While changing one's self can feel like a lost cause, recent findings show that you can change your personality if you want.
Changing is possible, given specific circumstances.
Brent W. Roberts, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, conducted an analysis of studies that found you can change your personality with the help of therapy and pharmaceuticals like antidepressants.
The results were multi-faceted, as Roberts shared with ATTN:.
First, personality can change into adulthood — but it’s young adulthood when it's most ripe for change. “Most of the change is unambiguously positive as people become more assertive, warm, conscientious, and emotionally stable,” Roberts said. “Sensible life experiences are associated with these changes. If you are fortunate enough to have a happy marriage or a satisfying career, you tend to become more emotionally stable, for example.”
This finding rebuts a popular scientific belief.
“Many people and scientists assume that personality is fixed,” Roberts said. “After all, one of the defining features of personality is that it is ‘relatively enduring.’”
He continued: “Let me be clear, personality is quite stable and yet does change with age. That said, the changes are modest in contrast to the stability — the changes we see across a decade are around 0.25 of a standard deviation, which is small in comparison to the effect sizes associated with stability.”
The best example for understanding this is to think about neurosis. If someone is neurotic and hopes to change this, in 10 years they will still be neurotic — just not as much.
“Whether you see this as significant change depends on your perspective,” Roberts said. “If you were hoping to be ‘not’ neurotic, you might be disappointed. If you were assuming that there is no change in personality, then the finding is quite significant.”
To achieve change, you need help.
Changes in personality are currently understood to be something that comes with assistance.
“In the absence of a really good recipe and a long-term plan, it is probably hard,” Roberts said. “There are few recipes and plans around for this type of change so, I suspect, currently it would be hard for individuals to enact change themselves.”
“Having a therapist around is good," Roberts explained, "because they can give advice on concrete changes you can make to your behaviors and thinking and they can act as an accountability mechanism. A therapist can call us on our rationalizations or failures to change, which may be quite helpful in doing the work that might be necessary to successfully change our ways.”
While these findings are exciting, there still many aspects of personality yet to be explored.
Roberts explained that research is currently limited in terms of understanding the full scope of personality change, and how easy it is to change one aspect of it versus another.
“To date, there does not appear to be any clear evidence that any one trait is more difficult to change,” Roberts said.
This doesn't mean change is impossible, though. For example: you can become more extroverted. A 2015 study of changing personality found that those who made a conscious effort to be more extroverted actually self-reported being more extroverted simply by making an effort to be extroverted. Moreover, an easy, small means to change your personality might even come by learning a new language as certain languages can enhance traits tied to specific cultural values. Similarly, a more satisfying life leads to you becoming more stable, agreeable, and conscientious.
You can't sprint toward a new personality.
“A good, concerted effort over a few months can do a lot,” Roberts explained. “Based on our recent research on clinical interventions, it appears the same may be true for personality trait change.”
Roberts has some simple advice for igniting change, though.
“I’d recommend they think of it as training for a marathon,” he said. “It is a major investment in time and effort. It is best done according to a plan. It would be best to ‘train’ in such a way that it makes you feel uncomfortable—such as forcing yourself to interact with people to overcome shyness.”
“And,” he said, “It helps a lot to have people to help you out (like a running club). That’s where a therapist or coach could come in handy.”