The Limits of Post-Traumatic Growth
Acknowledging that it's rare could free others from guilt.
Posted February 8, 2023 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- Findings from a new research study report that people declined in conscientiousness and agreeableness after adversity.
- Across multiple studies, most researchers found individuals’ personality traits remained stable over time after adversity.
- Researchers should discuss findings that challenge post-traumatic growth to release individuals from any pressure they may feel to experience it.
The experience of significant life events, especially difficult ones, can motivate reflection on things we want to change. Psychologists have been studying this idea—known as post-traumatic growth—for many years.
The idea is that post-traumatic growth can cause individuals to make enduring positive changes to their identities, relationships, or worldviews. An individual diagnosed with a life-altering health condition, for example, might re-prioritise how much importance they attach to work accomplishments to promote a work-life balance and spend more time with their loved ones.
Researchers have found that 52 percent of people report moderate to high levels of post-traumatic growth after a range of different adverse experiences. What we don’t know is whether post-traumatic growth translates into enduring changes in individuals’ lives.
Do the insights individuals make when overcoming adversity remain over the longer term? That’s what myself and personality psychologist Nathan Hudson set out to learn last year, through a longitudinal study of whether individuals’ personalities would change positively over a 16-week period after a recent and potentially traumatic event.
We recruited two samples of people. One had experienced a trauma in the past month and reported that it caused considerable distress and intense fear, helplessness, or terror. The second was a control group of people who were matched by age and gender to those with trauma exposure, but who had not experienced any traumatic events themselves in the past 12 months.
We focused on examining changes in the “Big Five” personality traits of extraversion, emotional stability, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and agreeableness because generally, individuals with higher levels of these traits are seen as healthy and well-functioning. Individuals high in these five traits are typically confident, calm, organised, intellectually curious, and considerate towards others.
In this study, we defined post-traumatic growth as positive personality change in terms of increases in the five traits. We know from Nathan’s past work that people can change their traits in line with their goals. This volitional trait change in personality is associated with increases in well-being.
We predicted that we would observe positive personality change among individuals who have formed goals to change their personality traits through reflection on their traumatic experiences. We examined the influence and importance of the traumatic event, and individuals’ access to social support to determine if these also predicted positive personality change across the 16-week period.
Our results came as something of a surprise: They did not support the notion of post-traumatic growth.
We found that conscientiousness declined among individuals who viewed their trauma as having a central and self-defining impact on their lives. Compared to the control group, agreeableness also declined among individuals with recent trauma exposure for those who did not want to change in this trait.
In summary, there was little evidence to support post-traumatic growth.
Our study results do not stand in isolation. A recent review of 15 empirical studies also reported limited evidence of positive personality change in the short term after the experience of adversity. Collectively, these studies examined a much greater range of adverse life events and personality traits, including interpersonal traits such as empathy, wisdom, and compassion that have been proposed to be particularly likely to increase after adversity. The resounding finding from across these studies was that individuals’ personality traits remained stable over time.
The conclusions from these research studies might appear a little bleak on first read. Post-traumatic growth is an appealing notion, and these findings appear to raise questions about its legitimacy. Yet, there are some reasons to remain optimistic. This outcome might not have the same appeal as post-traumatic growth—the notion that we change for the better despite adversity—but may still speak to our capacity for resilience.
Let’s also discuss the potential limitations of the research studies that were presented. First, some may question if positive changes in personality traits are the best concept with which to measure post-traumatic growth. Personality traits are generally stable over time, and they might be less susceptible to change after trauma compared to goals or life priorities.
Second, and related to the first point, all of these research studies examined trait change over relatively short timeframes. If trait change after adversity does occur, then it might be a process that unfolds over the much longer term.
Finally, only a few of the studies had a prospective longitudinal study design that measured baseline trait levels before the traumatic event. Without such longitudinal studies, it is difficult to make conclusive claims about how trauma may cause personality changes.
However, hypothetically, let’s imagine that these methodological issues were addressed and the research findings continued to cast doubt on post-traumatic growth. What would this mean? It may indicate that post-traumatic growth is rare, and only a few people experience it. This does not imply that individuals cannot be resilient to, or recover from, adversity, though. Indeed, in most of the studies I presented, the authors reported stability in personality traits, rather than evidence of decline.
Also, if it were widely acknowledged that post-traumatic growth is a rare experience, then it could release any guilt or pressure from individuals to find silver linings from suffering. If people only rarely come out of a traumatic experience stronger, but believe they should, then they may feel dejected, or that something is wrong with them, personally, if they didn’t experience post-traumatic growth. This was never the goal of researchers studying post-traumatic growth, and given these potentially harmful implications, it is even more important that researchers discuss findings that challenge and show the limits of this idea.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Sergiy Nigeruk/Shutterstock
Wu, X., Kaminga, A. C., Dai, W., Deng, J., Wang, Z., Pan, X., & Liu, A. (2019). The prevalence of moderate-to-high posttraumatic growth: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 243, 408–415. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2018.09.023
Blackie, L.E.R & Hudson, N.W. (2022, July 29). The Relation between Trauma Exposure and Short-Term Volitional Personality Change. Journal of Personality, 00, 1-18. Advanced Online Publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12759
Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2016). Changing for the better? Longitudinal associations between volitional personality change and psychological well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(5), 603-615. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167216637840
Blackie, L.E.R. & Jayawickreme, E. (2022). What does a personality science approach to post-traumatic growth reveal? European Journal of Personality, 36(4), 437-442. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/08902070221104628