Can Personality Change?
Almost by definition, personality traits are thought to be enduring psychological features. They mark someone as thinking and behaving in a characteristic way right now—and, probably, tomorrow and even a year from now. Indeed, research on personality development over time indicates that, at least in adulthood, individuals’ comparative ratings on traits such as extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness are relatively stable.
At the same time, it’s clear that people’s personalities do gradually evolve over the lifespan, from childhood through older age, and potentially shift in conjunction with important life events, such as romantic partnerships. Individuals may even be able to change aspects of their personalities through their own volition.
While traits show stability over time, personality can indeed change—and psychologists continue to explore why, how, and when that happens.
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Will a kind, hard-working, and introverted teenage girl still retain those traits when she’s a 55-year-old woman? Has an outspoken and short-tempered grandfather always been that way, or has he grown more so over the years? One way to answer these questions might be: Yes and no.
Psychologists who have analyzed data on personalities taken decades apart in the lifespan find evidence for both stability and change. That is, people often resemble themselves over time rather than changing dramatically—and will likely remain more extroverted or neurotic than most if they start out that way. But there are also overall trends showing that people tend to rate higher or lower on certain traits with the passage of years.
In short, people seem to mature, or become more socially adapted, over time in ways that show up on personality tests. Personality data taken first in youth and again 50 years later showed increases in traits such as calmness (thought to be related to emotional stability) and social sensitivity (related to agreeableness). Other work has found evidence that narcissism decreases, on average, over time.
Children, studies suggest, may show increasingly more distinct trait profiles as they grow older. Research involving adolescents and young adults indicates fluctuations in personality over time: In the teen years, for instance, boys may become less conscientious and girls less emotionally stable, on average, with both gaining in those traits as they reach adulthood. Agreeableness also seems to increase.
They might. Some research has found an overall decline in agreeableness among newlywed husbands and wives. Husbands also exhibited lowered extroversion and greater conscientiousness, on average, and wives showed decreased openness and neuroticism. Past work has also connected first long-term relationships with decreases in aspects of neuroticism.
People can evolve over the course of experience-filled years for many different reasons. But what about the person who wants to become more conscientious or agreeable, or less neurotic or self-centered, and to do so ASAP? Recent research provides reason to be hopeful about the possibilities for intentional, self-directed personality change—though it likely requires more than just wishing to be a certain way.
It seems possible. Several of the Big Five traits, including extroversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness, seem amenable to volitional change—via exercises like deliberately saying hello to someone new (for extroversion)—though consistency in these efforts appeared to be important. Neuroticism (or emotional stability) is also apparently changeable, whether through special courses or through a time-worn method of change: psychotherapy.
Some interventions used to enable people to change their personalities have unfolded on the scale of months. But recent research suggests that even a two-week, smartphone-based intervention may be enough to enhance a specific facet of personality like self-discipline—at least in the short-term.
Yes. While personality disorders are thought of as long-term patterns of maladaptive thinking and behavior, there is evidence that over time, symptoms of a personality disorder can decrease—even if certain psychological and social impairments remain. In some cases, therapy may be helpful in improving functioning: For example, Dialectical Behavior Therapy is one approach commonly used to treat borderline personality disorder.
As we learn about how much and in what ways personalities develop over time, questions still abound about what, exactly, gives a person a particular set of traits to begin with. As with other psychological characteristics, personality traits are influenced by one’s genes as well as other factors—and not necessarily the ones we think.
Many theories have been offered over the centuries, and there are still differences of opinion. But contemporary scientific research indicates that some portion of personality differences are explained by people’s genes, a small proportion at most is linked to environmental influences shared within a family, like parenting, and much of the differences result from many other non-genetic developmental factors. Some theorists propose that social role changes influence personality in significant ways as a person grows up.
Estimates suggest the amount of difference between people (or variance) in personality ratings that can be attributed to genes—the heritability of personality—is less than half. A 2015 analysis gave an overall estimate of 40 percent, though it varied depending on the type of study. These figures are based on studies of twins and other approaches for exploring the contribution of genetic and non-genetic factors. Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) are now used to explore the specific links between many small genetic differences and people’s traits.
Despite popular ideas and psychological theorizing about the effects of being a firstborn sibling, the “baby” of the family, or a middle child, recent studies show no evidence that birth order plays a substantial role in shaping personality. Research on only children has also found little to no difference between their personalities and those of others.