At some point in our lives most of us entertain the thought of having a different personality. We might wish that we were more outgoing, less socially awkward, more resistant to criticism, less impulsive, more optimistic, and so on. Yet according to most theories of personality, our most basic personality type remains fixed. While we can change our behavior, we cannot change who we really are.
Clinicians often seem to think that therapy and medication can change people’s behavior for the better and perhaps even change the patterns of their thoughts and how people feel about themselves but they cannot seem to shake the old belief that the most basic personality traits are unchangeable. If you have a tendency to be anxious and neurotic, you will always have that tendency, even if you learn to act with confidence and self-esteem. Or to take a different example: if you are introverted, you can learn to socialize and be a people person but you will never be able to get rid of your basic need for alone time. This lingering belief, however, seems rather far-fetched. Personality is rooted in the brain. It would be strange if virtually every part of the brain can change, except those parts that are responsible for your personality traits.
And, indeed, the dogma about personality is now beginning to be challenged by a variety of empirical findings. For example, studies indicate that personality tends to change as we get older. This kind of change is often triggered by transformative episodes in life such as buying a house, getting an education, getting a job, getting married, becoming a parent, raising children and seeing them leave the nest. Age-related personality changes are for most part positive. We tend to become more agreeable, more conscientious and more sociable as we age.
What’s extremely odd about these age-related changes in our personality is that we mistakenly predict that they won’t happen. At every age! This is also known as the end of history illusion. At the age of twenty, you might get a tattoo featuring the name of your favorite band written across your biceps only to deeply regret this action at the age of twenty-nine. At the age of twenty-eight you might fall in love with the only person you could imagine spending your life with, you might even marry him or her but then find that you have grown apart at the age of thirty-five. Regardless of your adult age, most of us cannot imagine being altogether different in the future. One reason for this may be that after the teen years we tend to create a very strong sense of identity that is consciously presented to us. This sense of identity apparently can be so vivid that it is unimaginable that we could ever radically change. But we do. Of course, that personality does change should not come as a great surprise from a genetic point of view. Genetic research, particularly twin studies, suggest that personality is about 50 percent inherited and 50 percent due to things unrelated to heritage.
A question relating to personality that remains highly controversial is whether we can willfully change our personality. Recent findings suggest that we can, at least in the context of therapy. In a meta-analysis of 144 studies Psychologist Brent Roberts from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and colleagues found that psychiatric treatments can induce personality changes within a time span of four to seven months, and these changes appear to last several years following treatment. The studies included more than 15,000 participants who had undergone an assessment of personality traits as well as some form of psychiatric treatment, such as talk therapy, antidepressants, meditation, or cognitive training. The researchers found that there was a significant change in personality traits in people who participated in the psychiatric interventions compared to people in the control groups. People with psychological disorders saw the greatest change, but even healthy participants experienced significant shifts in personality. The traits that changed most were people’s degree of neuroticism and introversion. There is a good reason for this. Neuroticism often is accompanied by depression and generalized anxiety, whereas introversion often leads to social anxiety and performance anxiety. So, by using therapy or medication to treat mood disorders, such as generalized or social anxiety, you are likely to change the personality types they fall under, namely neuroticism and introversion.