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The Science Of Personality Change is Surprisingly Hopeful

The Science Of Personality Change is Surprisingly Hopeful

It’s happening all the time, anyway.
by Drake Baer, Senior writer at Thrive Global covering the brain and social sciences.


Image courtesy of Unsplash.
If there’s a loud noise in a nursery—a falling book, a slammed door—some infants will face toward the sound, and others will turn away. This, Cambridge psychologist Brian Little says, is one of the earliest-in-life examples of personality: the turn-toward tots will likely grow up to be extroverts, the turn-aways introverts.

But, as Little—and a host of prominent psychologists—have shown, your personality is not merely an assemblage of traits, and those traits themselves are not set in stone. The question of how and why people change—by just navigating through life or on purpose—has huge consequences, whether it’s in handling depression or other mental conditions, or in pursuing meaning and greatness.

Personality, in theory and in practice, is a matter of “differences that make a difference,” says Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University and president of the Association for Research in Personality. Personality is important if one person is really sensitive to threats, if their greatest goals are starting a family or founding a company, and if they think their life story is a fall from grace or an ascent from rags to various riches. These are all part of your personality, and they can and do change. It goes way beyond nature versus nurture.

Traits: Your starting ingredients.

The impulse to classify “types” of people or traits within them is an old one. The Ancient Greeks thought people were one of (or possibly a combination of) four different humors—sanguine, or social and enthusiastic; choleric, or irritable and fast-moving; melancholic, or analytical and quiet; or phlegmatic, or peaceful and wise. That same desire to organize people explains the perennial pull of astrology (what’s your sign?) and things like the Myers-Briggs (what’s your type?).

Personality traits—and the field of personality itself—were thrown into crisis in the late 1960s with the publishing of the innocuously titled Personality and Assessment, by Walter Mischel, the social psychologist behind the now-legendary “marshmallow test” experiments and the 25th most-cited psychologist of the 20th century. Mischel was a “situationist,” a movement within psychology that argued that your behavior doesn’t have much to do with your personality at all—it’s a matter of the situation you’re immersed in. In fact, as PsyBlog notes, Mischel found that 91 percent of the difference in people’s behavior owed to the situations they were in, rather than anything measured by personality tests. Later papers would show that, indeed, situations were influential, though now the consensus is that neither situation, trait, or any other silo of human nature can on its own explain why we do what we do. “The battle was bloody, and in the process, a lot of personality graduate programs dried up—people flew from the field,” McAdams says. “Personality psych has rebuilt itself after the devastation launched by social psychologists.”

In today’s personality psychology, the model par excellence—rigorously tested by researchers all over the world for decades—is the Big 5 personality traits. These are conscientiousness, or how sensitive you are to your goals and convention; agreeableness, or how much you need approval from others; extraversion, or how much you love the rewards of socializing; neuroticism, or how sensitive you are to threat and likely to ruminate; and openness to experience, or how much you crave new things.

The correlations that have been drawn between traits and any variety of life outcomes—personal or professional, having to do with our relationships or our mental health—are profound. According to the research, highly conscientious people live longer, have lower blood pressure and fewer strokes, are more satisfied with their jobs and earn higher incomes. (It’s "like brushing your teeth," Roberts says. "It prevents problems from arising.") High openness drives creative achievement and having diverse groups of friends. Highly extraverted people tend to be happier day-to-day, largely because they feel happier during rewarding and social activities and participate in more of them. Agreeable people also tend to be happier, partly since they choose more agreeable things to do. Then there’s neuroticism, which might be the highest-stakes trait of all.

While there are several definitions of neuroticism, maybe the most reasonable is “sensitivity to threat,” which is accompanied by a tendency to externalize (get angry, impulsive, or irritable) or internalize (withdraw into rumination, itself a key component of depression.) Rebecca Shiner, a Colgate University psychologist, notes that everybody has a biological system for detecting things that would do us harm, but there are individual differences in how sensitive someone is to the threats they see in the world and in themselves. It’s hard to be married to someone who scores highly on neuroticism, they fare worse with uncertainty, get more distracted at work, eschew action for inaction, and are more likely to suffer from panic attacks and depression or anxiety disorders. They also have a lot of spontaneous thoughts, which may explain why people who score highly on neuroticism are not only prone to bouts of unhappiness, but also creativity. Another study found neuroticism to be a predictor of longer and shorter lives, depending on the situation.

Roberts, the personality psychologist at the University of Illinois, points out that neuroticism is implicated in every condition in the DSM-V—the psychiatrist's handbook for mental disorders. It’s also, like every other trait, developmental: Shiner, the Colgate psychologist, has found that going through adversity in your teenage years will lead to increases in neuroticism by the time you’re 30 years old.

You are your projects.

To think of your personality as just a bunch of traits is, to say the least, reductive. Little, whose TED Talk on the subject has more than four million views, says that there’s “a sustained interest in grounding the study of personality in good, strong deterministic biopsychological frameworks.”As in, reducing everything down to physical elements, what a former editor of mine once memorably called “actual science,” as opposed to the slippery non-objectiveness of human consciousness. It’s an example of what’s been called social science’s “physics envy”

This comes through in how we perceive different sciences: in experiments, schoolchildren rate physics and chemistry as harder than than psychology and other social sciences. It’s part of why, some have wryly observed, so many psych journals have “science” in the title—Psychological Science, Current Directions in Psychological Science and Social Psychological and Personality Science, to name but a few. Little says that while it is indeed very meaningful to learn that extroversion and openness to experience are animated by dopamine, while the other three personality traits are linked to serotonin, there’s a ceiling to how much insight this can provide. “I can't really see how you can get that deeply into the questions that matter in life with traits,” he says. “I don't think we can say, ‘Unless you live your life utterly conscientiously and a little bit agreeably, the consequence is this.’" There’s a fatalistic quality to seeing people as a bundle of traits, in saying, you were born like this, and your nature or nurture determined where you are today. What’s more empowering—and more accurate—is to see what actions and values you have now can shape the rest of your life.

Little, who has been in the personality science game since the 1970s, says that our personalities have three different and interrelated layers: there’s the “biogenic,” or what your genetics dispose you to; the “sociogenic,” or what you get–for better or worse—from your family, peers, and culture; and the “idiogenic,” or how you choose to deploy those gifts in the world. They’re the decisions you make, the actions you take. These don’t have to all be epic quests, climbing literal or metaphorical mountains—making a salad for lunch is a personal project as much as trekking the Himalayas is. Some personal projects focus on tasks out there in the world, others are “self projects,” or things you want to change about yourself. In a fascinating, nested irony, Little and his collaborators have found that self projects that come from you tend to be healthy, while those that come to you from others are linked to depressive symptoms. This coheres with how autonomy, according to Self Determination Theory, is a hugely important for psychological wellbeing—our lives need to flow from our selves.

Compared to your genes and your conditioning, your projects are relatively easy to change. Projects also lend traits mutability; Little calls them “free traits.” That is, when a project is particularly valuable to you, then you might act in ways that are different than what a personality trait test would predict: people who are highly agreeable have a tough time disappointing people, but they’ll need set their jaws and put on a disagreeable face if they want to get themselves out of a bad job or relationship. But, when acting against your usual traits, you also need what Little and his collaborators call “restorative niches,” or little pockets of experience where you get to luxuriate in what your genes are disposed to: the disagreeable editor goes to kickboxing class after having to be gentle with her coworkers all day; the extrovert finally gets to party again after delivering his manuscript. Little has found himself to be an example: he performs a gregarious role in order to be more available to his students, but more than once he’s found himself hiding in the bathroom to avoid human contact between lectures.

If you want to make changes in your life, it’s useful to copy and paste strategies from the opposite poles of personality into your life. Highly conscientious people have a knack for making it easier to knock out otherwise unappetizing tasks, Little writes in his new book Who Are You, Really? Even if you’re not given to conscientiousness, you can still set standards for yourself, create incremental deadlines, and have regular check-ins with yourself (or other stakeholders) to see how things are going. In a way, it’s taking an appreciative, Zen-flavored approach to what would otherwise just be chores. “If you look at washing the dishes as a focalized task that you can engage in with renewed fascination—it sounds crazy—but you can actually see something delightful in the pressure that you're putting on the plate as you dry it,” he says. You could become so absorbed in this conscientious act that it no longer feels like a chore—it’s something you enjoy.

You are also your narratives.

Like a good plot, personality “thickens.” This is the word used by Dan McAdams, a personality psychologist at Northwestern University who has pioneered the study of life stories. Our goals and projects start taking shape as we move into primary school. “Three-year-olds do not wake up in the morning with a plan for the day,” McAdams wrote in a 2015 review in European Psychologist. “But many 9-year olds do. In the primary school years, children begin to articulate personal goals in such valued domains of activity as friendships, sports, schoolwork, and family.” We thicken again as we become teens, developing a sense of life story that we’ll be articulating, revisiting, and revising for the rest of our lives. This is what McAdams calls the “autobiographical author” aspect of the personality. It’s also why you can’t just reduce your personality down to a collection of traits.

What’s amazing—and kind of frightening—is that McAdams’s research has shown that, like fictional narratives, people’s life stories tend to follow sets of patterns. In a contamination script, everything used to be great— were blissful, and then it all quickly went from good to bad. (“I woke up Monday morning and she was gone,” McAdams offers as example .) There’s a sense of fatedness: you can’t return to the golden time; once you lose the prize, the wonderful moment, there’s no going back. While everybody has episodes of life like that he says, there are some people for whom all of life has that form. And if you’ve got that kind of story framing your life, chances are you’re depressed.

A redemption story is the opposite of the contamination narrative : things were bad, then they got good. Suffering is followed by a blessing, thanks to some combination of luck and effort. In a 2015 study in Psychological Science, McAdams and his doctoral student Jen Guo conducted interviews with 55-to-57 year olds and asked them to describe their lives like they were novels, with themes, main characters, and turning points. The researchers found that those whose narratives followed a redemptive arc—sensitivity to other people, developing a sense of morals, repeatedly transforming negative experiences into positive outcomes, and pursuing altruistic goals in the future—were more likely to be generative, or concerned for future generations. The layers of personality, McAdams says, get revealed naturally in a social situation like dating: on a first date you get a sense of someone’s conscientiousness (are they on time?) and agreeableness (how do they treat the servers?), but it’s not until later on that you get to their personal projects, and finally their life narratives. But the thing about stories—be they film, novels, or lived lives—is that they all change. “If my life never changed I wouldn’t have a story to tell you,” McAdams says. “There is no story if there isn’t change. The story itself is your own layperson’s autobiographical account of how you think you’ve changed in important ways.”

But you are also not your story.

Brent Roberts, the University of Illinois researcher, used to think that personality change was like those time-lapse videos of plants in Planet Earth: to the naked human eye, it doesn’t look like the trees and ferns and plants are not moving at all. But at their own chlorophyll-paced time scale, they’re moving right along. And this is what many of his longitudinal studies sought to capture: get a population of people to tell you about themselves, then come back a year, five years, a decade or two later, and see how they changed. This gave Roberts what used to be his view of how personalities change: “Over 20 years you're suddenly going to go, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I'm okay. I'm comfortable in my own skin. Hey, wait. I'm less neurotic than I was before,’” he says, kind of like a tree would if it suddenly realized it had grown by a foot or threw more shade. “You're going to notice that eventually, but not in the moment to moment, year to year, type thing,” he says.

But while Roberts maintains that the personality-is-like-plants view is largely true for most people most of the time, a rather splashy review that he published this year showed a different story: In a wave-making meta-analysis, or study of studies, he and his team dug into over 200 papers and found that neuroticism—previously thought to lower over the course of a lifetime—can fall over the course of months on a scale that would naturalistically take years. (In academese, this is called “deliberate personality change.”) Specifically, three months of therapy lowered neuroticism “by about half the amount you might expect to see over 30 to 40 years of adulthood,” as Stephanie Pappas observed for Live Science. Incredibly, Roberts and his co-authors found, most of of those gains were made in the first month of therapy. And the specific breed of therapy—cognitive-behavioral versus psychoanalytic, for instance—didn’t really matter.

As New York Magazine’s Melissa Dahl noted, the results underscore what, to an outsider, is something of a weird tribalism within people who devoted their lives to studying or healing the mind: research psychologists and clinical practitioners don’t talk much to each other, save for a small, but vital strain of research that combines the two. And unfortunately, Roberts tells Thrive Global, there just isn’t the data out there to explore, at a sufficiently rigorously level, how other traits might change with interventions. Roberts does a lot of work with educational psychologists, and, he says, they’re not interested in neuroticism. They want to see changes in conscientiousness and openness, because they’re so important for achievement and creativity. “I would love to be able to report all the studies that have gone into trying to help people become more self-controlled or something like that, and they just don't exist—there isn’t intervention literature to inform the conclusion,” he says. And while there’s an industry for leadership and assertiveness trainings in the corporate world, companies aren’t exactly eager to share those results with academics, and they would require rigorous experiments in order to produce reliable data. And while Roberts’ review showed that neuroticism lowered with therapy, it didn’t get into how.

And that’s where things veer into clinical psychology. Mathias Allemand, a personality and developmental psychologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, analyzed the literature on personality change for a paper in the Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. Allemand tells Thrive Global that interventions tend to come in as “top-down,” or the learning that you get about your behavior that you discover on your own or with the help of a therapist, or “bottom-up,” or practices that embody the change that you seek, that can, with time, become helpfully habitual.

There are four of what have been called “general change mechanisms” that underlie a lot of therapeutic changes—whether it’s with a professional therapist, support groups, self-help groups or within a person’s contemplative or spiritual practice. The first is “discrepancy awareness,” where you directly experience the feelings or thoughts that challenge you, which can motivate change. (If someone wants to become more open to experience, then it would help to intervene when they’re experiencing the costs of being low in openness in situations that are important to them.) The second is strengths orientation, where instead of focusing on your problems, you focus on your strengths and resources and how they might help you. (That same person trying to become more open would do well to hang out with a highly open friend who they could more comfortably go exploring the world with.) Third is insight, where through reflection you become more aware of the motivating factors—fears, beliefs, goals, expectations, etc. and the like—underlying unpleasant feelings or thoughts, and reinterpret events in a fresh light. (In CBT this is called “cognitive reappraisal,” and it’s been found to be very helpful in treating depression.) The last change mechanism is called mastery or practice, where you do things that give you a sense of confidence in your own abilities, and making things feel more workable overall, rather than being stuck in place. For example, Allemand says, if you have problems with anger, then you could give yourself opportunities to work with angry feelings and thoughts in space safe for those emotions to show themselves—say in martial arts, athletic competition, or theater.

What’s important to realize, says Roman Kotov, associate professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University, is that personality doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It responds to the environment: if your personality is patterns of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, then that’s going to be greatly affected by how and where you live. Hypervigilance, one of the ingredients of neuroticism, is a way of adapting to a physically or psychologically unsafe home, but it no longer serves you when you’re in more healthy situations: going into therapy, finding secure relationships, and finding sustained employment. And of course what kind of job you find yourself in also matters: being a fighter pilot or a bank teller is going to do different things to your threat sensitivities. “There’s a biological kernel in there, and it isn’t in any point set in plaster,” he says. “It does take a lot to change basic habits that make up personality, sometimes years to find substantial change. But we all change throughout life, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.”

(Thrive Global)

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