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Intentionally Changing an Aspect of Your Personality May Be Difficult Without Help

A new study suggests that trying to change an aspect of our personalities can be difficult, and in some cases, may even backfire.

While it’s well-established that personalities can change in response to life circumstances, researcher Erica Baranski from the University of Arizona wanted to find out if people can actively and intentionally change parts of their personalities at any given point simply because they desire to do so.

She and her colleagues looked at two groups of people: approximately 500 members of the general population who ranged in age from 19 to 82 and participated in the research online; and approximately 360 college students.

Both groups completed the 44-item “Big Five Inventory,” which measures five key personality traits: extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience and neuroticism, also referred to as emotional stability.

The participants were then asked whether they desired to change any aspect of their personality. If they answered yes, they were asked to write an open-ended description of what they wanted to change.

Across both groups, most participants said they wanted to increase extroversion, conscientiousness and emotional stability.

The students were surveyed again six months later, and the general population group was surveyed again a year later. Neither group had achieved the personality goals they set for themselves at the beginning of the study, and, in fact, some saw change in the opposite direction.

“In both samples, the desire to change at ‘time one’ did not predict actual change in the desired direction at all at ‘time two,'” said Baranski, a postdoctoral psychology researcher in the University of Arizona Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance. “In the general population sample, we didn’t find that personality change goals predicted any change in any direction.”

While the general population group showed no change in personality traits between the first and second rounds of data collection, the student group did show some changes; however, they were either in the opposite direction than desired or were for a different personality trait than the one they had wanted to change.

Specifically, college students who expressed the strongest desires to be more conscientious actually exhibited less conscientiousness six months later. This may be because those individuals exhibited low levels of conscientiousness to begin with, putting them at a disadvantage from the outset, Baranski said.

In addition, students who said they wanted to be more extroverted showed increases in agreeableness and emotional stability rather than extroversion in the follow-up. Baranski said that perhaps as part of their effort to become more social and extroverted, they actually focused on being friendlier and less socially anxious — behaviors more directly related to agreeability and emotional stability, respectively.

According to Baranski, college students may have experienced more change than the general population because they are in such a transformational period in their lives. Still, the changes they experienced didn’t align with the goals they set for themselves.

“College students are thrown into this new environment, and they may be unhappy and may look within selves to become happier and change some aspect of their personality,” Baranski said.

“But, meanwhile, there is a bombardment of other things that they’re told they need to achieve, like doing well in a class or choosing a major or getting an internship, and those goals might take precedence. Even though they know more sustained and introspective change might be better, the short-term effort is more attractive and more necessary in the moment.”

Overall, Baranski’s findings illustrate how difficult it can be for people to change aspects of their personality based on desire alone. That doesn’t mean people can’t make the changes they want. They just might need outside help doing so — from a professional, a friend or maybe even a mobile app reminding them of their goals, Baranski said.

“There is evidence in clinical psychology that therapeutic coaching leads to change in personality and behavior, and there is recent evidence that suggests that when there’s a lot of regular interaction with an experimenter, personality change is possible,” Baranski said. “But when individuals are left to their own devices, change may not be as likely.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

Source: University of Arizona

Intentionally Changing an Aspect of Your Personality May Be Difficult Without Help

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Intentionally Changing an Aspect of Your Personality May Be Difficult Without Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/02/07/intentionally-changing-an-aspect-of-your-personality-may-be-difficult-without-help/153825.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 Feb 2020 (Originally: 7 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 7 Feb 2020
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