Most people want to change their personality, psychologists find.
Personality change is possible — even dramatic improvements can be made, but they take effort.
Here is PsyBlog’s guide to the psychology of personality change.
What you will learn:
- The most popular personality changes.
- Change personality facets first.
- How to make specific plans.
- How to become more extraverted.
- How to be less neurotic.
- How to improve multiple personality traits at once.
- How time changes your personality.
- How to overcome personality disorders.
The most desirable changes for people are to be more extraverted, more conscientious and more emotionally stable, one study has found.
It is easy to see why:
- Extraverts are generally self-confident and cheerful and can also be more successful at work and tend to make natural leaders.
- Conscientious people are more self-disciplined and they aim for achievement.
- The emotionally stable are less likely to experience mental health problems.
That covers three of the five major aspects of personality.
Many people would also like to be more agreeable, the fourth aspect of personality, another study has found.
Agreeable people tend to be friendly, warm and tactful — always taking into account other people’s feelings.
The final of the five major personality traits is openness to experience.
People who are open to experience are curious and motivated to learn new things.
They are also likely to be imaginative, sensitive to their feelings, and seekers of variety.
Most people do not seem interested in increasing this trait — perhaps because its practical benefits are not as obvious as the other traits.
This is a mistake since increasing openness to experience enriches the life of the mind: art, beauty, feelings, ideas and imagination.
Personality change is possible: people who wanted to increase aspects of their conscientiousness and openness to experience were able to do so in just two weeks, one study found.
The factors used to change people’s personality were awareness, realising strengths, targeting thoughts, feelings and behaviours:
- Awareness was achieved by reminding people regularly of their goal.
- To realise their strengths, people were asked about the benefits of their desired behaviour change.
- Targeting thoughts and feelings involved being reminded of the advantages of change and the barriers to be overcome.
- To boost desired behaviours, people were reminded of their plans for action.
Working on facets of personality — self-discipline, rather than conscientiousness overall — produces a larger effect, the research suggested.
Here are the five major aspects of personality, along with the sub-facets:
- Neuroticism: Anxiety, Hostility, Depression, Self-consciousness, Impulsiveness, Vulnerability.
- Extraversion: Warmth, Gregariousness, Assertiveness, Activity, Excitement-Seeking, Positive Emotions.
- Openness to Experience: Fantasy, Aesthetics, Feelings, Actions, Ideas, Values.
- Agreeableness: Trust, Straightforwardness, Altruism, Compliance, Modesty, Tender-mindedness.
- Conscientiousness: Competence, Order, Dutifulness, Achievement Striving, Self-Discipline, Deliberation.
For example, rather than trying to become more extraverted, it is better to focus just on seeking excitement.
Similarly, instead of trying to become less neurotic, focus only on reducing impulsiveness.
People naturally vary on the facets of personality, just as they do on the five major factors.
That means it will be easier to change some facets of one trait than others.
Trial and error will soon reveal which is which.
Do not be surprised if efforts to change personality are slow or difficult.
Patience is important as studies of personality change have found that people only achieve modest goals over time.
It is particularly difficult for people to change when their goals are vague.
For example, saying to yourself ‘I’ll be more social’ tends not to work.
What does work is making very specific plans about how to behave in certain situations.
For example, if you want to be more social, you might say to yourself: “If I see someone I know, then I’ll go over and say hello.”
When change does occur, it is a fascinating process in which the new, desired behaviours lead to changes in self-concept.
In other words: people fake it until they make it.
Then, their view of themselves changes.
Shifts in self-concept then prompt more behaviours in line with the desired personality change.
This forms a virtuous circle that reinforces itself.
One great example of faking it until you make it is increasing extraversion.
Acting like an extrovert — even if you are an introvert — makes people all around the world feel happier, studies find.
Participants in the study were told to act in an outgoing way for 10 minutes and then report how it made them feel.
Even among introverts — people who typically prefer solitary activities — acting in an extroverted way gave them a boost of happiness.
Try experimenting with other extroverted behaviours, such as being talkative, adventurous and having high energy levels.
People reported feeling more positive emotions in daily situations where they either acted or felt more extroverted.
Becoming less neurotic (the same as more emotionally stable) is the goal of much psychological therapy.
Indeed, people become significantly less neurotic after undergoing therapy, one study found.
After only three months of treatment, people’s emotional stability had improved by half as much as it would over their entire adulthood.
Therapy also made people slightly more extraverted, the researchers found.
Both reduced neuroticism and increased extraversion were maintained in the long-term.
So, therapy is a well-established way to achieve meaningful personality change — although with a greater input of time and money.
Love helps people who think pessimistically to approach life with more confidence and see events in a more positive light.
We have touched on neuroticism and extraversion, but what about being more conscientious, open to experience and agreeable?
Fortunately, there are well-known techniques that allow you to target multiple major personality traits at once.
While the approaches are ancient, their effect on personality is a more modern discovery.
The first technique is exercise.
Only relatively small amounts of exercise are enough, over the years, to lead to positive changes to personality.
A few of the benefits of these personality changes include:
- Higher conscientiousness is linked to more success in life,
- more extraverted people experience more positive emotions,
- and being open to experience is linked to creativity and intelligence.
While meditation has been around for thousands of years, its effects on personality are only just emerging.
The results showed that the longer people had been practising meditation, the more their personalities had changed.
They experienced higher levels of openness and extraversion and lower levels of neuroticism with more meditation.
Neuroticism is a personality trait that is strongly linked to anxiety, sadness, irritability and self-consciousness — so reducing it is clearly beneficial.
Mindfulness may be particularly effective at increasing openness to experience and creativity.
Openness to experience is the quality of being receptive and curious, as well as imaginative and sensitive to feelings.
Education has a positive effect on people’s personalities, recent research finds.
People generally become more extraverted after completing higher education.
The personalities of students from poorer backgrounds benefit even more from attending university.
Along with increased extraversion, these students become more agreeable.
People’s personality naturally changes with age — often for the better.
As they get older, many people become more emotionally stable, more agreeable and more conscientious.
Emotional stability is linked to fewer mental health problems, agreeableness is linked to being considerate and kind while conscientious people are more reliable.
The stereotype of the grumpy senior is totally misplaced, where personality is concerned.
Almost half the participants in that study saw changes in their personality over the five decades.
Over even longer periods, our personalities may change out of sight.
One study that followed people over 63 years found that there was no relationship whatsoever between people’s personality at age 14 and at age 77.
It was as if the second set of tests — administered 63 years later — had been given to a totally different person.
The reason we don’t notice these huge shifts in personality is that they happen so slowly.
Like a glacier constantly moving under its own weight, our personalities continue to shift imperceptibly as time and circumstances do their work.
We might feel like the same person 20 years later — but perhaps it is only an illusion?
Personality disorders affect around one in six people in the US.
People with a personality disorder behave, think and feel very differently from the average person.
There are three types of personality disorder:
- Fearful or anxious.
- Emotional, dramatic or erratic.
- Eccentric or odd.
Within each type are a number of subdivisions, the most common being obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (a fearful or anxious type) and borderline personality disorder (an emotional, dramatic or erratic type).
People with a personality disorder are at double the risk of developing depression or anxiety, are more likely to be socially disadvantaged, separated or divorced.
Historically, personality disorders were considered difficult to treat.
More recently, though, psychologists have found that personality disorders can get better.
Time can slowly remedy personality disorders, even without treatment, research shows.
That could be individual therapy, group therapy, self-help and/or medication.
Other studies have shown that borderline personality disorder generally improves over time even without specialised treatment.
This is despite the fact that borderline personality disorder is often thought the most difficult disorder to treat.
So, personality disorders, like other aspects of personality are amenable to change.
Personality may determine who we are now, but not necessarily who we can become.