science of us

You Can’t Change Your Personality Just by Wanting To

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Personally, I happen to have a perfect personality, and have never once wanted to change it, but if you’ve ever wished you could swap one of your lesser traits out for a better one you’re not alone. And it must be possible, too, because if people couldn’t change, therapy wouldn’t exist. And while previous research has shown that people can change their personalities if they really, really want to, a newer study suggests that wanting it might not be enough: you have to act on it, too. (Ugh.)

For their experiment, researchers asked nearly 400 college psychology students to choose two of the “Big Five” personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) they most wanted to change in themselves. Most people chose to lower their neuroticism or increase their extroversion; the least popular choice was to increase one’s agreeableness, which is very funny and also relatable.

The students were then asked to complete a personality test at the start of every week of the 15-week study, which measured how their personality might (or might not) be changing. Crucially, the students were also asked to select up to four personality adapting challenges per week in order to practice their desired trait change — for instance, those who wanted to become more extroverted might greet a cashier, or volunteer to lead a class project. When they completed a challenge, students were rewarded with a badge on the app used for the experiment.

The study’s authors found that the more challenges the students completed, the more their personalities changed over the course of the study (as measured by their weekly tests). “The single largest implication of our study is that actively engaging in behaviors designed to change one’s personality traits does, in fact, predict greater amounts of trait growth across time,” said lead researcher Nathan W. Hudson, a social-personality psychologist at Southern Methodist University. In other words, if you want something, you have to work for it.

The study also found that students who didn’t act on their desire to change their personalities became further entrenched in their disliked trait: people who wanted to be more extroverted got more introverted instead, and the neurotics got more neurotic. Researchers aren’t yet sure how to explain this result, but suspect it might have something to do with defeatism: not completing the challenges felt bad, and might have made the students feel their case was hopeless. But it’s not, researchers say. You can change your personality. You just have to, you know … actually change it.

You Can’t Change Your Personality Just by Wanting To