Most people want to change their personality, research finds.
The most desirable changes for people are to be more extraverted, more conscientious and more emotionally stable.
It is easy to see why:
- Extraverts are generally self-confident and cheerful and can also be impulsive, sensation-seekers.
- Conscientious people tend to be more self-disciplined and they aim for achievement.
- The emotionally stable are less likely to experience mental health problems.
Despite their aims, though, people find it hard to change their personality, the research revealed.
In fact, some of those trying to change their personality actually see shifts in the opposite direction.
The conclusions come from a group of around 360 college students and a group of approximately 500 people ranging in ages.
All were given a personality test and asked what, if any, aspects of their personality they would like to change.
The students and members of the general population were then surveyed again six months and a year later, respectively.
Dr Erica Baranski, the study’s first author, explained the results:
“In both samples, the desire to change at ‘time one’ did not predict actual change in the desired direction at all at ‘time two’.
In the general population sample, we didn’t find that personality change goals predicted any change in any direction.”
While the general population experienced no change in their personality, the college students saw some shifts in the opposite direction than desired.
Those that wanted to become more conscientious became less conscientious.
Young people wanting to become more extraverted became more agreeable and emotionally stable.
These changes might reflect the fact that college students are at a transformational point in their lives, Dr Baranski said:
“College students are thrown into this new environment, and they may be unhappy and may look within selves to become happier and change some aspect of their personality.
But, meanwhile, there is a bombardment of other things that they’re told they need to achieve, like doing well in a class or choosing a major or getting an internship, and those goals might take precedence.
Even though they know more sustained and introspective change might be better, the short-term effort is more attractive and more necessary in the moment.”
Strategies for personality change
Other studies have been more optimistic about personality change.
Being more physically active makes people more extraverted, conscientious, agreeable and open to new experience.
Indeed, Dr Baranski thinks people can change their personality, but it requires more dedicated effort:
“There is evidence in clinical psychology that therapeutic coaching leads to change in personality and behavior, and there is recent evidence that suggests that when there’s a lot of regular interaction with an experimenter, personality change is possible.
But when individuals are left to their own devices, change may not be as likely.”
One of the keys to personality change is making very specific behavioural plans for certain situations.
For example, if you want to be more extraverted, you might say to yourself: “If I see someone I know, then I’ll go over and say hello.”
The new, desired behaviours can lead to changes in self-concept.
Dr Baranski concluded:
“Across all the studies that have been done on this topic over the last several years, it’s clear that most people want to change an aspect of their personality.
If left unattended, those goals aren’t achieved, so it would be helpful for people who have those goals to know what is necessary for them to accomplish them.”
Time itself naturally changes our personalities, often for the better.
As they get older, many people become more emotionally stable, more agreeable and more conscientious, one study has found.
Somewhere approaching half of the participants in that study saw changes in their personality over five decades.
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 of Personality Research (Baranski et al., 2020).