Debate about how much a person’s character can and can’t change has occupied psychologists for decades, but a growing consensus is beginning to emerge. While our traits are relatively stable, they aren't fixed. Change is often passive—that is, experience leaves its mark on personality. But excitingly, initial findings suggest that we can also change ourselves.
What prior research has so far not addressed, however, is whether simply desiring to change is enough—perhaps by triggering automatic, subtle shifts in our identity and behavior—or whether we must take deliberate, active steps to change. A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores this question. The results show once again that willful personality change is possible, but they also indicate that the mere desire to change is not sufficient. In fact, failing to support one’s goals with concrete action appears to backfire, leading to personality drift in the opposite direction of what was desired.
Nathan Hudson at Southern Methodist University and his colleagues recruited 377 psychology students to take part in a 15-week study. At the start the students were told about the “Big Five” personality traits recognized by contemporary mainstream psychology (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and invited to select any they would like to try to change across the duration of the study. The students chose an average of two traits, most often to lower their neuroticism (i.e. to be more emotionally stable) or increase their extraversion; the least popular desired change was to become higher in agreeableness.
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Through each week of the study, the students completed a 60-item personality test. Also, at the start of every week they selected a maximum of four challenges to try to complete to help them change their personality in the ways they wanted. These challenges, which varied in difficulty, came from a pool of 50 proposed by eleven personality experts. Mostly they involved concrete tasks that reflected acting in ways consistent with the traits that the students wanted to change.
For instance, an easy extraversion challenge was to say “hello” to a cashier—whereas a hard extraversion challenge was to volunteer to take a leadership role, such as on a class project. An easy openness challenge was to read a news story about a foreign country; a harder equivalent was to seek out someone with a different opinion and ask them questions to better understand their perspective.
At the end of the week, the students logged whether they had achieved the challenges they’d set for themselves. The challenge system was adaptive so that it proposed progressively harder challenges to students who were successful during the preceding week. If students selected the same challenge again, the required frequency was increased. To aid motivation, a reward badge system appeared on-screen when students logged successfully completed challenges.
Consistent with recent personality change theory, the more trait-consistent behavioral challenges that the students successfully completed, the more their personality traits shifted over the course of the study in the direction that they desired. (Challenge difficulty didn’t seem to make any difference to this key finding.)
“The single largest implication of our study,” Hudson and his team reported, “is that actively engaging in behaviors designed to change one’s personality traits does, in fact, predict greater amounts of trait growth across time.”
However, accepting but not attaining challenges was associated with trait change in the opposite direction of what was desired. This has important implications for anyone considering embarking on the challenge of changing their personality. “Whether or not volitional change is an advisable pursuit may depend entirely on one’s chances of successfully attaining desired changes” the researchers said.
Hudson’s team doesn’t know for sure why unattained challenges backfired in this way. One possibility is that failing to complete selected challenges was demoralizing and led participants to re-evaluate their personality traits in a harsher light. For instance, an introvert who failed to meet the challenge of introducing themselves to a stranger might have adjusted their self-concept to consider themselves even more of an introvert than they had done before.
The study has a number of obvious drawbacks including the use of psychology students (who may have knowledge or expectations that differ from the general public); a reliance on the self-rating of personality; and a correlational design that means it is not possible to attribute the cause of personality change to the completed challenges.
These issues can be addressed by future research that could also look into such questions as which behavioral challenges are most effective at eliciting trait change. For now, the main finding is clear and important: As the researchers put it, “Merely desiring change and formulating plans is not enough; it is necessary to follow through.”
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