We’ve all heard that people don’t really change. Your mum will always be close-minded; your ex will always be selfish; and you’ll always be a tiny bit neurotic.
A new report published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicates that that’s not exactly true — but it’s going to take a lot more than hoping to change and writing about it in your dream journal to, well, change. It takes concrete action.
Reports the British Psychology Society Research Digest:
The results show once again that willful personality change is possible, but they also indicate that the mere desire to change is not sufficient. In fact, failing to support one’s goals with concrete action appears to backfire, leading to personality drift in the opposite direction to what was desired.
Here’s how the study worked: 377 psychology students at Southern Methodist University selected an average of two of the “Big Five” personality traits, which include agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness, that they wanted to change.
At the start of each of 15 weeks, the students completed a 60-item personality test and picked challenges to try to change their personality. The challenges became harder over the ensuing weeks (for example, if they wanted to become more extroverted, one week they might need to say hello to a cashier while another week they might need to lead a group project).
How many people set intentions for the New Year, ready to get up at 5:00AM and head to the gym, or quit drinking alcohol cold-turkey, or spend two hours every weekend learning to play a new instrument? And how many of those people fail?
Nathan Hudson, an assistant professor in psychology at Southern Methodist who led the study, told BPS that the study seemed to indicate that “the more trait-consistent behavioural challenges that the students successfully completed, the more their personality traits shifted”.
“The single largest implication of our study is that actively engaging in behaviours designed to change one’s personality traits does, in fact, predict greater amounts of trait growth across time,” said Hudson.
On the other hand, accepting a challenge but not sticking with it “was associated with trait change in the opposite direction to what was desired”. It’s unclear why this is the case, though BPS notes that failing to complete a challenge might be so demoralising participants assumed they weren’t capable of change.
“For instance, an introvert who failed to meet the challenge of introducing themselves to a stranger might have adjusted their self-concept to consider themselves even more of an introvert than they had done before,” writes BPS.
But also, give yourself the benefit of the doubt—just because you don’t succeed at first doesn’t mean you never will. But you have to start.