Personality: Can Adults Change? If So, How?

People often wonder if it’s possible to undergo a personality change. It depends: What kind of change?

  • Your behavior? Yes, we can do that. The more habitual our behavior, though, the harder it will be.
  • Your character? Yes. We can work on a trait such as honesty, for example, and improve on it.
  • Your temperament? Not as likely perhaps, but not impossible.

When biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher recommends (CBS News) five ways we can try changing our personality, she means the first two listed above, our character and/or behavior:

  1. Write out a plan
  2. Find the right environment for achieving one’s goals, e.g., people who are supportive
  3. Keep a journal regarding one’s progress
  4. Tell a friend, as this helps with accountability
  5. Reward ourselves

How commonly do people actually change without these kinds of efforts? Psychologist Christopher Soto, NPR, states that personality traits “can and often do gradually change across the life span.”

What’s more, those changes are usually for the better. Many studies, including some of my own, show that most adults become more agreeable, conscientious and emotionally resilient as they age. But these changes tend to unfold across years or decades, rather than days or weeks. Sudden, dramatic changes in personality are rare.

If it’s not because of concerted efforts, other ways people change, adds Soto, involve adapting to occupational or social role expectations and living life meaningfully and satisfyingly.

What about therapy as a means of changing personality?

From a study reported in 2017 (Research Digest):

A new meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin has looked at 207 psychotherapy and related studies published between 1959 and 2013, involving over 20,000 participants, with measures of personality taken repeatedly over time. The analysis has found that just a few weeks of therapy is associated with significant and long-lasting changes in clients’ personalities, especially reductions in the trait of Neuroticism and increases in Extraversion.

It’s not, by the way, that the other end of the extraversion spectrum, introversion, is undesirable or maladaptive. See posts “It’s Okay to Be Quiet” and “Introversion: Resources…“.

Does therapy have to be long-term? No.

Roughly four or more weeks of therapy was enough to induce meaningful change. In fact, beyond eight weeks, more therapy was not associated with greater personality change. Therapy-related changes to trait Neuroticism were especially significant – a few weeks of therapy led to about half the amount of increase in emotional stability that you would typically expect to see someone exhibit over an entire lifetime (as a general trend, most of us slowly but surely become more emotionally stable as we get older).

Is it the shorter-term types of therapy that have the most success, then? No again. “[The] extent of observed personality change was about the same for different kinds of therapy, for instance be that CBT or psychodynamic…”

How does personality change affect one’s life? A study by Boyce et al., as reported on Psy Blog, “confirmed that personality was the strongest predictor of satisfaction with life. This is well-established and helps explain why some people have everything and are never satisfied and some people have next-to-nothing and seem quite happy with life. It’s not just what you have that makes you satisfied (or not), it’s how you think about it. And those habits of thought are heavily influenced by personality.”

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