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.

 

8 thoughts on “Can Personality Change?

  1. you are the smartest psychologist i know David! this post is so insightful and funny

    A conclusion and a question popped up in my mind after reading about these ideas:

    First, because personality traits can be trained, or in many instances, exist already as a result of acquired behavioral habits, we should forget about the notion that personality traits by definition are behavioral, emotional, and cognitive tendencies that feel natural and effortless. For instance, sometimes i feel that deep inside i am less agreeable than I appear to be, but when i tell my family or boyfriend about this they reject that notion completely .. YOU are agreeable they say. Polite, kind, and reasonable (but yes quite stubborn). I think I trained myself to bring my agreeableness a notch higher .. but i guess it doesnt matter!

    Second, this discussion makes me revisit the notion of what traits are … i suspect that for a trait to be truly trained and learned, the other psychological units associated with the “learned” behaviors (e.g., emotional, visual, cognitive antecedents and effects) will also eventually change no? otherwise what is the difference between a learned trait and a learned behavior?

    veronica

    • Thanks for the kind words! I agree that the whole point of the concept of “trait” is that it is a coherent psychological unit that goes beyond one behavior or even a post-hoc aggregation of behaviors. But the test of this idea will be research that changes one behavior related to a trait, and then finds that other behaviors (and/or cognitive and perceptual processes as you say) associated with the same trait change as well. I think there are hints in the literature that this indeed happens, but much more needs to be done.

  2. Great and insightful post, David!

    Your post just got me thinking from the top of my head here (and this does not mean that what I am about to write is profound or makes sense).

    Those “generalization gradients” mean that after Behavior A in Situation X (e.g., acting submissive with boss) has been modified to Behavior A* (e.g., acting assertive with boss), Behavior A* in Situation X will start to “spill” over into other Situations Y and Z also (e.g., acting assertive with spouse and children). To demonstrate this would be very interesting because a behavior-in-situation contingency becomes more “plastic” to generalize across more situations, thus leading to higher cross-situational consistency of a single behavior or some behavioral syndrome (e.g., a profile of behaviors). If these behaviors can also vary to be merely functionally similar (but not necessarily phenomenologically or morphologically), then generalizations across behaviors also occur. To the extent that these behavior-in-multiple-situations generalizations remain stable across time, we might feel tempted to say that a person’s “personality” has changed (at least in a certain behavioral trait domain). Thus, there need to be changes in behaviors and (associated) situations, and these changes have to be stable over time. The Personality Triad would thus welcome a new member and form the Personality Tetrad: Persons, Situations, Behaviors, and Time.

    This line of thinking got me mulling over the question what underlying *processes* may drive such generalizations and their possible stability. I’d think that this may have something to do with self-regulation or the amount of mental (and physical) resources you allocate to “managing” your behavioral trait in everyday life. Acting in accordance with your most inner inclinations may be relatively effortless and not require much regulation, but acting against them can strain you. This “contra-trait effort” (see http://spp.sagepub.com/content/2/4/335.abstract) may deplete resources should it be constantly used. However, resources can be replenished, and we may be able to grow stronger in our (habitual) self-regulation (like a muscle after exercise). Now to generalization: Let’s say Behavior A is predominantly triggered in Situation X and the most automatic response (e.g., being assertive with boss). Changing this very strong link (which is a mesh of explicit and implicit self-, situation-, and behavior-concepts of a person) and constantly regulating against Behavior A (submissiveness) may result in the habitual activation of self-regulatory resources that inhibit Behavior A in favor of Behavior A* (assertiveness). Thus, naturally across many situations, the person will behave more in line with Behavior A* (although the person may nonetheless behave more assertive with Boss than with wife, alluding to stable patterns of behavior across time). To the extent that this behavior is rewarding (i.e., the regulation pays off), the regulation may be kept up and become automatic at some point – maybe to the point where the new Behavior A* across many situations has been ingrained over time.

    Not sure if any of this makes really sense (it did at the point of writing, at least to me), but I find the topic of “Personality Change” fascinating, particularly for its implications for consistency and person-environment transactions.

    • Hi John, I read your comment above with interest.

      I have a quesion about something you write at the end, namely “To the extent that this behavior is rewarding (i.e., the regulation pays off), the regulation may be kept up and become automatic at some point – maybe to the point where the new Behavior A* across many situations has been ingrained over time.” …

      My question is: if the regulation of some “natural” inclination (e.g., supressing submissiveness by enacting assertiveness) becomes habitual and automatic (after much practice and rewards), can we still call it regulation?
      Perhaps the activation of the regulatory system (e.g. thoughts that signal that is time to supress behavior A) becomes automatic over time BUT the actual enactment and mantaince of behavior A* remains fairly effortful, no?
      One thing about this discussion I have been enjoying much is that once we acknowledge this type of personality change the hard distinction typically made in our field between what is learned (trough regulation and practice) and what is “natural” seems to become less important.

  3. David, I’ve seen this referred to as the spillover effect. I’m presenting a paper at SIOP next week that examines the impact of Bikram yoga (oddly enough) on intrinsic work motivation (IWM). Bikram yoga is particularly strenuous and participating in it six days a week for eight weeks improved one’s core self-evaluation (CSE) and IWM. As you probably know, CSE is comprised of self-efficacy, self-esteem, emotional stability, and locus of control. Sadly, we have not followed up with the participants to see if the improvements are still present. Anyway…I just wanted to drop you a line and tell you that I’m a big fan of your work. 🙂

  4. I have been reading your textbook, The Personality Puzzle, for a 200-level psych course this summer, and this subject would have been a delightful contribution to the publication. I’m a little sad the course is ending so soon, do you by chance publish an abnormal psychology textbook? Just kidding, but still… FASCINATING STUFF!

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