Personality Change

05.11.2019 |

Episode #10 of the course Introduction to personality psychology: The Big 5 traits by Psychology Insights Online


Welcome to the final lesson of the course! In today’s lesson, we are going to complete the course by looking at personality change.

Is your personality ultimately your destiny? Can you do something to change the way you have always been? Can old dogs learn new tricks?

As I mentioned in an earlier lecture, much personality research suggests that the core of personality begins to stabilize at around the age of 30. Before then, personality traits are more fluid and modifiable.

However, some traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness have been found to increase as we age.

There have been several research studies conducted in recent years looking at the concept of personality change in more detail.

In one recent study using a sample of college students, it was found that most people wanted to change aspects of their personality. For instance, 87% wanted to increase their extraversion, while only 3% of people wanted to decrease extraversion. Similarly, 89% wanted to increase their agreeableness and 97% wanted higher conscientiousness. Clearly, the desire is there, but the big question is if it can actually be done.

A meta-analysis conducted by Dr. Brent Roberts and colleagues in 2017 looked at whether psychological therapies could change personality. You can think of a meta-analysis as being a “study of other studies” that provides an in-depth examination of the evidence on a topic. In this case, over 200 studies were included in the analysis.

Overall, it was found that certain types of treatment can actually change Big 5 personality traits. In particular, the two traits that changed the most were neuroticism, which decreased, and extraversion, which increased. Psychotherapy (or talking with a therapist), as well as medications designed to treat anxiety and depression, were effective in reducing these problems, and they also modified neuroticism and extraversion. Interestingly, the other Big 5 traits did not change that much at all.

What about changing personality traits without therapy? Can we change our personality without help?

For starters, there is less research on this topic, but recent experiments have tested this concept. In one fascinating study conducted in 2018, Dr. Nathan Hudson and colleagues asked college students to complete a Big 5 personality test and identify which traits they wanted to change. The students were then asked to complete a series of “challenges” related to each of the identified traits for a period of 15 weeks. The challenges were designed to guide students to make small changes related to their feelings and actions to make them more aligned with personality goals. For example, to increase extraversion, one challenge was to actively seek out and talk to a stranger. They measured personality again after 15 weeks and examined change from the baseline assessment.

What did they find? If participants simply stated that they wanted to change their personality, this did not result in any meaningful changes later. Instead, the study revealed that completing a greater number of challenges was directly associated with increases in trait scores. In other words, taking concrete actions to become more extraverted, conscientious, etc. resulted in moving personality traits in that direction in a relatively short period of time. Now, we have to keep in mind that this was just one study, with a sample of young students, but the findings are promising for those who want to try to alter their personality.

What do these results mean for the rest of us? Properly identifying traits to target and change, making concrete plans to act in ways consistent with the change we want to see, and steadily following through with these actions may lead to success in changing personality on our own. In essence, it could be a case of “fake it till you make it”; that is, act like the person you wish to become and eventually, you will achieve it. Overall, these results suggest that in some cases, changing features of our personality may actually be possible, but more longitudinal research is needed.

Today’s Task: In the previous lectures, I asked you to consider whether you wanted to change your own levels of individual traits and recommended a few simple behavioral strategies for doing so. These are the kinds of tasks that Dr. Hudson asked his participants to do. What do you think? Did you find these exercises useful? If so, you may want to consider incorporating more challenges like these in your life. If you do, be cognizant about acting them out and not just saying you want to do them. Hudson found that taking action, not just wanting to change, is what ultimately led to a greater likelihood of changing personality.

Congratulations! You have reached the end of this Highbrow course on personality. I hoped that you enjoyed it and can adapt some of what you learned to your own life.


Recommended book

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman


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