People become significantly less neurotic after undergoing therapy, new research finds.
After only three months of treatment, people’s emotional stability had improved by half as much as it would over their entire adulthood.
People who were anxious changed the most in the course of therapy, the researchers found.
After having psychotherapy and/or taking medication, people were also slightly more extraverted.
Both reduced neuroticism and increased extraversion were maintained in the long-term.
Professor Brent Roberts, who led the study, said:
“This really is definitive evidence that the idea that personality doesn’t change is wrong.
We’re not saying personality dramatically reorganizes itself.
You’re not taking an introvert and making them into an extravert.
But this reveals that personality does develop and it can be developed.”
The conclusions come from 207 studies including over 20,000 people.
Changing the personality trait of neuroticism is the key to treating many people with depression and anxiety.
Professor Roberts said:
“Some clinical psychologists see neuroticism at the core of every form of psychopathology, whether it’s drug and alcohol abuse, psychopathy, depression or panic disorder.
The fact that we saw the most change in neuroticism is not surprising because, for the most part, that’s what therapists are there to treat.”
Many people incorrectly think personality cannot change, said Professor Roberts:
“It is very common for individuals to think of personality as that part of them that is really distinct and enduring in a way that is recognizable[however] there never has been any evidence that people are perfectly unchanging, perfectly stable.”
The study’s authors explained the results:
“Interventions were associated with marked changes in personality trait measures over an average time of 24 weeks.
Emotional stability was the primary trait domain showing changes as a result of therapy.”
The personality changes were dramatic, considering how difficult it can be, Professor Roberts said:
“In terms of our expectations, this is a remarkable amount of change.
In about 50 of the studies, the researchers tracked the people down well past the end of the therapeutic situation, and they seemed to have held onto the changes, which is nice.
So, it’s not a situation where the therapist is just affecting your mood.
It appears that you get a long-term benefit.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Psychological Bulletin (Roberts et al., 2017).