Can Personality Change?

Can personality change? In one respect, the answer is clearly “yes,” because ample evidence shows that, overall, personality does change. On average, as people get older (after about age 20), they also become less neurotic and more conscientious, agreeable, and open, until about age 60 or so (Soto, John, Gosling & Potter, 2011). And then, after about age 65, they become on average less conscientious, agreeable, and extraverted – a phenomenon sometimes called the La Dolce Vita effect (Lucas & Donnellan, 2011). You no longer have to go to work every day, or socialize with people you don’t really like. Old age might really have some compensating advantages, after all.

But I think when people ask “can personality change” the inevitable consequences of age are not really what they have in mind. What they are asking is: Can personality change on purpose? Can I change my own personality? Or, can I change the personality of my child, or my spouse? One of the disconcerting things about being a psychologist is that the people I meet sometimes think I can answer questions like these. (This belief persists even if I try to beg off, saying “I’m not that kind of psychologist.”)

Here is the answer I have been giving for years: No. Or, almost no. Personality is the persistent foundation of who you are. Any attempt to change it, to have a chance of success, will have to be commensurate to the factors that created your personality in the first place. By which I mean: years of experience, rewards for doing some things, and punishments for doing others, as they interacted with your own particular genetic makeup over your lifetime up until now.

I’m starting to think I was wrong. Evidence accumulating since the time of Smith, Glass and Miller’s (1980) classic meta-analysis suggests that some kinds of psychotherapy, especially if combined with the right mix of medical interventions (e.g., flouxetine), can change personality in consequential ways. An intriguing new theoretical model (Magidson, Roberts, Collado-Rodriguez & Lejuez, 2014) provides a deceptively simple route towards personality change: Change the behaviors, and the trait will follow. For example, if you can get someone in the habit of showing up for work on time, socializing with his family, and fulfilling other obligations instead of doing cocaine (this is a real example from the article just cited), he just might develop an enhanced trait of conscientiousness that will spill over in a beneficial way to all areas of his life.

Many years ago, while a graduate student at Stanford, I took a course from Albert Bandura that was titled, “Principles of Personality Change.” Ironically given the title, the course wasn’t really about personality, it was about how techniques based on social learning theory could be used to change specific problematic behaviors. Two behaviors of particular interest were agoraphobia (the fear of going outside) and fear of snakes. Stanford had an experimental clinic that would run occasional newspaper ads offering free treatment and would always be immediately deluged with calls. In particular, Palo Alto had a surprising number of housewives who were so afraid of snakes they couldn’t go outdoors. This despite the fact that in Palo Alto there are no snakes. (The social learning theorists in charge of the clinic made no Freudian inferences from this phenomenon.) Yet it turned out to be easier to train these clients not to fear snakes, than it was to convince them that in Palo Alto, there aren’t any.

The treatment involved “systematic desensitization,” in which clients are induced to perform the feared behavior through small, incremental steps. One day Dr. Bandura told our class about a recent client who graduated to the point of being able to comfortably handle a boa constrictor. After that, she was able to go home and, for the first time, confront her landlord and get her toilet fixed. I recall asking whether that didn’t show that the snake phobia treatment had an effect on her trait of assertiveness. My recollection of Dr. Bandura’s answer is less clear, but I do recall that he didn’t care for any sort of reference to personality traits. The word “trait” was (and in some quarters still is) anathema. He preferred to talk of things like generalization gradients (landlord = snake?). But I thought then, and think now, that it is more parsimonious, clear, and just plain correct to think about an effect like this in terms of traits. The United States Marines used to use the recruiting slogan, “The Marine Corps builds men.” I think this was a parallel claim, that the kind of training one would get in the course of becoming a Marine would change general personality traits that would affect behavior in all areas of life. I once mused about doing a study to find out if this was true, but never did it.

But the time for such studies has arrived: If you change a behavior in one area, will it change behaviors in other areas? If I learn to be more assertive with my boss, will I become more assertive with my spouse, or my children, or with the car dealer that sells me a lemon? If I learn to be on time for appointments, or even just make my bed regularly, will I become a more conscientious person? It is a yet unproven but extremely intriguing possibility that the answer in these cases, and others, might just be “yes.” If that’s true, the implications for improving human well-being are profound. Maybe we really can become the people we’d prefer to be, and help others to do the same.

References

Lucas, R.E., & Donnellan, M.B. (2011). Personality development across the life span: Longitudinal analyses with a national sample from Germany. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 847-861.
Magidson, J.F., Roberts, B.W., Collado-Rodriguez,A., & Lejuez, C.W. (2014). Theory-driven intervention for changing personality: Expectancy value theory, behavioral activation, and conscientiousness. Developmental Psychology, 50, 1442-1450.
Smith, M.L., Glass, G.V., & Miller,T.I. (1980). The benefits of psychotherapy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Soto, C.J., John, O.P., Gosling, S.D., & Potter, J. (2011). Age differences in personality traits from 10 to 65: Big Five domains and facets in a large cross-sectional sample. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 330-348.