We all have personality traits that we wish we could change. Maybe you find that you’re an overly negative person. Maybe you have some intimacy issues that hinder your interpersonal relationships. Or maybe you know you’re kind of a pessimist and want to be more of a glass-is-half-full kind of person.
People always say that recognizing the problem is the first step to change. But no one ever gives you the second step, so we all end up thinking that all we need to do to solve our issues is acknowledge the problem.
Now, a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology claims that not only is merely deciding to change not enough to actually change, the whole enterprise can be counterproductive in the absence of any action. But if you try, you can, in fact, make meaningful change.
Researchers asked 377 psychology students to choose a Big Five Personality Trait—which include Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism—that they would like to change. Most chose two traits, and the majority wanted to lower their Neuroticism and increase their Extraversion. (The least popular trait to change was Agreeableness, which is a shame because that along with conscientiousness are the two traits that have been found to most boost our sex lived and romantic relationships.)
At the start of the 15-week study, the students completed a 60-item personality test and selected a maximum of four challenges proposed by personality experts to help them achieve their goals. For example, those who wanted to become more extroverted were asked to do either something relatively easy, like say hello to a cashier, to something extremely difficult, like volunteering for a leadership role. Someone who wanted to be more open was asked to do something as relatively easy as read a news story about a foreign country, or something as difficult as trying to understand the perspective of someone who held very different opinions.
At the end of each week, students were asked to log in whether they had completed these challenges, and received a reward badge when they did for extra motivation.
What they found is that those who had completed the challenges saw much greater changes than those who didn’t. So, if you want to make meaningful changes to certain personality traits, you need to follow through with action. You need to challenge your comfort zone by forcing yourself into more uncomfortable positions.
However—and here’s where things get interesting—those who had vowed to change but failed to complete the challenges actually got worse. So introverts who didn’t manage to either say hello to a cashier or volunteer for a leadership role actually became more introverted than they were before.
“The single largest implication of our study is that actively engaging in behaviors designed to change one’s personality traits does, in fact, predict greater amounts of trait growth across time,” Nathan Hudson, a social-
On a psychological level, it’s easy to see why the people who failed to meet their challenges sank even more into the personality traits that they wanted to change. When you can’t force yourself to make actionable steps to change, it’s easy to feel demotivated, and to accept that this is just who you are and there’s nothing you can do about it.
But that’s not true. We are all our own prisoners and prison guards. You have the power to change, and you’re much stronger than you realize. Overcoming our flaws and rewiring our brains isn’t easy, but it is possible. For more on this, check out our findings from the Yale Happiness Course.
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