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Personality Change

The Surprising Truth Is That People Change All the Time

We likely underestimate how much people can change.

Key points

  • A tendency to underestimate how much people change can lead to pessimism about addressing conflicts.
  • Research shows that personality changes are not only possible but more common than believed.
  • To change conflict patterns, we can think about changing situations, perspectives, or even labels we're using.
Source: cottonbro studio / Pexels
People aren't stuck in a fixed box.
Source: cottonbro studio / Pexels

I’ve had the chance to talk to thousands of people about conflicts, and not one has ever said to me, “I'm the primary driver of the problem. Why am I so difficult?” Instead, they invariably ask how to change other people’s beliefs or bad behavior. And a lot of the time, they feel like they already know the answer: That other person will never change. They’re unreachable. They’re awful. They’re the problem.

What’s fascinating is that all sides can find ways to think this.

Picture this common scene: You meet up with a friend for coffee and soon they’re explaining to you in detail why their co-worker is so impossible to work with. In that moment have you ever wondered what that co-worker is telling their friends?

When you see the other side as “the problem,” that can preserve destructive conflict patterns. The conflict feels fated to continue, you imagine, because people don’t change.

Except they do. All the time.

Daniel Aires began dreaming of a career as a soldier when he was 10. He joined the Canadian Armed Forces at 16. One day, he was given a book about peace issues.

I remember reading the book and being absolutely enraged. How could anyone be so peaceful? How could they live their life where everyone is their brother and everyone is their sister?... I’m thinking, “This is complete lunacy!” And I took the book and I threw it in the bottom of the vehicle and drove around and it got all full of gunpowder and gasoline and I read it again, and again, and again and it wore a hole in my side pocket. I had it on me all the time. And within six months I was out of the military.

Somehow, what seemed impossible happened, and a single book changed Daniel’s life. But he had to go through a months-long invisible process first.

Most of us underestimate the likelihood of such changes. A major study found that the average person surveyed thinks their personality is far more constant than it actually is. “People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.” But the study found that this just isn’t true. Most of us are closer to Daniel Aires—changing in many ways as we age.

Research into people trying to change their own personalities has found that, while difficult, it is possible. For instance two studies done with students found that many succeeded, at least over the course of four months. These students tested differently both on personality tests and on reports about their daily behaviors.

Systematic examination of the evidence on personality change highlights that there are many factors required. It’s not easy. But, then again, there are many factors required to not change.

Where we don’t change, it might be more because of repeated habits and being in the same situations over and over. Therefore, one important way to address a difficult conflict pattern is to change the situation. For instance, go for a walk together instead of staying seated.

Another way to change the situation is to think about it differently. Find common values, feelings, and needs. And try not to fix the person in your mind with all sorts of simple labels.

Researchers suggest that words that portray a situation as more fixed or straightforward than it really is come with serious costs. They reduce accuracy and understanding. They can lead to more entrenched and less rewarding conflicts.

An example is the label “toxic masculinity.” Such broad terms can make for frustrating conversations in part because people actually mean very different things by them. What’s worse, evidence shows that masculinity is actually changing—even amongst groups of men who traditionally felt strong pressures to be rugged and stoic individualists. So a term like “toxic masculinity” might harmfully oversimplify what’s happening, making it feel more stuck than it is.

There are no guarantees that a given conflict can be positively transformed. But it can be empowering to stop expecting that nothing will change. Lots of changes are happening. You have more power to impact them than you might think.


Richard Gater. Why ‘toxic masculinity’ isn’t a useful term for understanding all of the ways to be a man. The Conversation. October 11, 2023.

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