Personalities Can Change Even When People Are Unmotivated To Change, Say Psychologists

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A new paper appearing in the Journal of Research in Personality bolsters the argument that personality is more changeable than previously thought — even suggesting that personality can be changed when people aren’t necessarily committed to change.

“A growing body of research suggests that personality traits can be changed through intervention,” say the authors of the research, led by Nathan Hudson of Southern Methodist University. “Theorists have speculated that successful interventions may require (1) that participants autonomously choose which traits they change and (2) that they be deeply invested in the change process.”

To test these propositions, the researchers conducted two separate studies, each lasting four months.

In the first study, 175 college students were randomly assigned to change the personality traits of either conscientiousness or emotional stability. They were then given their choice of tasks to improve that personality trait. For instance, those who were selected to work on being more conscientious were given challenges like “organize and clean your desks” or “make a list of tasks you would like to complete.”  

The second study included more than 400 college students at several universities. In this study, half of the participants were randomly assigned to receive challenges targeting a characteristic that they didn’t choose. 

In both studies, students’ personality traits were measured before and after using the 44-item “Big 5” personality test. 

The researchers found that conscientiousness, or the ability to be responsible, hard-working and organized, could be improved even if participants were not motivated to change. Completing a series of tasks over a regular period was found to change habits and therefore improve conscientiousness. 

Emotional stability, however, was a different matter. Study participants only got better at handling difficult situations if they chose to work on their emotional stability. Otherwise, the tasks they were given over four weeks proved to be ineffective or even counterproductive.

This study provides promising evidence that schools, companies, and other organizations could ask people to make relatively minor changes that could help them be more organized and responsible over time.

“Conscientiousness is linked to a huge array of positive life outcomes, including physical and mental health, grades, occupational performance, and even mortality,” says Hudson. “So, ‘workplace training’-style interventions targeting conscientiousness have the potential to improve both individual outcomes and larger-scale social outcomes.”

In contrast, it appears that emotional stability requires more investment from the people who partake in an intervention. The researchers suspect that the reason people must be motivated to change emotional stability is that this trait deals with negative emotions.

“For many people, it can be difficult to ‘just stop feeling angry’ or ‘just stop being stressed,’” comments Hudson. “My hunch is that indirect strategies for changing someone’s emotions, such as writing in a journal or thinking about positive things, can only really work when people want to use those techniques to change their emotions.”

A full interview with Nathan Hudson discussing his new research on personality change can be found here: Personalities can change, especially the trait of conscientiousness

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