Personality traits can change through persistent intervention and major life events, a review of recent research suggests.
Personality traits, identified as neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, can predict a wide range of important outcomes such as health, happiness, and income. Because of this, these traits might represent an important target for policy interventions designed to improve human welfare.
Stable but changeable
“In this paper, we present the case that traits can serve both as relatively stable predictors of success and actionable targets for policy changes and interventions,” says coauthor Wiebke Bleidorn, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis.
“Parents, teachers, employers, and others have been trying to change personality forever because of their implicit awareness that it is good to make people better people,” adds coauthor Christopher Hopwood, also a professor of psychology.
But now, he says, strong evidence suggests that personality traits are broad enough to account for a wide range of socially important behaviors at levels that surpass known predictors, and that they can change, especially if you catch people at the right age and exert sustained effort. However, these traits also remain relatively stable; so while they can change, they’re not easy to change.
Investments in costly interventions are unlikely to pay off because evidence about personality traits isn’t informing the interventions.
“For that reason, it would be helpful for public policymakers to think more explicitly about what it takes to change personality to improve personal and public welfare, the costs and benefits of such interventions, and the resources needed to achieve the best outcomes by both being informed by evidence about personality traits and investing more sustained resources and attention toward better understanding personality change,” the researchers say.
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Interventions to change personality traits
Research has found that a relatively small number of personality traits can account for most of the ways in which people differ from one another. Therefore, they are related to a wide range of important life outcomes. These traits are also relatively stable, but changeable with effort and good timing. This combination—broad and enduring, yet changeable—makes them particularly promising targets for large-scale interventions.
Both neuroticism and conscientiousness, for example, may represent good intervention targets in young adulthood. And certain interventions—especially those that require persistence and long-term commitment—may be more effective among conscientious, emotionally stable people. It is also important to consider motivational factors, as success is more likely if people are motivated and think change is feasible, researchers say.
Bleidorn and Hopwood say examples of important questions that could be more informed by personality science include: What is the long-term impact of social media and video games? How do we get children to be kinder and work harder at school? How do we help people acculturate to new environments? And, what is the best way to help people age with grace and dignity?
The research appears in American Psychologist.
About the Authors
Coauthor Wiebke Bleidorn is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. Coauthor Christopher Hopwood is also a professor of psychology.
The research is the product of the Personality Change Consortium, an international group of researchers committed to advancing understanding of personality change. Bleidorn and Hopwood, initiated the consortium.