Briley are psychologists and personality researchers who’ve been studying the issue of personality change and motivation for some time. They, and other researchers, have long documented that there is a tremendous desire on the part of many people to change themselves. The enormous self-help, improvement literature, and lecture circuit is a perfect example of this. Often, research has found that people’s desired changes negatively correlate with their existing personality traits—so, someone who is highly introverted may want to be more extroverted, people who are less emotionally stable may want to be more chill and even-keeled. It is worth noting that most of the characteristics people would like to change in themselves are in the direction of more social desirability. They want to change aspects of themselves which they believe will help them be happier, more successful, and more satisfied in their lives.
But there’s been a long-running debate as to whether people’s attempts to change their personality can be successful or if the self-help movement is merely selling snake-oil and pipe dreams to lonely, desperate scorpions. Hudson’s lab has now provided a powerful, robust, and well-researched answer to this question.
They conducted what is called a “mega-analysis” of twelve studies, with two thousand, two hundred and thirty-eight participants (2,238), all of which examined different aspects of people’s personality characteristics over time. Rather than combining and analyzing the different studies, they combined the data and participants from all of these studies into one “mega” analytic group. The researchers included all of their data, all of their studies, all of their participants, excluding none (even the studies or participants they maybe didn’t like because they don’t fit their theories).
This research strategy overcomes the current replication crisis in psychology, where results of sensational studies often fail to reproduce in later examinations or using different methods. It also overcomes the human weakness of researchers and research publications by including studies and data which may produce null results.
The researchers examined the critical question: do people’s “change goals” predict later measurable changes in their personality? The results are published here, in their brand new paper: "Change Goals Robustly Predicted Trait Growth: A Mega-Analysis of a Dozen Intensive Longitudinal Studies Examining Volitional Change."
The researchers looked specifically at changes to what are called the big five aspects of personality: extraversion, agreeableness, stability, openness, and conscientiousness. They found that across all five aspects of personality, people’s goals to change themselves in one way or another did predict later changes.
Now, some aspects of personality did appear to be a little easier to change, than others. Extraversion and emotional stability (trying to be more outgoing, or trying to less moody and reactive) showed much greater effect sizes and evidence of change, at about 0.16 standard deviation change, than did characteristics such as agreeableness or openness to experience, where average change was only about 0.05 standard deviation.
Seventy-one percent of the combined research sample were female, and these were all (unfortunately) college students from a variety of US college campuses. This is, unfortunately, one of the only significant weaknesses in this study, as it reflects changes in what is considered a somewhat unique and sheltered population. However, this study demonstrates that these people can, and did, change their nature in the directions that they wanted. If they can do it, there’s no reason to believe that anyone, including you, can’t also change.
The changes in personality measured in this study occurred over a 16-week period. It’s possible that, over time and a longer period of study, these changes might revert, but they might also become even more stable. We simply don’t know. We also don’t really know why extraversion and stability show more responsiveness to self-directed motivational intent to change. It might be that changes in these areas result in more immediate reward and reinforcement from one’s social environment, which creates more self-sustaining cycles of change. It may also be that the other characteristics, of agreeableness or openness, are more rooted in aspects of affective experiences that are simply more difficult to change, driven by more instinctive, perhaps biologically-mediated processes.
So, you can be more outgoing, and you can be less reactive if you decide that you want to be. (You can also change your openness to experiences, your conscientiousness, and your agreeableness, though these areas may take longer, and you might want to set smaller goals in these areas.) Set goals for yourself, and don’t expect things to change overnight. Give yourself, as in this study, three or four months. Set goals for yourself in these areas, of things that you would like to focus on, each day, and try to sustain your attention and motivation.
And, when some curmudgeon tells that you simply can’t change your nature, that it’s built-in, and they mention the scorpion and the frog, tell them that perhaps the scorpion was simply trying to change the wrong things.