As the New Year approaches and we head into resolution season, you may be thinking about changes you want to make in your life. You may be considereding simple behavioral changes, like getting up early and going to the gym, spending less time on Facebook, or being more patient with your kids. Or maybe you're aiming higher. Maybe you'd actually like to change fundamental aspects of who you are. Have you ever wished you were more extroverted, less impulsive, or less prone to depression or anxiety? Have you ever thought about making a drastic change in your personality? And if so, is this actually possible?
Most people assume that who we are is fixed, and that we can’t change, no matter how much we might desire a brand new personality. If you’re fairly neurotic, or highly extraverted, it’s assumed you’ll more or less stay that way. But researchers have long been perplexed by the question of whether or not people can change their personalities. Is it even possible? And moreover, how many people actually want to? Is it a certain type of person who attempts to change his or her personality, and how effective are their efforts?
Do People Want to Change?
Most people know at some level that the way they are is the way they are. We accept that while we may wish to be different, these wishes are often fruitless. Personality, by its very definition, is not considered particularly changeable. In the words of Personality Psychologist, Brent W. Roberts:
“Personality traits are defined as relatively enduring, automatic patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that characterize individuals’ typical ways of responding to different situations.”
But despite the static nature of personality, do people still desire to alter their essential selves?
The simple answer is, “Yes.” People definitely want to change. And they desire more profound personal alterations than simply making a habit of going to the gym. They want broad-sweeping personality overhauls.
Change and the Big Five Model of Personality
A study conducted by Nathan W. Hudson and Brent W. Roberts from the University of Illinois looked at people who wanted to change, what they wanted to change and how they went about trying to make it happen. The study found that “the vast majority of people want to change aspects of their personalities.”1 Hudson and Roberts also found that the changes people aspired to reach were organized around the same dimensions that psychologists use to define us: the “Big Five” dimensions of personality.
The “Big Five” is a model used to catalog and categorize the five major dimensions of human personality:
- Extraversion—the extent to which we seek out and are rewarded by the company of others.
- Conscientiousness—the extent to which we persist doggedly towards our goals, resisting impulses and distractions.
- Openness—our level of interest in abstract ideas, including intellectualism and the arts.
- Agreeableness—our tendency to cooperate and accommodate others.
- Neuroticism—our tendency to respond to stress with depression, anxiety, and other negative mental states.
Each dimension represents a spectrum from high to low, with individuals falling somewhere along the spectrum for each of the five areas. Researchers have discovered that this same model that explains human personality also helps define the manner in which people desire to change.
Hudson and Roberts found that some changes were more desired than others. The majority of people hoping for a personality makeover wanted to become more emotionally stable (less Neurotic) and more hardworking, persistent, and goal-oriented (more Conscientious). A smaller portion of people wished to become more Extraverted, and fewer wanted to be more Agreeable or Open.
The results showed that people who desired change weren’t as concerned with the occasional nagging trait or unattractive character defect, but rather desired broader changes in relation to entire dimensions of personality. Thus, the Big Five Model actually helps to provide the best framework for understanding the kinds of personal changes people tend to pursue.
Why Do People Want to Change?
When your life isn’t going the way you want it to, i.e. you can’t hold down a job or a marriage, or your friends don’t call, at some point you might consider that it’s a personality issue. Or you may covet the personality traits identified as socially desirable, because you believe being different will make you happier or more successful. Regardless of the reason, you may identify aspects of your life you’re not happy with, and attribute your lack of success to your personality.
Common frustrations in life typically lead to related goals of personality change, says Hudson and Roberts. For example, relationship troubles commonly lead to the goal of becoming more extraverted:
“…People who were dissatisfied with their sex lives, recreational activities, friendships, or daily emotions tended to express desires to increase in extraversion—perhaps because they perceived that being more extraverted would ameliorate their woes related to sex, recreation, social interactions, and emotional experiences.”2
While financial stresses spurred people to wish for a more Conscientious character:
“…Participants who were dissatisfied with the financial or academic aspects of their lives tended to express desires to increase in conscientiousness—perhaps because they believed that being more thorough, reliable, hardworking, and organized might help remedy financial or academic problems.”3
Is Personality Change Possible?
Regardless of the type of people who want to change, or the ways in which they attempt to do it, the real question lies at whether or not we can change. Is enduring alteration of our personalities actually possible?
According to the study, “Although no empirical evidence currently exists that can answer this question, current personality theories provide a promising prognosis for attempts at volitional trait change.”4 In other words, there’s no real evidence that suggests you can change your personality, and it’s undoubtedly no easy task, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is possible.
How Do We Do It?
Now, what we all want to know is how? Perhaps it’s possible to be less Neurotic or more Extraverted. But how do we do it? There’s no right answer to this question, as it will vary depending on the individual and the desired change. But here are a few potential strategies:
- Force of will, aka “Fake it ‘til you make it.” If you can establish the right behaviors, and exert sufficient willpower to maintain them over time, there is a good chance you can establish the brain changes that will make the improvement a lasting one.
- Social roles and commitments. Committing to certain social structures or institutions such as a career path, an educational track, the military or marriage, which require the desired traits, can force you to conform to the structure. Over time this can result in a lasting change.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Work with a therapist to identify the thoughts that lead to the behaviors, and then learn to change the negative or maladaptive thoughts. Correcting the thoughts behind the actions creates more desirable behavior, and eventually, permanent, positive change.
- Mindfulness and introspection. Become more aware of your current behaviors and dissect them. Why am I feeling this way? What’s behind that response? Could I make the choice to feel or respond differently?
- Baby steps. Set small goals and implement habits gradually; it can lead to bigger changes over time.
- Love yourself. Paradoxically, being too down on yourself makes it more difficult to change. Researchers found that unhappy, frustrated, self-loathing people have a harder time changing than happy people. Happy, contented, self-accepting people are also more likely to desire personal change and to believe it’s possible.
- Let the years take their course. If you want to change your personality, but don’t want to exert much effort to do so, research suggests that personality does gradually change over time. With age, Conscientiousness naturally tends to increase, while Neuroticism tends to decrease—good news for those of us who wish we were more Conscientious, but aren’t Conscientious enough to actually make it happen.
Hudson, N. W., & Roberts, B. W. (2014). Goals to change personality traits: Concurrent links between personality traits, daily behavior, and goals to change oneself. Journal of Research in Personality, 53, 68-83.
1, 2, 3, 4 Hudson, N.W., & Roberts, B.W., 2014