The personality testing industry is worth $2 billion, and it’s everywhere. Tests like the Myers-Briggs are used by management consultants, hiring managers, psychologists, and even matchmakers. In his new book, Personality Isn’t Permanent, author Benjamin Hardy argues that some of these personality tests are about as scientific as horoscopes. The tests give people dangerous limiting beliefs, even while research shows that people can change or even create their own personality.
“Labels create tunnel vision,” said Dr. Hardy, an organizational psychologist and author of Willpower Doesn’t Work, when we spoke about his new book. Some personality tests are largely based on the premise that features of personality are fixed traits.
Some tests, such as those related to the Five-Factor Model, are scientific. But a large and ongoing body of research on that model has shown that we think and behave differently in different situations. Not only that, but our personalities change over the years.
Personality tests can be fun, but they can also be bad for you.
Still, personality tests are interesting, and often give us insight into ourselves. So what’s the problem? The issue, according to the book, is the way tests suggest that your personality is permanent. That a test can tell you who you are or who you should marry.
And that may be where Hardy found his beef with them. In the book, he shares the story of the personality test that almost made him miss out on the love of his life. When he and his wife Lauren were dating, they took a popular test called the Color Code. He was a “white” and she was a “red.” Her parents freaked out. According to the test, the young couple was a bad match. The more assertive Lauren might walk all over the passive Benjamin. After all, Lauren had just survived a bad marriage, and no-one wanted her to start another one. Lauren shared her parents’ concerns.
Fortunately, they kept getting to know each other and eventually Lauren decided to disregard the personality test. Happily married with five kids, the pair now laughs about the test that almost ruined their relationship.
The issue is the same with many popular personality tests, writes Hardy. They may create fixed beliefs about who you are and what you are capable of. And the list of these tests is long: Myers-Briggs, DISC, the Winslow Personality Test, the Color Code, Birkman, the Enneagram, and others.
If personality isn’t permanent, then you can change it.
The premise of the book is not only that personality can change, but that you can change it. But how? Hardy wants you to develop a relationship with your future self. “The goal is that your future self is the thing driving your behavior, not your former self,” he told me. “The person you want to be is the thing driving your daily behavior.”
And that’s when Hardy takes on another popular belief among psychologists: that the best predictor of future behavior is the past. He spends a great deal of the book showing us how that is not true. The past only defines us if we get stuck. We get frozen in the past for two reasons: unresolved trauma or living in circumstances that don’t allow for growth.
Indeed, an interest in trauma was what sparked the idea for the book. “I wanted to understand better how unresolved trauma leads people to addiction,” he told me. “Trauma shatters your hope and imagination. You become frozen in the past. You end up with a frozen personality.”
Hardy believes that we must have hope. “People need something to look forward to,” he went on. “When a person loses hope and purpose for the future, the present becomes meaningless and suffering becomes unbearable. That’s when you distract yourself from reality or get caught up in addiction.”
He believes there is an alternative. ‘You need a clear future self in order to engage in deliberate practice.” There is a growing body of research to back this up. Consider the 2015 study by Nathan Hudson and Chris Fraley, which found that personality can be changed by goal setting and sustained effort.
The remainder of the book focuses on deliberate practice to change personality. There’s guidance on how to get unstuck from trauma (you need an empathetic witness), how to change the story you tell yourself about who you are (start journaling daily to keep your eye on your future self), and how to follow through (you need people who encourage you).
Deliberate daily practice
At times, the book can get a little intense. I found it hard to imagine how overwhelmed working mothers could implement its plan.
Still, Hardy has a point when he writes that everyone’s personality changes, whether we do it on purpose or not. He references Daniel Gilbert when he says that our personalities actually change so much, 10 years can change us into a different person. We might as well take charge of the process.
“Life becomes a lot less boring and repetitive when your future self becomes your daily mission, rather than avoiding uncertainty and change,” Hardy writes in the book.
For those who are serious about changing their lives, the book is packed with “Aha! moments” and practical advice. It’s well written and a quick read. Hardy never leaves the reader wondering, “How am I supposed to do that?” Instead, he gives solid advice based on current research.
There is no shortcut to becoming our best future selves. But for those who are ready to make the journey, this book shows the way. Personality Isn’t Permanent is available from Penguin Random House on June 16.
This article was previously published at Forbes.com