If you've ever thought about how you might improve your personality, you're not alone. Research suggests that all of us, to a certain extent, possess an inherent desire to cultivate positive personality traits (such as being outgoing, optimism, and charisma) and to minimize negative traits (like pessimism and neuroticism). But is it even possible to change one's personality? Or, is personality better thought of as a fixed, unalterable entity?
New research appearing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology contends that personality change may be more attainable than we might think. Specifically, a group of researchers led by Nathan Hudson of Southern Methodist University found that people who actively worked to change aspects of their personality were, in many cases, successful in achieving the results they desired.
To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers recruited 377 undergraduates at the University of Illinois and Michigan State University to participate in a 15-week study. Participants were first asked to complete a short personality test that measured five core dimensions of personality: extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, conscientiousness, and openness to experiences. After completing the survey, participants were asked to choose which of these dimensions they would most like to change over the 15-week test period.
Depending on what they chose, participants received weekly "challenges," sent by the research team, that were meant to push people outside of their comfort zone on the personality dimensions they wanted to change. For example, someone who wanted to become more extraverted might be challenged to introduce themselves to someone new. Or, a person who wanted to improve their emotional stability might be asked to spend at least one hour doing something they enjoy.
The researchers requested that participants re-take the personality test every week throughout the 15-week test period. They also sent new challenges every week of varying levels of difficulty. For example, for the trait of extraversion, an easy challenge asked participants to "Go to a public place where people mingle and say hello to someone new" while a difficult challenge required participants to "Introduce yourself to someone new and ask them at least two questions about themselves."
Through this design, the researchers tested whether participants were able to change their personalities by engaging in the challenges. Interestingly, they found that it worked. Participants who desired to change the traits of extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and emotional stability all showed improvement in these personality dimensions over the 15-week test period. Openness to experiences was the only personality dimension for which the exercise did not work (in fact, people who attempted to become more open to experiences actually ended up less open than when they started out).
The researchers also found that personality change did not have much to do with the difficulty of the challenges people accepted. What mattered more was consistently completing challenges, regardless of their level of difficulty.
The researchers conclude, "Our study provides evidence that actively making behavioral changes that pull one’s behaviors in alignment with desired traits is a viable strategy for volitionally changing one’s own personality. Although this appears to be a promising prognosis for those who might seek out programs designed to help them change their traits, our findings emphasize a major caveat: Merely desiring change and formulating plans is not enough; it is necessary to follow through."
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Hudson, N. W., Briley, D. A., Chopik, W. J., & Derringer, J. (2018). You have to follow through: Attaining behavioral change goals predicts volitional personality change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.