Personality

New Research Shows 2-Week Intervention May Change Personality

Most research on personality change has only examined changing neuroticism.

Posted May 26, 2020

In a new study, participants were allowed to choose a particular intervention. They could choose to undergo a process of improving either their conscientiousness (i.e., self-discipline) or one facet of openness to experience (i.e., openness to action).

Results show that those who wanted to become more self-disciplined were less self-disciplined pre-test. Similarly, those who wanted to become more open to action were less open to action pre-test. In both cases, the two-week smartphone-based intervention to either change an aspect of their conscientiousness or an aspect of their openness to experience was successful. Those who went through the intervention experienced more change that persisted after the study than those who did not do the intervention.

Personality as a Spectrum

Most of the popular personality "tests" out there are categorical and "type" based. This is an incorrect view of personality. There is no such thing as a personality "type." The reason is simple: Personality is far more contextual than simply a single score. According to recent research by Michael Wilmot:

"The thing about personality types is that they're very interesting to talk about and they have been an object of public fascination for ages. But with modern, more robust research methods, most of these older typological claims are turning out to be spurious."

One of the key problematic aspects of most type-based personality tests (aside from the philosophical foundation of personality types) is the structure of these tests. Psychometrically, these are poorly constructed. Rather than using Likert-scaling in the questionaries, which is the preferred form of question design for such tests, most of the questions in type-based tests are forced multiple-choice questions, often providing scenarios wherein none of the options feel relevant. 

Rather than viewing personality in types, it's much more accurate to view personality as a spectrum. The Big Five is the most scientifically examined model of personality. Rather than giving someone a single "type" or "diagnosis," the Big Five gives you a percentile rank on five factors (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism). None of these "factors" are fixed traits. Research shows you can intentionally change and improve upon these traits. Moreover, these traits are often role-specific in how they manifest. 

Recently, my wife and I had our oldest three kids take a Big Five personality test. Before having them take the test, we let them know that whatever score they got, that score would change over time. Indeed, recent longitudinal research shows that personality changes over the course of one's lifetime. 

It was fun explaining personality to my kids, and that yes, they each had unique personalities, but that those personalities were not fixed. Neither were any of them a certain "type" of person that could be easily categorized and understood without respect to context. Indeed, these three kids were actually adopted out of the foster system by my wife and me, and I can personally attest to the power of context. Over the past several years, and through lots of intentional interventions and learning, we have all changed. Former weaknesses have become strengths, or at least, less of weaknesses. There is lots of support and encouragement, and no judgment toward one another. 

Personality as a Skill

Given new emerging research in the field of personality, it may be better to view personality as a skill rather than stable traits. If one can become less neurotic, more conscientious, and more open to new experiences through intervention, education, experiences, and learning, then maybe these are all skills? Indeed, research on psychological flexibility is showing that one can become more flexible and better able to handle uncertainty and other challenging emotions. Research on emotional regulation provides effective ways to reframe and experience emotions. Research on deliberate practice shows how to define a desired future self and create a clear process to develop desired traits. 

Should personality be viewed as a skill to develop, just like reading or basketball? Yes, we all start somewhere. Life experiences, such as traumatic experiences, can certainly shape our identity and narrative. We all have environmental factors influencing us. But this is true of reading as well. Our three kids, when in the foster system, were all at least one year behind academically. Now, they are all ahead of the curve. This isn't because we are excellent parents, but because in their new context, they have new resources. 

According to research on the Self-Expansion Model, self-expansion is not only desired by all people, but it is based on one's efficacy, or ability to produce chosen results. Rather than viewing efficacy as innate or self-contained, efficacy is viewed as contextual and relational. As a person develops relationships, their "potential efficacy" can increase, as they embody the resources of their new relationships. In other words, by entering into relationships, you embody and take on the resources of those you relate to. Those resources could be financial, they could be in the form of encouragement, or knowledge, or beliefs, or opportunities. I've certainly seen how my own ability to produce results has changed as I've created new relationships, and I've seen this in my children. 

References

Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1997). Self-expansion motivation and including other in the self.

Harris, M. A., Brett, C. E., Johnson, W., & Deary, I. J. (2016). Personality stability from age 14 to age 77 years. Psychology and aging, 31(8), 862.

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.

Stieger, M., Wepfer, S., Rüegger, D., Kowatsch, T., Roberts, B. W., & Allemand, M. (2020). Becoming More Conscientious or More Open to Experience? Effects of a Two‐Week Smartphone‐Based Intervention for Personality Change. European Journal of Personality.

Wilmot, M. P., Haslam, N., Tian, J., & Ones, D. S. (2019). Direct and conceptual replications of the taxometric analysis of type a behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 116(3), e12.