Surveys show that most of us wish our personalities were different. Change is certainly possible: people’s personalities evolve as they get older (for example, most of us become more friendly but less open-minded), and there’s research showing more immediate influences on personality, such as our current mood (we’re less extravert when we’re sad). And yet, before now, no one has studied whether people can simply choose to change their personality at will.
Nathan Hudson and Chris Fraley asked 135 undergrads to complete on-line tests and surveys about their different personality traits and about how they’d like their personality to change. Over the next 16 weeks, the students re-took the personality test each week. The key finding was that students who said they wanted to change a particular trait (such as being more extravert) tended to display more change in that trait, in the desired direction, than other students.
To assist their personality change, half the participants were also prompted each week to list three ways they might achieve the change they were after. This actually back-fired – students given these prompts showed less of the personality changes they desired than other students, probably because the intervention was so vague (for example, students in this condition proposed vague strategies like “be more sociable”).
A follow-up study with 151 more students was similar, but this time, alongside the personality tests, they were also asked each week whether they’d performed various behaviours that are relevant to different personality traits. This makes the findings more convincing – for instance, it’s easier to remember if you hugged someone today, than to remember how talkative you’ve been. Again, Hudson and Fraley found that participants’ personalities tended to change in line with their wishes for how they’d like to change, and so did their behaviours.
In this follow-up, half the students were also given a different kind prompt to help them change – each week they were coached to describe specific steps to facilitate personality change (e.g. telephone and invite a named friend to lunch, to increase extraversion), and they were asked to create so-called “implementation intentions” that take the form “if I’m in situation X, then I will do Y”. This coaching was successful in increasing desired personality change.
The changes to personality observed in both parts of this study were very modest, but they were statistically significant, and they support the principle of wilful personality change. “Collectively, these findings indicate that, at the very least, people’s personality traits and daily behaviour tend to change in ways that align with their goals for change,” the researchers said.
Deeper analysis suggested this change was achieved through a reciprocal, unfolding process: goals led to changes in behaviour, which led to changes in self-concept, which prompted more behaviour change. Moreover, as participants’ personalities changed in desired directions, their stated goals for change dropped away, consistent with the idea that they really had changed as they’d hoped.
It’s surprising that the question of volitional personality change hasn’t been investigated systematically before. That makes these new results novel and exciting, but far more research is needed. The most serious limitation of the new evidence is the dependence on students’ own self-reports of their personalities. Of course, observer reports also have problems (who knows your personality best: you or your friends and family?), but in an ideal world the study would have included both, and even direct tests of behaviour in different situations. It’s also not clear how long the observed changes will last, nor whether participants’ desires really caused the changes. Were some unknown factors (peer pressure?) behind both the participants’ stated desires for personality change and the changes that occurred? These issues noted, the researchers said their work suggests that “individuals who desire to change their personality traits can, in fact, do so …”
Hudson, N., & Fraley, R. (2015). Volitional Personality Trait Change: Can People Choose to Change Their Personality Traits? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000021