Personality

Personality Isn't Permanent—Or Is It? The Answer Is No

Here's a breakdown of the recent research on personality change.

Posted Jun 12, 2020

There is a great deal of debate on the subject of "personality" and particularly, whether or not it is permanent and fixed or whether it can and does change. 

Some psychologists believe personality is innate and immutable. Others, like the Harvard psychologist William James, believed it changed until age 30. As he stated in his book, The Principles of Psychology: “In most of us, by the age of 30, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” 

Outside of the actual psychological research, there are droves of personality test vendors who have formulated their own theories about personality and devised "tests" for measuring or diagnosing personality. Most of these tests are non-scientific and portray personality as a "type" or "category." It is assumed by many of these organizations that "personality" and "personality type" are two separate things, and that "personality type" is permanent and cannot be changed. For instance, in a recent Forbes article, the writer and Myers-Briggs employee stated:

"Yes, people's personalities do change, but personality type doesn't. This may sound like a contradiction ... It is clear that personality isn't permanent ... Personality "type," as understood by the Myers-Briggs framework and by Carl Jung's theory, is a different story. [Personality type] is not the total embodiment of personality but rather a set of natural predispositions that, in fact, do not change, even in the face of significant change with regard to our skills, abilities, desires and interests over the course of our lives."

No wonder people are confused. Is personality innate and unchangeable? Does it solidify and become permanent at age 30? Is it some "type" you fit into, which "type" cannot change even though "personality" does change?

Here's the Science

Here's a brief breakdown of some of the key science on the subject of personality change:

  • Research on the conceptual structure of personality tests shows that structuring personality into "types," although fun, is false
  • According to the Big Five theory, "personality" is not viewed as a "type," but rather, as five factors (ExtraversionAgreeablenessConscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience) in which an individual has a percentile rank against the general population 
  • Research shows that wherever you "score" on each of the five factors will change throughout your life
  • Research also shows that wherever you rank on any of the five factors has a great deal to do with the season of life you're in, and is also predicted by the particular roles you're in (e.g., if a role requires higher conscientiousness then you'll see that until you leave that role)
  • Research shows that work environment and culture can change your personality
  • Research shows that approximately 90 percent of the population want to change at least some aspect of their personality for the better
  • Research shows that through goal setting and effort, that you can make intentional changes to your personality (e.g., if you want to become more organized, you can do so)
  • Research shows that if you believe your life is meaningful, then making changes to your personality can come easier
  • Research shows that you can make some degree of change in even a two-week intervention targeting a specific aspect of your personality
  • Research shows over a 10-year period of time, your personality will change a great deal. However, even when people can see the difference between their former and current selves, people often under-predict the level of change they'll experience in the future (i.e., end of history illusion)

Sum-Up

There is a great deal of research showing that are personality changes over the course of our lives. In fact, it changes more than we ourselves predict it will. Moreover, our personality is not a single "type" unaffected by context. Rather, personality is often predicted by the season of life we're in, the role we're in, who we're around such as peer-group, and more. 

According to Dr. Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist, people often struggle to predict who they'll be in the future because they spend very little if any time imagining their future selves. We can see that we've changed a lot in preferences and perspectives over the past several years but downplay potential change in the future. Imagining a future self is a clear first step. According to Dr. Hal Hershfield at UCLA, seeing your "future self" as a different person would be a clear next step. Visualizing the attributes of your "future self" would be another key step if you wanted to engage in true "deliberate practice" or intentional learning. 

In sum, personality can and does change. The direction of that change is based in large measure on the extent to which a person imagines and strives toward a specific future self which they themselves conceptualized. The level of motivation, self-efficacy, and psychological flexibility a person has would also greatly influenced their ability to conceptualize and realize a desired future self. 

The post is an edited excerpt from the book Personality Isn't Permanent, published with permission by Penguin Random House.

References

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