A new analysis shows that people with mental disorders who engage in therapeutic interventions become, on average, significantly less neurotic and slightly more extraverted after treatment. Those most likely to see positive personality changes after therapy are individuals with anxiety disorders.
The research, a review of 207 studies involving more than 20,000 people, challenges the idea that personality traits are established at birth or in childhood and remain static for life.
“This really is definitive evidence that the idea that personality doesn’t change is wrong,” said study leader and psychologist Professor Brent Roberts at the University of Illinois. “We’re not saying personality dramatically reorganizes itself. You’re not taking an introvert and making them into an extravert. But this reveals that personality does develop and it can be developed.”
Personality psychologists consider neuroticism and its counterpart, emotional stability, key personality traits, along with conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness and extraversion. People with high levels of neuroticism tend to be more anxious, moody and depressed than others, and are more likely to perceive events as threatening, Roberts said.
“Some clinical psychologists see neuroticism at the core of every form of psychopathology, whether it’s drug and alcohol abuse, psychopathy, depression, or panic disorder,” said Roberts. “The fact that we saw the most change in neuroticism is not surprising because, for the most part, that’s what therapists are there to treat.”
Studying personality is tricky because many people believe the notion that once someone reaches adulthood, their personality is set for life, Roberts said.
“It is very common for individuals to think of personality as that part of them that is really distinct and enduring in a way that is recognizable,” he said.
While there is a lot of evidence that personality is relatively stable over the lifespan, “there never has been any evidence that people are perfectly unchanging, perfectly stable,” he said.
The motivation for the new analysis was the realization that many clinical studies assess patients’ personality traits at the beginning and end of treatment. This usually involves having patients complete questionnaires about their attitudes, preferences and behaviors.
These studies mainly involve interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, supportive or psychotherapeutic counseling, pharmacological treatment (with antidepressants, for example), hospitalization, or a combination of approaches.
“Interventions were associated with marked changes in personality trait measures over an average time of 24 weeks,” the researchers wrote. “Emotional stability was the primary trait domain showing changes as a result of therapy.”
Patients with anxiety disorders changed the most, the team found. Those with substance abuse problems changed the least.
The amount of change in emotional stability “was dramatic, by our standards,” Roberts said. After about three months in treatment, participants’ self-reported emotional stability increased, on average, by about half as much as it would over the course of their adult life, he said.
“In terms of our expectations, this is a remarkable amount of change. In about 50 of the studies, the researchers tracked the people down well past the end of the therapeutic situation, and they seemed to have held onto the changes, which is nice,” Roberts said.
“So, it’s not a situation where the therapist is just affecting your mood. It appears that you get a long-term benefit.”
Roberts led the analysis with graduate student Jing Luo and Illinois psychology professor Dr. Daniel Briley; Drs. Phil Chow of the University of Virginia. Rong Su of Purdue University, and Patrick Hill of Carleton University.
Their findings are published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.
Source: University of Illinois