Until recently, it was believed that by the time we reach adulthood these internal and external influences have more or less finished the job of chiseling away at our character, sculpting a personality that remains largely unaltered until the end of our days.
However, that theory has been flipped on its head over the last few years as newer studies have demonstrated that our personal attributes remain fluid as we age, and that we continue to change throughout our lives.
Yet as the natural plasticity of our personalities becomes increasingly apparent, scientists are grappling with the question of whether it’s possible to bring about deliberate personality changes, and how quickly this can be achieved.
Why Change Who You Are?
From a scientific perspective, personality change doesn’t mean developing a better sense of humor or becoming more charming. Instead, researchers look for quantifiable alterations within one or more of the so-called Big Five personality traits – conscientiousness, agreeableness, extroversion, openness to experience, and neuroticism.
Reducing a person’s entire character to five traits may seem overly simplistic, yet research has shown that fluctuations within these broad categories can have a massive influence on important life outcomes.
For example, one recent study found that these basic personality traits can be used to predict mortality, divorce, and employment attainment, with a predictive validity equal to other widely accepted determinants of life success such as socioeconomic status and cognitive capacity.
Other studies have shown that people with higher levels of conscientiousness tend to live longer, enjoy better relationships, and attain higher levels of academic and professional achievement. On the flip-side, research conducted in the Netherlands indicated that the excess medical costs incurred by those who rank in the top 25 percent for neuroticism are 2.5 times higher than the costs incurred by people with common mental health disorders.
In spite of these findings, psychologist Mathias Allemand from the University of Zurich insists that “people do not suffer from their personality.” Speaking to IFLScience, he explains that “people suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, but some may also come to realize that certain conflicts in their personal relationships are connected to some aspects of their personality.”
“That’s a reason for them to want to change – but it’s not a complete personality change, it’s just focusing on one trait.”
Personality Is Not Static
Allemand is currently leading a research project into the use of targeted interventions to help people bring about desired changes to their personality traits. Such an endeavor has been made possible by a raft of recent studies challenging the notion that our personalities are fixed, revealing instead how our temperament ebbs and flows throughout our life course.
“Personality can change in adulthood, in middle age and even old age,” says Allemand. “This change occurs without any intervention, so it’s a natural process but it’s typically a very slow process.”
For instance, a long-term study published in 2019 revealed how people’s personalities can change over half a century. The authors assessed personality traits in 1,795 US teenagers, then re-analyzed the same participants when they were in their mid-60s. Results indicated that for any given trait, between 20 and 60 percent of people display “reliable change” across a 50-year timeframe and that a general pattern of “maturation” can be detected in most individuals.
Another study indicated that specific personality trait shifts tend to occur during different phases of life. For example, the authors concluded that people tend to become less neurotic and more conscientious between the ages of 20 and 40, while also increasing in measures of social dominance, a facet of extraversion. Meanwhile, openness to experience and social vitality – another component of extraversion – typically increase during adolescence but decrease in old age.
While the above examples illustrate natural personality change over extended periods of time, research has indicated that similar unintentional alterations can actually occur rather rapidly as a result of clinical treatments for mental health issues.
One study found that after just six months, people seeking therapy became less neurotic and more extroverted, although these changes were largely dependent on the nature of patients’ conditions. Those seeking treatment for anxiety disorders, for instance, tended to display the greatest level of personality trait change, while those with addiction experienced the smallest degree of change.
Can You Change Your Personality On Purpose?
Last year, Allemand and colleagues published a study describing the progress of 1,523 individuals who attempted to change their personalities using a smartphone app created by the researchers.
“We were interested in understanding how plastic personality traits are over short time periods,” he explains. Moreover, the team wanted to figure out if these traits can be intentionally manipulated to bring about specific changes desired by each participant.
Known as PEACH (PErsonality coACH), the app was designed in accordance with the latest psychotherapy research, which indicates that an effective intervention for personality change should address four key components.
The first of these concerns the motivation for change, involving raising awareness of a “discrepancy” between a person’s actual and desired personality. Next comes the activation of “resources” like supportive friends and relatives who may assist an individual in altering their traits.
The third element entails the development of new behaviors. “If you would like to change your personality, it’s very important to enlarge your behavioral repertoire,” explains Allemand. “So if a person is let’s say a little bit introverted and would like to become more extroverted then it’s important to train new extroverted behaviors such as talking with a stranger.”
“To change personality, it’s important to do things regularly, and with this digital intervention we can remind people every day about their goals and suggest behavioral tasks.”
Regarding the fourth and final pillar of personality change, Allemand explains that “it’s also important to change how people think about their behaviors and experiences in daily life. So we’re trying to give them tasks to support their self-reflection competencies.”
The app was used to promote these core components of personality change by delivering “microinterventions” like informative videos about what different traits entail, behavioral cues, and self-reflection activities. By the end of the three-month study period, self-reported personality changes were considerably greater among app users than among members of a control group.
“With our research we’ve demonstrated that with a digital intervention over three months, it’s possible to for example become more conscientious or to become more extroverted,” says Allemand. “We also found that a smaller subsample of people were able to become more agreeable, and some of those whose goal was to become less agreeable were also able to achieve this.”
Similarly, individuals who set out to become more emotionally stable – or less neurotic – noted positive changes after using the app for just three months, although those who hoped to alter their levels of openness were generally unsuccessful.
To verify the self-reported changes in participants’ personality traits, friends and relatives were asked to provide observer reports detailing any perceived character alterations. On the whole, these observers confirmed the trait increases described by the participants themselves, but failed to detect decreases in traits.
Follow-up assessments indicated that these rapid, intervention-driven personality changes persisted for at least three months following the end of the study, all of which would seem to suggest that it really is possible to consciously alter one’s personality. However, Allemand insists that “changing personality is really hard,” and that the desired outcome can only be achieved with hard work and dedication.
“The most important factor here is that you have to be really motivated to work on your personality,” he says. “That’s a prerequisite if you want to change.”