Personalities Can Change, Especially The Trait Of Conscientiousness
Dr. Nathan Hudson of Southern Methodist University discusses his new research on personality change.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | December 1, 2021
A new paper appearing in the Journal of Research in Personality bolsters the argument that personality is more changeable than previously thought — even suggesting that personality can be changed when people aren't necessarily committed to change.
I recently spoke with the lead author of this new research, Dr. Nathan Hudson of Southern Methodist University, to discuss these findings in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.
What inspired you to investigate the topic of personality change and what did you find?
Several decades of prior research has shown that personality can and does change. For example, when people commit to a new career, they tend to become more conscientious — thorough, hardworking, and responsible.
More recently, scientists have begun studying whether people can change their own personality traits volitionally. To that end, several prior studies have found that interventions can help people change their traits in desired ways. In other words, previous studies have found that "participant-directed" interventions (i.e., where a participant sets their own goal) can help change personality traits.
The present paper was designed to help understand which "active ingredients" are necessary for a successful trait-change intervention. In particular, I examined whether "researcher-directed" interventions can be effective in helping people change. In the present study, we found that simply asking people to perform conscientious behaviors, such as organizing their homes, starting assignments early, or being intentional about their daily schedule helped people become more conscientious across time. This was true irrespective of whether the participants personally chose to increase in conscientiousness, or whether they merely followed directions from the research team.
In contrast, our study found that interventions to help people reduce negative emotions and become more emotionally stable only worked if the participants voluntarily desired to work on the trait. Simply "going through the motions" of behaving in a more emotionally stable manner because a researcher asked the participants to do so was not effective in eliciting trait change.
What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone looking to improve/change their personality?
The biggest implication of my study is that broad interventions may be helpful in increasing conscientiousness. For example, schools or workplaces can simply encourage students or employees to adopt more conscientious behaviors, and this has the potential to lead to enduring gains in conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is linked to a huge array of positive life outcomes, including physical and mental health, grades, occupational performance, and even mortality. So, "workplace training"-style interventions targeting conscientiousness have the potential to improve both individual outcomes and larger-scale social outcomes.
In contrast, it appears that people need to be motivated to change their levels of emotional stability. Aligning with conventional psychotherapy wisdom, it seems that simply prescribing different behaviors to help people feel fewer negative emotions is not effective unless the person is motivated and specifically wants to work to change their levels of emotional stability.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who don't believe personality change is possible?
It's not really a scientific question at this point whether personality change is possible. Personality absolutely can and does change. Although the body of literature exploring volitional personality change — whether people can change their own traits, as opposed to passively being changed by their experiences — is much younger and smaller, it provides a promising prognosis that people do appear to be able to change their traits, at least across short periods of time.
Are there any downsides or drawbacks to voluntary personality change?
Higher levels of all five big five personality traits — extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience — are generally linked to positive life outcomes, such as physical and psychological well-being, positive relationships, and career success. Thus, changing in a positive direction with respect to these traits is generally linked to better outcomes.
That said, previous research has linked change goals (i.e., desires to change oneself) to poorer well-being. The causal direction is not clear. Current scientific thought is that poor well-being leads to desires to change (e.g., people who are struggling with friendships may desire to be more extraverted). However, the reverse may also be true: Desiring to change oneself may lead to lower well-being.
As an analog, several studies have examined "false hope syndrome" with weight loss. People who put too much pressure on their weight loss goals or who have unrealistic expectations (e.g., that weight loss with fix all of their problems in their lives) can experience a spiral of worsening well-being. It's possible that a similar phenomenon might occur for people who put too much pressure on trying to change their personality traits.
Indeed, it is possible for people to seemingly paradoxically love and accept themselves just as they currently are, while also striving to continue to grow and change certain aspects of their traits for the better.
After conducting your research, are you more likely to view personality as dynamic and changeable? Or are you more apt to view it as fixed and unchangeable?
As mentioned above, an overwhelming body of scientific research shows that personality traits can and do change. This study bolsters the idea that interventions can help people change traits. This study also suggests that the same type of widespread interventions we commonly see in society (e.g., workplace trainings) can help people increase in desirable traits, such as conscientiousness.
How might your research inform clinical efforts to improve unhealthy personality traits?
Stay tuned; we've got papers on this topic under review.