Many people think of personality as something unchanging -- you get a certain set of characteristics at birth and by and large you're stuck with them forever. But science paints a very different picture. Give the same person a personality test as 14 years old and again at 77 and they'll appear to be two completely different individuals.
But while it's clear that personality is more malleable than many of us believe, that leaves an important question unanswered: can you control the drift of your character or are you captive to random experience and the biology of aging? Can you choose to change your personality or is personality evolution just something that happens?
A new study aimed to find out not only if you can shape your own character but exactly what it takes to do so. Its conclusions are good news for those of us who would like to be more outgoing or less neurotic.
The more you try the more you'll change.
To understand the study it's important to first have a little background on how scientists view personality. Forget all those Facebook quizzes and even popular typing tests like the Myers Briggs. They are little better than astrology.
Psychologists agree that the only valid way to measure personality is a framework called the Big Five. It measures each individual's personality according to where they fall on five scales measuring our levels of extraversion (do you like hanging out with other people?), agreeableness (are you nice?), conscientiousness (do you do what you say you will do?), neuroticism (are you emotionally stable?), and openness (do you like new things?).
The study team wanted to know if people can actively choose to shift where they fall on one of those scales. To find out they recruited 377 student guinea pigs for a 15-week experiment, asking each one to identify some aspect of their personality they'd like to change. Most wanted to be either more outgoing (i.e. more extroverted) or less neurotic.
The students were tested on their initial personality and then given a set of tasks designed to push them towards their desired personality change. A follow-up test at the end of the study checked to see if they'd actually made any progress towards their goal.
Here's what the researchers discovered according to the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog: "the more trait-consistent behavioral challenges that the students successfully completed, the more their personality traits shifted over the course of the study." Or to put that in everyday language: the more you take action, the more you change.
Or as study author Nathan Hudson commented: "The single largest implication of our study is that actively engaging in behaviors designed to change one's personality traits does, in fact, predict greater amounts of trait growth across time."
What kinds of activities actually change your personality?
While it's not a huge shocker to hear that simply wishing yourself a new, improved personality isn't going to work, it's good to know that concrete action to change your character really does pay dividends. But what actions should you take?
I emailed Hudson to ask for a list of the suggested interventions given to the study subjects. He sent back a massive appendix from the study listing a wide array of challenges, varying in difficulty from dead easy to agonizingly hard. Here are a few examples for the most desired personality changes. If you want to be more extroverted,
Before you go to bed, reflect on a positive social experience you had during the day, and what you liked about it
Say hello to a cashier at a store
Prepare a few well-rehearsed and brief responses to commonly asked questions, such as "What do you do for a living?"
Say hello to someone you've never met and comment on your shared surroundings (e.g., "The weather is nice!", "These flowers are beautiful!", "I love the song this store is playing!")
Call a friend that you haven't spoken with in a while
Write a list of questions to ask new people [Inc.com can help.]
Find a volunteer organization and attend a volunteer event
Find people playing casual/pick-up sports and ask to play with them
When someone asks for your opinion (e.g., "where should we eat?"; "what do you think about this topic?"), give your honest opinion
Open up and honestly tell a close friend about a problem you're currently experiencing
If you want to be less neurotic:
When you wake up, say aloud to yourself, "I choose to be happy today"
When you feel overwhelmed, stop and take several deep breaths
Before you go to bed, write down a positive thing that happened to you during the day, and how it made you feel
Express gratitude to another person (e.g.,tell a friend why you appreciate them)
If you are religious, spend at least five minutes praying. If you are not religious, spend at least five minutes meditating.
Spend at least five minutes journaling about your day. Write about what happened, but also about your feelings
When you feel stressed, take at least two minutes to reflect on similar circumstances in the past where you have succeeded (e.g., if you are nervous about giving a speech, reflect on past times when you've succeeded in giving speeches)
Spend at least 30 minutes going on a photo hunt with your phone. Take pictures of things that make you happy (e.g., pretty flowers, friends, a comfortable bed, yourself)
When you notice a negative thought, acknowledge the negative thought, but think three true positive thoughts about the same topic (e.g., "I hate that it's raining on my Saturday. But we need the rain, slow weekends help me appreciate fast ones, and this gives me time to catch up on work")
Identify someone who has hurt you in the past and choose to forgive them
As you can see these interventions are completely intuitive (and probably align with lots of advice for improving your life you've read and heard over the years). The important takeaway from this study isn't that changing your personality is complicated. It's that it requires action.
These actions can be simple. They can even be easy. But if you actually do things to change your personality you're likely to succeed.