Would you like to change (aspects of) your personality?
Here are science-backed tips on how to do that.
Our next Sunday Candlelight Chat (on Zoom) will be this Sunday, Jan 28, 1 pm ET/10 am PT/6 pm UK, featuring my pal, the great psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman (one of the top 1% most cited scientists in the world)! (I’ll send out Zoom details to paid and scholarship subscribers, this Saturday; you’ll also receive a replay, a week after the Chat.)
During this chat, we’ll talk about Abraham Maslow’s vision of “cosmic sadness,” SBK’s journey from special education student to Ivy League professor, his current incarnation as a “wild introvert,” and more. His Dad will join us, too! In honor of this upcoming event, here’s a guest post from SBK.
Oh and here’s a quick peek at our last Sunday Candlelight Chat, featuring bestselling novelist Angie Kim - here, talking about shame (“the most powerful and long-lasting emotion we have):
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A few years after my book QUIET came out, my old college friend, Stacey, got in touch. Stacey and I used to spend hour after hour discussing the personality traits of everyone we knew, including our own selves.
“I can’t believe you managed to make a career out of all those late night conversations!” she said.
That made me laugh. I’d never thought of it that way. But she was so right.
Which brings me to today’s Kindred Letter - which is actually a guest post from my friend, the great psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman - our guest on this coming Sunday’s Candlelight Chat (which will be on Zoom)! This post first appeared on SBK’s Substack, Beautiful Minds, which you can access right here.
Below are SBK’s thoughts on certain personality traits — and whether and how you can change them, if you’d like to.
Before you start reading, I’d like to introduce a philosophical question to this discussion, which is:
SHOULD we try to change our personality traits? Or is the better path to embrace radical self-acceptance?
My own bias is toward the latter approach. Arguably, self-acceptance (and from there, acceptance of others) is the heart and soul of everything I write.
But at the same time, we all have aspects of ourselves that we just don’t like, and that could (should?) be improved.
I still tend to think we should accept our underlying personalities, while seeking to change behavior patterns that don’t serve us well.
But, is this just a semantic difference?
No doubt SBK and I will discuss this on Sunday. :) And you can ask him your questions, too.
In the meantime - here he is, now, with some excellent, thought-provoking, and research-based ideas on how to make the changes you seek.
“Happy New Year!
It’s a new year, new you. Right?
Well, I’ve got good news and some bad news.
The good news is that it’s a new year! A fresh start. This is a great time to motivate yourself to set an important personal goal. This is a particularly good start to a new year since according to the “fresh start effect”, motivation increases after a temporal landmark such as the beginning of a new week, month, or year. Temporal landmarks demarcate a time difference between when you were the imperfect you and the new you. January 1st this year fell on a Monday so that’s a double fresh start!
Now here’s the bad news: Even with this newfound motivation, you are still you. As Jon Kabbat Zinn put it, “everywhere you go, there you are.” Every new year, the aspiration to change aspects of one’s personality usually starts out big, and then rapidly declines once people realize that mere aspiration isn’t enough.
Make no doubt: People definitely want to change their personality. Americans spend over $11 billion each year on self-help books and programs that promises to help them change their personality and have an amazing life. When asked “Is there any aspect of your personality that you would like to change?”, about two thirds of people say they would like to change themselves.
These desires tend to come from dissatisfaction. For instance, people want to become more extraverted if they aren’t happy with their relationships, hobbies, or friendships. They want to become more conscientious if they are not happy with their finances or work performance.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good thing that people want to change. Personality matters a lot. Personality traits predict important life outcomes, such as success in love and work life, well-being, health, and longevity. But just how many can we change our personality?
One view is that personality is set in stone by adulthood and can hardly budge no matter what you do. Another view is that personality is entirely due to your circumstances in life and is constantly in flux. Both of these extreme views are wrong.
Throughout the course of the day, we all fluctuate in our personality traits (context matters). However, when “whole distributions” of thinking, emotions, and behavioral patterns are taken into consideration, there are consistent individual differences. For instance, almost all of us crave peace and quiet at times during the day, but on the whole some of us need a lot more solitude than others.
This new understanding of personality means that there is no “essence” to your personality. Yes, genes definitely influence your patterns of thoughts, emotions, and behavior. but there is nothing essential about being a certain way. With enough habitual adjustment to your patterns over time, you really can change who you are. In other words, you are who you repeatedly are.
A large body of research shows that personality traits can and do change. The research literature on personality change began by focusing on changes that occur during therapy and major life events such as getting married and changing jobs. However, more recent research shows that it’s possible to intentionally change your personality traits over time. Repeated state-level changes can eventually turn into hardened trait-level changes.
However— are here’s the big catch— it seems to require follow-through and effort over the long-run to cause long-lasting changes to your personality. Psychologist Nathan Hudson has been leading the way on designing interventions that can create long-lasting changes in personality. In one seminal study, Dr. Hudson and his colleagues presented people with brief descriptions of each of the “Big Five traits of personality”— extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism (the opposite of emotional stability), and openness to experience— and asked them to nominate which of the dimensions they would like to specifically work on changing throughout the course of the semester.
People were then presented with a list of “challenges” that were specific, concrete actions people could take to pull their state-level thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in line with their desired traits. A total of 50 challenges were created for each big five domain (see below for examples of the challenges from each domain). Each week people could select new challenges, and to make things more engaging, the researchers presented it as a “game” where they could earn bronze, silver, gold, or diamond “medals” by completing the challenges multiples time at increasingly greater frequency.
The researchers found that for most of the big five traits, successfully completing greater numbers of challenges predicted greater personality growth across time. According to the researchers, “The pattern of results seems to suggest that taking even small but consistent steps toward pulling one’s behaviors in alignment with one’s desired traits has the potential to produce trait growth.”
Critically, the researchers found that desiring trait change and making plans to change oneself, but not following through on those plans often backfired. As the researchers suggest, perhaps a person who continually accepted extraversion challenges but failed them may have begun to reason: “Maybe I am even less extraverted than I thought, because I cannot seem to complete these challenges.” This may have led to decreases in their extraversion levels over time.
Another possibility is that sometimes the very act of declaring a goal is construed by individuals as progress toward that goal. People might think they have already “done something” to progress toward one’s goals, and that can actually undermine their motivation to do what it actually takes to advance the goal. Indeed, Peter Gollwtizer and colleagues found that announcing one’s intention to change publicly can give people a premature sense of already possessing the aspired-to-trait or identity.
So following through on your newfound motivation matters. But you can do it! It’s worth the effort. The latest science of personality change suggests that you can cause long-lasting changes in your personality by repeatedly changing your habits of thinking, acting, and reacting to the world around you. What’s more, various psychologically validated techniques such as implementation intentions, self-reflection, cognitive behavior therapy, and behavioral activation can cause personality change not just for those on the therapist’s couch but for all of us.
Science-Backed Tips for Changing Your Personality
Choose to embark on a new chapter in your life— decide it’s time for a “fresh start”! Starting today is great because it’s still early in the new year— there is still hope!
Time for goal-setting! Focus on the one trait (or two traits) that would mean the most to you to change. Don’t try to change everything, let’s really focus on a few manageable aspects of your personality that you would like to change. The main Big Five traits are extraversion (how outgoing and sociable are you?), conscientiousness (how hard-working and effective are you in reaching your goals?), neuroticism (how anxious and emotionally unstable are you?), agreeableness (how well do you cooperate with others and are considered a highly valued social partner), and openness to experience (how open are you to new ideas, feelings, beautiful things, and creative ideas?). Which one stands out to the most to you in need of some adjustment?
Do NOT announce your intention on social media or anywhere publicly. It might fool you into thinking that you actually already did something toward reaching your goal.
Time to follow through! Create implementation intentions. Implementation intentions take the format of “if-then” plans. If something happens, then you automatically do something else. No questions asked. No justification to get out of it. You create a series of relevant if-then plans so you don’t have to think about it. Some examples of implementation intentions include: “If I have to work over a concentrated period of time, then I switch into flight mode” (conscientiousness), “If I have no meetings before 1:00 p.m., then I will go to the gym” (conscientiousness), or “If I see something beautiful, then I will take a photo” (openness to experience).
In line with mindful cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Notice mindfully your usual tendencies and try to intentionally do something different than what you normally do, which takes us to…
Behavioral activation! Look at the list of challenges researchers came up with for each domain of personality (see below and the appendix of this paper). Choose the challenges that pertain to the personality domain you are working on changing.
Gamify it! Compete with your friends and see who can complete the most challenges in a one month period. Whoever wins has to buy everyone else a drink or something like that.
Pick a different challenge every day. Stay at it! Be patient and kind to yourself if you struggle with some of the challenges and have realistic expectations about the rate of growth in personality change. Your personality won’t change overnight. Be critical of any self-development book or course that claims to give you instant or radical changes in your personality. Just as it took many years for you to develop your habitual patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, it will take some time to alter them in the long-run. The good news is that the latest research on personality change suggests quite clearly that state-level changes that are maintained for extended periods of time have the potential to coalesce into trait changes. Over time, state-level behaviors become learned, automatized, and habitual. But you have to do the work. There are no shortcuts in life, at least when it comes to causing long-lasting changes to your personality.
Oh, and once you’ve really changed your personality, and only then, feel free to announce what you went through to get there. Your journey will inspire others. Also, people will probably notice the difference. I’m rooting for you. You got this! Get to it.
List of Challenges
I’ve only listed the first 10 challenges for each personality domain. If you want the full list of challenges, see the Appendix of this paper.
Before you go to bed, reflect on a positive social experience you had during the day, and what you liked about it
Say hello to a cashier at a store
Smile and wave at someone new on campus or near your home. Don’t worry if they don’t smile or wave back!
Say hello to someone you’ve never met. Don’t feel pressured to say more unless you want to!
Download the app “Meet Up” on your phone, and identify one or two events you’re interested in going to
Prepare a few well-rehearsed and brief responses to commonly asked questions, such as “What do you do for a living?”
Make a positive comment on someone else’s Facebook post
Ask a cashier at a store how their day is going
Say hello to someone you’ve never met and comment on your shared surroundings (e.g., “The weather is nice!”, “These flowers are beautiful!”, “I love the song this store is playing!”)
Call a friend that you haven’t spoken with in a while
Smile at someone you don’t know
Say “please” and “thank you” when asking for something
Hold the door open for someone
Write down a nice thing someone else did for you today
Spend 5 minutes writing down a list of things you’re grateful for in one of your relationships
Before you go to bed, reflect on something kind someone did for you that day and how it made you feel—even something small (e.g., smiling at you)
Give a friend or family member a hug
Say “thank you” to someone you normally wouldn’t (e.g., thank a teacher for the lecture; thank a friend for hanging out)
When someone compliments you, say out loud, “Thank you.”
Take a few minutes to reflect on the good qualities of people you love (e.g., friends, family members)
Spend five minutes writing down reasons why people in general are generally good
Put your phone in your pocket during class, and do not look at it for the whole class period
Begin preparing for an event 10 minutes earlier than usual
Organize the app icons on your phone’s homescreen
Spend at least 5 minutes journaling about the benefits (e.g., for the future, your career, for you personally) of being thorough, hardworking, and productive
Write down a list of people who are counting on you (e.g., to attend events, to contribute to assignments/work, to provide supplies)
Show up 5 minutes early for a class, appointment, or other activity
Set out your clothes the night before
Carefully proofread an email or text before you send it
When you notice something you need to buy (e.g., household supplies), make a note on your phone
When you notice something you need to do (e.g., an assignment/chore/bill) make a note on your phone and/or calendar
When you wake up, say aloud to yourself, “I choose to be happy today”
When you feel overwhelmed, stop and take several deep breaths
Before you go to bed, write down a positive thing that happened to you during the day, and how it made you feel
Take at least 5 minutes to intentionally smile. This can be on your own, or while performing an activity (e.g., driving, walking to class)
Hug a close friend or family member
When you wake up, spend at least five minutes mentally listing everything you are grateful for (e.g., friends, family, safe place to live, clean air)
Schedule 30 minutes to engage in an activity you enjoy
Express gratitude to another person (e.g., thank a teacher for a good lecture; tell a friend why you appreciate them)
Before you go to bed, write down one good thing you can look forward to tomorrow
If you are religious, spend at least 5 minutes praying. If you are not religious, spend at least 5 minutes meditating.
Openness to Experience
Read a news story about a foreign country
Read a news story about recent scientific discoveries and technologies
Watch a new movie that you’ve never seen before
Watch an episode of a new TV show that you’ve never seen before
Subscribe to a new podcast and listen to the first episode
Spend five minutes reflecting on your goals and values in life
Try a new entree that you’ve never had before at a restaurant you like Visit a museum or art gallery
Read a news story about political beliefs that differ from your own
Spend five minutes imagining where you would go and what you would do if you could time travel
Spend five minutes imagining what you would do if you could fly”
OK, this is Susan again…I hope you enjoyed this cornucopia of ideas from SBK. I’d love to hear what you think!
*Do you have a personality trait (or behavior pattern) that you’d like to change?
*Do any of these examples and strategies resonate with you?
You can leave a comment below; and I’ll look forward to discussing these ideas more with you all, this Sunday, at our Candlelight Chat (on Zoom)!