Monday, 27 April 2015

You can change your personality at will

Surveys show that most of us wish our personalities were different. Change is certainly possible: people's personalities evolve as they get older (for example, most of us become more friendly but less open-minded), and there's research showing more immediate influences on personality, such as our current mood (we're less extravert when we're sad). And yet, before now, no one has studied whether people can simply choose to change their personality at will.

Nathan Hudson and Chris Fraley asked 135 undergrads to complete on-line tests and surveys about their different personality traits and about how they'd like their personality to change. Over the next 16 weeks, the students re-took the personality test each week. The key finding was that students who said they wanted to change a particular trait (such as being more extravert) tended to display more change in that trait, in the desired direction, than other students.

To assist their personality change, half the participants were also prompted each week to list three ways they might achieve the change they were after. This actually back-fired – students given these prompts showed less of the personality changes they desired than other students, probably because the intervention was so vague (for example, students in this condition proposed vague strategies like "be more sociable").

A follow-up study with 151 more students was similar, but this time, alongside the personality tests, they were also asked each week whether they'd performed various behaviours that are relevant to different personality traits. This makes the findings more convincing – for instance, it's easier to remember if you hugged someone today, than to remember how talkative you've been. Again, Hudson and Fraley found that participants' personalities tended to change in line with their wishes for how they'd like to change, and so did their behaviours.

In this follow-up, half the students were also given a different kind prompt to help them change – each week they were coached to describe specific steps to facilitate personality change (e.g. telephone and invite a named friend to lunch, to increase extraversion), and they were asked to create so-called "implementation intentions" that take the form "if I'm in situation X, then I will do Y". This coaching was successful in increasing desired personality change.

The changes to personality observed in both parts of this study were very modest, but they were statistically significant, and they support the principle of wilful personality change. "Collectively, these findings indicate that, at the very least, people's personality traits and daily behaviour tend to change in ways that align with their goals for change," the researchers said.

Deeper analysis suggested this change was achieved through a reciprocal, unfolding process: goals led to changes in behaviour, which led to changes in self-concept, which prompted more behaviour change. Moreover, as participants' personalities changed in desired directions, their stated goals for change dropped away, consistent with the idea that they really had changed as they'd hoped.

It's surprising that the question of volitional personality change hasn't been investigated systematically before. That makes these new results novel and exciting, but far more research is needed. The most serious limitation of the new evidence is the dependence on students' own self-reports of their personalities. Of course, observer reports also have problems (who knows your personality best: you or your friends and family?), but in an ideal world the study would have included both, and even direct tests of behaviour in different situations. It's also not clear how long the observed changes will last, nor whether participants' desires really caused the changes. Were some unknown factors (peer pressure?) behind both the participants' stated desires for personality change and the changes that occurred? These issues noted, the researchers said their work suggests that "individuals who desire to change their personality traits can, in fact, do so ..."


  ResearchBlogging.orgHudson, N., & Fraley, R. (2015). Volitional Personality Trait Change: Can People Choose to Change Their Personality Traits? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000021

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Research Digest said...

This could also be used as a follow up to heart disease studies as well. Those with type A personalities have shown to have (small) links to heart disease. If males with older sisters are less competitive, it could be linked with follow up studies by correlating heart disease rates in this group and comparing them to previous finds. It would also be interesting to see if males with older sisters are also less hostile, more patient, and even see if they have lower divorce rates.

Research Digest said...

So Heraclitus was wrong when he said "character is destiny?" I wonder whether psychology isn't overestimating itself. There might again be replication problems with small effects.

Research Digest said...

'The changes to personality observed in both parts of this study were very modest, but they were statistically significant'

What does very modest mean? Did the researchers rapport an effectsize? How strong was the effect?

Without an effectsize I can't really know if this conclusion may be drawn:

"individuals who desire to change their personality traits can, in fact, do so ..."

Research Digest said...

This doesn't show any change in "personality", only a change in responses to the questionnaire - i.e. the reported "effect" could simply be down to demand characteristics

Research Digest said...

The link to the full paper is clearly stated at the bottom...

Research Digest said...

The link goes to the abstract only (which doesn't report any statistics whatsoever), and from where you have to pay to read the whole paper. I am guessing you didn't try following it yourself...

Research Digest said...

People adapt their personalities to their environment. You can be extrovert with one person and introvert with another. We also change when we grow.

Research Digest said...

Hear hear!

Research Digest said...

This baffles me. I have never thought of personality as fixed - I am whatever I choose to be. Most of my personality is guided by my current moral values for example I think its morally better to be nice to people. I didn't think that when I was a teenager though and I was generally horrible. I also currently think that its better to be honest but if I wanted to tomorrow, I could wake up and decide to be dishonest and take up a criminal lifestyle. Much of how people behave is determined by context too - I am most certainly not the same person at work as I am on a night out. Where does this idea come from that people have no control over their personality and they are stuck with something they haven't decided to be? Very odd.

Research Digest said...

So the students may have been answering the questionnaire slightly different each week because in that particular moment, they were actually thinking about and focusing on changing their personalities. But in real life away from the questionnaire, they were probably still the same as they have always been, with the same personality. I think it is possible to change your attitude and the way you see things (the glass is half full....etc.) but to change your personality sounds more like playing God to me. For example, if you are mad or sad about something, it's a little difficult to just snap your fingers and decide your not going to waste your time being upset. You may decide to "put a pin in it" and re-visit it at a later time when it is more appropriate and you have had time to think about the situation at hand for a while, but if something devastating happens in your life and you walk around with a grin on your face, people will think you have completely lost it and gone crazy. I like to think of all your emotions as being involuntary, you feel what you feel no matter what you or someone else thinks you should feel. Your personality and emotions are installed during the prenatal period, and to change or fake them would mean living a lie or a double life. You can change your attitude and decide your not going to be a rude person anymore, or your going to work on being more patient, and maybe with those improvements, people will eventually start to see a slight adjustment in your personality.

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