Can You Change Your Personality?
The Wizard of Oz is probably one of the most iconic movies of all time. In it, Dorothy find companions to join her on the way to the Emerald City. While Dorothy is searching for the way home, her companions are in search of qualities they don’t possess. The Lion wants courage. The Tinman wants a heart. The Scarecrow wants a brain.
Can you relate? Has the ever been a time that you wish you were a little more bold? Have you ever wanted to be one of those people that could effortlessly walk up to someone new and strike up a conversation? Maybe you just wish you worried about the little things less. Or perhaps you are a bit like the Lion, and just want the courage to take more risks in life.
You aren’t alone. In fact, wanting to tweak your personality is something that almost everyone has thought about. It’s normal.
And why not. We don’t want life to pass us by. We want to live happy and productive lives. Sometimes, it seems, our personalities prevent us from grabbing certain opportunities, and instead leave us wondering “What if?”
Is Changing Your Personality Possible?
The answer seems to be…..possibly yes.
I know that’s not the clear answer you were probably looking for. But I have to say it with caution.
The biggest reason is that research regarding this question is largely theory. There is very little data that exists on people willfully changing their personality. In fact, there is only one study to date – which I will talk about later. And without data driven research (which can be tested and validated) it would be a bit too early to say this question has a clear answer.
So not all experts agree it’s possible. Why? Mostly because this area of research is brand spanking new. Sure, personality research has been around since the dawn of psychology. But personality change? Not so much. For the longest time, people believed that personality was relatively unchanging. There are theories, yes, but the evidence is limited.
Also, there are different definitions of personality. What it is and what it consists of. This muddies the waters a bit when trying to address if personality change is possible. But hey, hardly anything in psychology research is black and white. And personality research definitely has gray areas. Them’s the breaks, kids.
Personality Does Change Over Time
Back in the olden days (that’s how I reference the mid 90’s now) personality was thought to be pretty stable. Your genes played the dominant role in whether or not you’d be a wallflower or the person who loved the spotlight. Growing up you might experience some slight changes, but when you hit adulthood, that was it. Things were set in stone.
It is true that genes play a part in personality formation. But most experts today agree that personalities can and do change throughout your life. Even when we’re old. More interesting, is that the largest changes in your personality happen in the age range of 20-40.
Why Does Personality Change?
Knowing that personalities change over time, what is it that causes the changes?
Experts believe that it’s life experiences that drive the majority of the changes. Many of these life changes cause us to adopt different roles and responsibilities. For example, if you get a new job, get married, become a parent, or go for that masters degree when you’re 30. These different life experiences require us to act in certain ways and to adopt different behaviors. Researchers believe that given enough time, these thoughts and behaviors can turn into lasting personality changes.
Another explanation is life dissatisfaction. When a person becomes unhappy with certain areas of their life they will seek personality change as a way to remedy the problem. This could come from general unhappiness from friendships, work life, or life direction. Or it can even come from dramatic life events such as the death of a loved one, which may force a reevaluation of one’s life.
Evidence from one study has been found that this could be the case. When researchers asked about people about their personality change goals, they also questioned them about other areas of their lives. They found that unhappiness in key areas could predict which personality traits they wanted to change.
A final reason could be that we simply desire traits we don’t have, much like our heroes in the Wizard of Oz. We see qualities in other people that we don’t possess and desire to have them. Researchers have noted this in studies as well. For example, if a person was introverted, they wanted to have qualities that were extroverted in nature.
Why Would You Want to Change Your Personality?
It turns out that there may be several good reasons.
One is that it may lead to better life satisfaction. A study published in 2013 looked at over 8,625 individuals and came away with two interesting conclusions. First, they found that personality can change just as much as other external factors. Like a job change, getting married, or a pay raise. More importantly, though, the researchers found that changes in personality accounted for larger increases in life satisfaction than the other external changes.
Another big reason is your health. There is actually a growing body of research that is starting to link personality to health. In fact there is one personality trait that keeps popping up as a predictor of longer life and better health. The personality trait of Conscientiousness.
Not surprisingly, this trait is also related to healthy behaviors. Which would explain the better health outcomes. Research has shown that many of the unhealthy behaviors you would think of – like tobacco use, alcohol abuse, and violence – are found more often in people without the trait. People high in Conscientiousness are found to struggle less with obesity, have better self control, and more success in their professional lives. And to top it all off, studies have shown that these people live longer lives.
Personality seems also to be able to predict outcomes in cognitive functioning and decline. One study that looked at data on nearly 14,000 people and their cognitive functioning. They then looked at the relation to people’s general personality traits. They found that people with certain levels of personality traits not only had better memory, but that their cognitive abilities declined slower than other that didn’t have those personality traits. Those that were found to be high in the Neuroticism performed worse on all cognitive measures in the study. The researchers also noted that these associations were as strong if not stronger than other medical indicators of cognitive functioning. Namely, things like hypertension, diabetes, smoking, or obesity.
If you’re an artist or writer, you may be interested to know that certain traits are related to creativity in a different study. When looking at brain structures, scientists in one study were able to link the trait called “Openness to Experience” to increased gray matter in a certain part of the brain. An area which is known to drive creative processes. Additionally, this personality trait has also been linked to slower loss of brain volume in old age.
And it doesn’t stop there. There is evidence of personality traits being linked with professional success, general health, and resilience to stress. This means experts are starting to view personality in a new light, as well as its outcomes. It may be used to help us age gracefully, promote better education, increase happiness, and becoming more productive members of society.
How Can You Change Your Personality?
So personality can and does change. Even most experts agree on this. However, many of the observations of personality change come about in a more natural way. Either through the roles we adopt, or circumstances that are out of our control. So the question that is now being asked is “Can people change their personality if they actively choose to do so?
The first study to take a data driven approach to the question was published in March 2015. Two researchers from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted two studies with students over the course of 16 weeks.
Here’s what they found.
After analyzing the results of their studies, they found that people who did want to change aspects of their personality could change them. Secondly, they used two different methods to help students make their change goals. One method worked, while the other didn’t.
In the first study, the students were allowed to write down their change goals however they wanted. This resulted in the goals being vague and broad sweeping. Research in other areas can confirm. When goals are formed in this way, they are usually unattainable and usually ineffective.
For example, “Be more outgoing.” This could mean any number of things. It can also be accomplished in many ways. When students formed their personality change goals in this way, it was found to have no beneficial effect. In fact, for some personality traits, there was a negative effect.
Finding an Effective Method
The second method was more successful in helping students with personality change. And it was different in two main ways.
First, the participants made small and concrete goals. Goals like “I will call Ann on Thursday.” The second difference was that they used a method called “implementation intention”.
Don’t let the fancy name intimidate you, it’s actually a pretty simple. In fact, this method has been proven effective in research in goal attainment and behavior change. At it’s core, the technique is basically just an if-then statement. It works like this.
If x happens, then I will do y.
For example, let’s say you wanted to be a little more extroverted. You could say “If I attend a social function, I will have a conversation with a person I’ve never met.” It helps you put a goal into something specific and actionable. It lays out a specific situation, and a specific, goal oriented behavior o take when the situation occurs.
It’s really that simple, and that’s the beauty of it. Concrete goals will outperform vague goals every day of the year. This basic formula can be applied to anything from health goals to helping manage stress or emotions. You’re welcome.
The Future of Personality Change
There are actually several other methods that researchers are tossing around to help test personality change. The problem is, none of them have really been tested. So they are still just theory.
The good news is that the way has already been partially paved. Research in cognitive behavior and cognitive training are similar in many ways. And because of that, many of the practices and methods developed from those areas are being applied to willful personality change.
Tying it Together
So it seems that people who want to change their personality may be able to do so. It’s important to remember, though, that this type of research is still in it’s infancy. There is more data to collect and there’s still a lot of questions to be answered. What types of methods are most effective? Are the changes permanent? How long is needed before new traits become stable?
Let’s not forget that personalities are unique. Everyone’s reason for traveling the yellow brick road will be different. Like Dorothy, though, you can be sure that you will find others traveling it with you.
And who knows. In the end, you might discover you already had what you were looking for.
Image Credit: Rachel Adams
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