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Are you stuck with your personality, or can you change it?

by Katie Rose Quandt

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If there is something you would like to change about your personality, you’re in good company. When asked about personality traits in a 2014 study, more than 87 percent of respondents wanted to become more extraverted, open-minded, emotionally stable, and agreeable. A full 97 percent wanted to become more conscientious.

Luckily for all of us, there seems to be hope. Studies suggest that our personalities are not necessarily set in stone—and may even be something we can consciously change.

As recently as the 1960s, psychologists were exploring different personality measurements and even wondered whether consistent personalities existed at all. More recently, the scientific community has agreed on a set of measurable personality characteristics known as the “Big Five”: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness (organized, hard-working, responsible), Open-mindedness (curious, interested in varied experiences, imaginative), and Neuroticism (prone to worry, sadness and mood swings; sometimes referred to by its opposite, Emotional Stability).

When personalities do change in adulthood, they tend to change for the better.

Personalities can be measured across five scales and maintain certain kinds of consistencies. In 2006, college freshmen at the University of Texas took personality tests, then carried around recording devices to document two days of their lives. After listening to the recordings, student “judges” were able to make assessments of their peers’ personalities that matched the results of the personality tests.

Consistency doesn’t mean that personalities never change. Psychologists used to believe that personality was “set like plaster” by the age of 30, but there has been a “dramatic swing in opinion” away from that idea, according to more recent research.

And when personalities do change in adulthood, they tend to change for the better.

A 2008 paper found that “with age, people become more confident, warm, responsible, and calm—or what some have described as socially mature.” And in 2011, researchers who studied more than 1.2 million results from an online personality test found that while the most dramatic personality changes occur by adolescence or young adulthood, conscientiousness, openness, and agreeableness tend to gradually increase throughout adulthood, while extraversion remains generally flat and neuroticism decreases slightly.

There’s more good news: As these personality traits trend upward, so does life satisfaction.

More than 8,500 Australians took a Big Five personality test and answered questions about life satisfaction in 2005, and then again in 2009. Studying the results, Dr. Christopher Boyce found that personalities changed over the four years—in fact, people were as likely to undergo personality changes as they were to experience major life changes like getting married, finding employment, or receiving a pay raise.

What’s more, personality changes (like becoming more open-minded, conscientious, extraverted, agreeable, and emotionally stable) represented a greater impact on life satisfaction than major life changes. [Editor’s Note: if you’ve got changes coming up, listen to our podcast on how to handle them with grace.]

Boyce’s paper suggests these findings could have public policy implications. For example, “an increase in the access and availability of mental health services to help individuals overcome neurotic tendencies could have huge benefits to both individual well-being and worker productivity,” he wrote.

Society rewards us for becoming more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable.

Of course, it is complicated to isolate the chicken from the egg—while people report satisfaction after making personality changes, other research suggests people undergo personality changes after life circumstances improve.

To further complicate things, major life changes (which one paper called the “universal tasks of social living”) can prompt personality change as well. Adults create identities when we take on age-based social roles like entering a career, getting married, or starting a family. As we move into these roles, society rewards us for becoming more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable.

But what if you want to actively change your personality? Can you initiate personality growth without drastically changing your life?

Studies point to yes, but changes may not come fast or easy. A 2015 study had students rate their desire to change aspects of their personalities. Over the 16-week semester, the students received weekly reminders of their desires to change. Some students were coached to outline small, concrete steps and “if…then” plans each week, such as, “Call Andrew and ask him to lunch on Tuesday,” or “If I feel stressed, then I will call my mom to talk about it.”

Over the course of the semester, students who aimed to increase their extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability found success with these goals, and those coached to take small steps reported even greater gains. People who took small steps toward greater extraversion, for example, increased extraversion by a half standard deviation. As author Nathan Hudson explained, “this type of change represents someone who is moderately introverted moving to the exact middle point between introversion and extraversion.”

It’s not a massive jump, but promising news for those hoping to make changes in their lives.

Therapy may be another way to speed up personality growth. A 2017 review of clinical psychology research found that therapy can help people change aspects of their personality (particularly to become less neurotic) in a relatively short period of time. After three months of therapy, participants’ self-reported emotional stability had increased by half the amount an average person will experience over the course of an adult life.

“Personality traits are linked to a wide array of incredibly important life outcomes, including occupational success, relationship satisfaction, and even health and mortality,” said Hudson.

He said the research suggests we don’t have to wait for a life change to passively affect our personalities. Instead, “people may be able to take a more active role in shaping their own personality traits, as well.”

Artwork by KYLE BECK

Katie Rose Quandt

Katie Rose Quandt is a freelance reporter in Brooklyn. She has written for Slate, Mother Jones, and In These Times, among others.

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