A question for the ages: Are you stuck with yourself?
Plenty of researchers who study personality would answer in the affirmative. For a long time, the study of personality was stuck in two extremes: Some psychological scientists argued that your personality is so stubborn that it forms once and for all in early childhood, staying essentially the same from first grade into adulthood. (“Personality Set For Life By 1st Grade,” was one headline on the matter in 2010.) You are who you are, and there is not much that you can do about you. Others would say that personality is so unstable that trying to measure any change is hardly worthwhile. Lately, personality psychologists have taken a more moderate view: If personality traits do change, they change slowly, and the overall difference over time tends to be modest.
All of which is why a big new review of studies on personality-trait change is so intriguing. In an analysis of 207 studies, published this month in the journal Psychological Bulletin, a team of six researchers found that personality can and does change, and by a lot, and fairly quickly. But only with a therapist’s help. (Imagine that.)
Therapy, this analysis found, seems to be especially effective at decreasing neuroticism, a trait that “not only disposes you to anxiety and other negative emotions, but to spending lots of time ruminating about all those feelings,” as my colleague Drake Baer has put it. Past research (not to mention common sense) has suggested that people’s personalities generally tend to mellow as they get older; in particular, neuroticism tends to decrease with age. This is like that natural process, only sped way, way up: The review found that three months of therapy lowered neuroticism “by about half the amount you might expect to see over 30 to 40 years of adulthood,” as science writer Stephanie Pappas succinctly explains it. Let’s restate that, because it is bonkers: That’s half of the change it would typically take 40 years to accomplish, done in just a few months’ time when guided by a therapist.
A person’s gender or age didn’t make a difference one way or another; likewise, the type of therapy didn’t matter much, though psychotherapy was a bit better than medication on its own. These changes happened quickly, as “most of the gains were made within the first month of therapy,” the authors write, and there was “no evidence that the effects of therapy faded with time.” (By the way: You can get a good idea of your own personality traits with this test Jesse Singal and Ashley Wu published on Science of Us in December.)
A somewhat strange thing about research in psychology, or so I’ve found after many years as a journalist reporting on it, is how separate it usually stays from clinical psychology. Psychotherapy is one thing; psychological research is often quite another. In this new paper, however, the authors — led by Brent W. Roberts of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign — acknowledge this mild absurdity, and they pull all 207 of those studies from their counterparts in clinical psychology, where there is “a long-standing, if relatively unappreciated, current of research” on personality-trait change.
Because clinical psychology is, in many ways, an obvious field to draw from if you’re trying to study personality change. “Lots of fields of psychology do experiments. But in a lot of areas, the experiments are inducing short-term changes to isolate phenomena in laboratories,” Sanjay Srivastava, director of the Personality and Social Dynamics Lab at the University of Oregon, told Science of Us in an email. (Srivastava was not involved with this current research, but he is familiar with it, and called it a “careful and thoughtful paper.”) “A lot of clinical psychology, by contrast, is about developing interventions that change people in real and consequential ways,” he added. “So if you are interested in personality change, it’s a better match.”
There are some caveats here, of course. Roberts and his colleagues acknowledge that it’s possible that these changes in neuroticism may be a return to baseline rather than a true personality-trait change; if someone is in therapy for depression or anxiety, for example, their neuroticism may be operating at a higher level than usual, and perhaps their therapist is simply helping them return to normal.
It’s also worth noting the work of Brian Little, a personality psychologist at the University of Cambridge and author of the A-plus 2015 book Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, who draws a distinction between what he calls biogenic traits and sociogenic traits. According to Little, biogenic personality traits are genetically programmed, and, therefore, fixed; sociogenic traits, on the other hand, tend to be more malleable. “The authors do not claim, nor have they shown, that what I call the biogenic aspects of personality have been influenced by clinical intervention,” Little said in an email. “But they have shown that there are measurable changes in the ways we present ourselves to others (and to ourselves) — closer to what I think of as the sociogenic features of personality.”
Really, though, the key takeaway here may be the optimistic notion that changing your personality is possible at all. “For a long time, the argument between the extreme positions was dominating the conversation,” Srivastava explained. “Now we are learning that the people who weren’t drawn in to either of those extremes were right all along.” In an intriguing study that Cari Romm reported on last fall, when high-schoolers were given simple writing exercises encouraging them to think about how personality can change in adolescence, they were better able to reframe their social dramas with the other kids at school as mere challenges, as opposed to insurmountable obstacles. Taking the long view of their own personalities, in other words, seemed to help them gain a similar zoomed-out perspective on the problems they were currently facing, too. Your problems can and will change; so can and will you.