How quickly can personality traits be modified?
An international research team led by the University of Zurich has shown that daily use of a smartphone app can lead to desired personality changes within three months. And three months after the daily interventions, the changes are still noticeable.
Personality traits such as conscientiousness or sociability are patterns of experience and behavior that can change throughout our lives. Individual changes usually take place slowly as people gradually adapt to the demands of society and their environment.
Researchers from the universities of Zurich, St. Gallen, Brandeis, Illinois, and ETH Zurich have now investigated this question using a digital intervention. In their study, around 1,500 participants were provided with a specially developed smartphone app for three months and the researchers then assessed whether and how their personalities had changed.
The five major personality traits of openness, conscientiousness, sociability (extraversion), considerateness (agreeableness), and emotional vulnerability (neuroticism) were examined. The app included elements of knowledge transfer, behavioral and resource activation, self-reflection, and feedback on progress.
All communication with the digital coach and companion (a chatbot) took place virtually. The chatbot supported the participants on a daily basis to help them make the desired changes.
Changes after three months
The majority of participants said that they wanted to reduce their emotional vulnerability, increase their conscientiousness, or increase their extraversion. Those who participated in the intervention for more than three months reported greater success in achieving their change goals than the control group who took part for only two months.
Close friends and family members also observed changes in those participants who wanted to increase expression of a certain personality trait.
However, for those who wanted to reduce expression of a trait, the people close to them noticed little change. This group mainly comprised those participants who wanted to become less emotionally vulnerable, an inner process that is less observable from the outside.
“The participants and their friends alike reported that three months after the end of the intervention, the personality changes brought about by using the app had persisted,” says Mathias Allemand, professor of psychology at UZH.
“These surprising results show that we are not just slaves to our personality, but that we can deliberately make changes to routine experience and behavior patterns.”
Important for health promotion and prevention
The findings also indicate that development of the personality structure can happen more quickly than was previously believed. “In addition, change processes accompanied by digital tools can be used in everyday life,” explains first author Mirjam Stieger of Brandeis University in the USA, who did her doctorate at UZH.
However, more evidence of the effectiveness of digital interventions is needed. For example, it was unclear whether the changes achieved were permanent or only reflected temporary fluctuations.
The present findings are not only interesting for research, but could also find application in a variety of areas of life. In health promotion and prevention, for example, such apps could boost the resources of individuals, as people’s attitude to their situation and personality traits such as conscientiousness have an influence on health and healthy aging.
Who wants to change and how? On the trait-specificity of personality change goals
Personality traits are, by definition, relatively stable (Johnson, 1997; Roberts, 2009), yet people undergo consistent personality change over the course of their lives (e.g., Caspi & Roberts, 2001; Roberts et al., 2006). One determinant of these developmental processes that has gained increasing attention in recent years is the desire to change one’s personality (Baumeister, 1994; Denissen et al., 2013; Hennecke et al., 2014; Kiecolt, 1994).
According to this idea, personality development is to some extent self-regulated, meaning that people may change in line with how they want to be. Indeed, evidence suggests that most people want to change certain aspects of their personality (e.g., Baranski et al., 2017; Hudson & Fraley, 2015; Hudson & Roberts, 2014; Robinson et al., 2015), and these desires to change can trigger corresponding personality development (e.g., Asadi et al., 2020; Hudson, Briley, et al., 2019; Hudson, Fraley, Briley, et al., 2020; Hudson, Fraley, Chopik, et al., 2020; Hudson & Fraley, 2015; Stieger, Wepfer, et al., 2020; but see Baranski et al., 2020).
However, what makes people want to change certain aspects of their personality? That is, who wants to change and how? Evidence addressing this question comes from studies showing that the desire to change on a certain trait in a socially desirable direction is negatively related to individuals’ concurrent levels on that trait (Hudson, Derringer, et al., 2019; e.g., Hudson, Chopik, & Briley, 2020; Hudson & Fraley, 2015, 2016b; Hudson & Roberts, 2014; Quintus et al., 2017).
For example, individuals who are low on Extraversion may want to become higher on this trait, arguably because higher levels on Extraversion are perceived to have desirable consequences (e.g., Hennecke et al., 2014; Wood & Denissen, 2015). However, as we will detail below, the relation between one’s own level on a trait and the desire to change on that trait in a socially desirable way varies systematically across traits, showing a relatively strong (negative) correlation for some traits, but a weak or even zero correlation for other traits. Here, for the first time, we provide a systematic empirical test of these trait-specific effects of individuals’ trait levels on their personality change goals.
Personality Change and Change Goals
Although personality is relatively stable (Anusic & Schimmack, 2016), there is now consistent evidence – most of it based on the Big Five framework – that people change over the entire life span. Most substantial trait changes occur in early adulthood (Lucas & Donnellan, 2011; Roberts et al., 2006), arguably because individuals have to adapt to new social roles and master corresponding developmental tasks, such as finding a partner, having a family, and starting a career (Hutteman et al., 2014).
But even in middle and late adulthood, personality change continues, albeit at a slower pace (e.g., Bleidorn et al., 2009; Damian et al., 2019; Kandler et al., 2015; Lucas & Donnellan, 2011; Soto et al., 2011; Wortman et al., 2012). Accordingly, rank-order stability of personality traits increases from adolescence to adulthood where it remains relatively high (Ferguson, 2010; Roberts & DelVecchio, 2000), and it only starts to decrease again in (very) old age (Lucas & Donnellan, 2011; Specht et al., 2011; Wortman et al., 2012).
The processes leading to personality change are manifold (Bleidorn et al., 2020; Specht et al., 2014; Wagner et al., 2020; Wrzus & Roberts, 2017), including genetic as well as environmental influences such as life events (Bleidorn et al., 2018; Denissen et al., 2019; Specht et al., 2011). Crucially, research suggests that personality change can also be self- regulated to some extent, meaning that individuals’ desires to change – that is, their change goals1 – affect how they change (Denissen et al., 2013; Hennecke et al., 2014).
From a functionalist perspective (e.g., Allport, 1937; Denissen & Penke, 2008; McCabe & Fleeson, 2012; Morf, 2006; Snyder, 1993; Wood et al., 2015), personality traits are sought to serve certain purposes or functions, respectively, thus reflecting means to desired ends. According to such a view, self-regulated personality change should occur whenever individuals perceive their current level on a trait as less functional and/or desirable and thus want to change for the better (Hennecke et al., 2014; Wood & Denissen, 2015).
1 In line with prior literature on volitional personality change, we use the term “change goals” such that high change goals imply a desire to increase on a certain trait whereas low change goals imply a desire to decrease on a certain trait.
Indeed, there is now consistent evidence that most people want to change certain aspects of their personality. For instance, when asked about personal goals in general, most people reported goals related to changing their personality (Miller et al., 2019). In turn, those having such desires to change usually want to change several aspects of their personality (Asadi et al., 2020; Baranski et al., 2017; Hudson, Derringer, et al., 2019; Hudson & Fraley, 2015, 2016a, 2016b; Hudson & Roberts, 2014; Robinson et al., 2015; Sun & Goodwin, 2020).
Most commonly, individuals desire to increase in Extraversion and Conscientiousness and to decrease in Neuroticism. Moreover, some studies show desires to increase in Agreeableness and Openness to Experience, although evidence for these change goals is mixed (Baranski et al., 2017, 2020; Hudson, Briley, et al., 2019; Miller et al., 2019; Robinson et al., 2015).
reference link:DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000304
Original Research: Closed access.
“Changing personality traits with the help of a digital personality change intervention” by Stieger, M., Flückiger, C., Rüegger, D., Kowatsch, D., Roberts, B. W. & Allemand, M. PNAS