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You can change your personality

December 22, 2019

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You can change your personality

It has long been believed (except by us) that people can't change their personalities, which are largely stable and inherited. But a review of recent research in personality science points to the possibility that personality traits can change either through persistent intervention or major life events.

Personality traits, generally identified as neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness, can predict a wide range of important outcomes such as health, happiness and income. Because of this, these traits might represent an important target for policy interventions designed to improve human welfare, or corporate performance.

The research published in American Psychologist is the product of the Personality Change Consortium, an international group of researchers committed to advancing understanding of personality change.

What the researchers say: "In this paper, we present the case that traits can serve both as relatively stable predictors of success and actionable targets for policy changes and interventions," said the lead author.

"Parents, teachers, employers and others have been trying to change personality forever because of their implicit awareness that people can benefit from the change," he added.

Strong evidence has long suggested that basic personality traits are broad enough to account for a wide range of socially important behaviors. The new research suggests that they can change, especially if you exert sustained effort. However, these traits also remain relatively stable; thus, while they can change, it's not easy.

Resources are often invested in costly interventions that are unlikely to work because they are not informed by evidence about personality traits—often assuming that they can be easily changed. One workshop or a single talk and all is well!

So, what? Alicia and I have long said that personality is malleable rather than fixed—and probably much more so than this study suggests. However, as past research has shown, a permanent personality alteration takes at least 18 months of concentrated intervention.

Recent studies have also shown that it’s impossible to change your own personality—any change requires sustained outside encouragement by someone you are committed to.

In our view personality is affected by changes in relationship experience, context and genetic expression. The genes which determine personality are called “soft genes”—that is they can alter the way they operate to cope with changes in environment, experience and relational context.

As Daniel Goleman pointed out in his book “Social Intelligence” we co-create each other as we interact. This co-creation, of course, implies changes in personality traits.

But all these changes are temporary coping mechanisms and longer-term change—as this study points out—takes longer.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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December 22, 2019
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