We’ve long been fascinated with changing ourselves. From improving our focus to becoming better partners, most of us are suspended in a semi-permanent quest for self-improvement. We frequently course-correct our personal and professional lives, setting goals, striving toward achieving them, and recalibrating when needed. The pandemic and its forced period of self-examination (and for some, self-confrontation) with little distraction has driven our self-improvement proclivities even further. As we emerge from our lockdowns, our desire to improve is likely to be stronger than ever before.
What’s more is that the proliferation of digital platforms and gamification have enabled us to better manage our self-improvement goals, particularly in fitness and productivity. From Trello to Strava, digital platforms ease and streamline the cognitive burden of self improvement — creating a sense of accountability, helping us track our progress and assigning the tools that maintain good habits.
However, scientific developments suggest that digital interventions may also help us improve and change our personality — a challenging offline pursuit for many of us until now.
A new study from the University of Zurich found that people can actively change their personality traits using a digital platform over a period of three months. The researchers also found that friends and family members of participants could observe these changes by the end of the study period. In this study, participants identified their personality change goals (e.g., increase extraversion, reduce emotional sensitivity) across five core personality dimensions: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Emotional Stability. Participants primarily sought out change in three domains — increasing extraversion, reducing neuroticism, and increasing conscientiousness. The digital platform integrated successful features from other apps, offering respondents tangible insights, a progress chart, and a chatbot to provide additional mentorship.
Interestingly, researchers found that the changes in personality that were more easily observed by family members and friends in participants were those that involved the expression of a trait (e.g., behaving extravertedly) rather than the suppression of a trait (e.g., behaving less emotionally vulnerable).
This is unsurprising given that particular personality traits, such as extraversion, lend themselves to change. Being more extraverted (e.g., sociable and assertive) is one of the most commonly desired goals. Consider the finding that more than 87% of participants who had low scores in extraversion reported a desire to increase their extraversion.
Why extraversion? We've long known that being extraverted carries social capital. Studies over the last 30 years have consistently found that extraverts are more likely to be rated as likeable, to be higher in social status, and to have better performance reviews and greater career success.
Couple this with extraversion being arguably one of the easiest personality traits to enact, even on demand. Regardless of whether individuals are naturally extraverted, extraversion is so deeply embedded in our social and societal discourse that researchers have found there is a high level of consensus and internal representation on how to act extraverted. From a young age, we're conditioned to understand the benefits of being more social in a classroom, and this is only reinforced as we transition into the workplace.
The extraversion advantage is so strong that introverts have long found themselves behaving more extravertedly to both get along and get ahead. Introverts flex and adopt extraversion in a range of different life domains — whether being more sociable to get noticed at a networking event, or acting more assertively when managing a team. Tweaking and dialling up one's extraversion is common, but until now, introverts have had to largely rely on their own skills and tools to change their personality.
However, in light of this recent study, the effort involved in changing one’s personality may shift considerably. The potential for impact with digital platforms is notable: Introverts could input the degree of extraversion they wish to change into an app, specify the domain (e.g., work, relationships), and receive tailored and personalised tools for changing their personality.
Could such advancements spell a dystopian future for self-improvement? Given the value and social desirability we place on personality traits such as an extraversion, could such tools drive conformity and homogeneity? While digital platforms may be built with the purpose of supporting volitional and desired personality change, pressurizing work environments or the demands of a role may make change more of a necessity. Junior employees may enter an organization, increase their extraversion to the organizational norms, and as they move up the ladder, extraversion may increasingly become universal. Given the importance of diversity in character in building new perspectives and ideas, and creating messy and equally creative teamwork, change shouldn’t come at the cost of the uniqueness of individuals.
Self-improvement will continue to be an integral part of the human condition, and personalized tools that better support individuals carry huge value. However, as with all digital innovation, looking ahead, we must be wary of the potential dark side, and remember to focus on who we are, who we can be, and how we can find that balance.