Personality traits are woven into our daily lives and have important implications for life outcomes. From how social we are, being an introvert or extrovert, to behavioral patterns such as agreeableness and openness, they can govern our lives but are they set in stone?
Many of these personality traits are changed slowly throughout our lives as we are exposed to new environments and social settings. We adapt and change, which is how we develop as individuals. However, until now it has not been clear whether these personality traits could be influenced and targeted via psychological mechanisms that may reap results faster in the short term.
Now researchers at the universities of Zurich (UZH), St. Gallen, Brandeis, Illinois, and ETH Zurich think they may have found a way to do just that – and achieve it in just three months. They describe their findings of a digital personality change intervention approach in the journal PNAS.
The researchers developed a specialized app called PEACH (PErsonality coACH) as a kind of digital coach containing a chatbot to help participants in the study reach their desired outcome by providing them feedback and support.
The researchers looked at the five major personality traits (the most widely accepted personality theory currently held by psychologists) – openness, conscientiousness, sociability (extraversion), considerateness (agreeableness), and emotional vulnerability (neuroticism) – in participants and how these personality traits changed in a desirable direction with the use of the digital coach. More than 1,500 participants were assigned the app in a randomized control trial. The app provided daily intervention by giving constant knowledge and feedback, tips for self-reflection, and helped users with behavioral and resource activation. The participants were assigned to use the app for set periods of time whereafter the changes were assessed.
The majority of participants stated at the start of the study that they wanted to reduce their emotional vulnerability and increase their conscientiousness or increase their extraversion. Those participants that took part in the digital intervention for three months or more reported the biggest success in achieving their desired personality trait change compared to a control group of participants that only partook for a two-month period.
An obvious limitation to the study would be the reliance on self-reporting, but the friends and family of the participants that had reported an intended increase in expression of a personality trait also reported observable changes in their behavior after three months. The trait change was still noticeable three months after the intervention ended. However, the researchers did note that the family and friends of those who wanted to reduce a trait saw little difference.
"The participants and their friends alike reported that three months after the end of the intervention, the personality changes brought about by using the app had persisted," said Mathias Allemand, professor of psychology at UZH in a statement. "These surprising results show that we are not just slaves to our personality, but that we can deliberately make changes to routine experience and behavior patterns."
The results of the current study challenge the common belief that personality traits are relatively stable and that it may take a considerable amount of time to change them. As the authors concluded in their study: "These findings provide the strongest evidence to date that normal personality traits can be changed through intervention in nonclinical samples."