Why It’s In Your Own Power To Upgrade Yourself

Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes your own company, which helps you excel at your ‘thing’, but you’d like to be more socially effective at parties – or maybe you’re a classic extrovert, able to communicate with anyone, but you wish you could be more conscientious at work. The old-school approach to psychology would say that, while this would be nice, your personality becomes ‘set like plaster’ in adulthood (William James, 1887) so, no dice. But the latest research disagrees. So how can you upgrade your personality?  

What makes you, you? Psychologists have grappled with this for years but most now use the ‘Big 5’ model to define personalities, in terms of how an individual scores on the following traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (AKA emotional stability).

In 2014, Nathan Hudson at Illinois University tested volunteers on these and then asked them if they wanted to shift their scores. ‘More than 87% of participants reported wanting to become more extroverted than they were at the time – and on the high end, over 97% expressed desires to increase in conscientiousness,’ says Hudson. You only have to look at the billion-dollar self-help industry to realise that people want to improve their personalities – but is it really possible?

‘More than 87% of participants reported wanting to become more extroverted than they were at the time’

The Shifting Sands Of Personality

Even short-term environmental factors can impact on your personality, says Sebastian Schindler at University of Bielefeld, who’s 2014 study into the effect of watching a sad clip from Philadelphia and listening to melancholy music created a 10% increase in neuroticism scores, and a decline in extrovertism by 2-4%. So much for personality being fixed throughout your life. And research from 2017 by Peta Milojev at Massey University, New Zealand, studied 4000 people aged 20-80, to discover that personality changes through life, being least stable in early adulthood but also past 60. So, how do you go about re-inventing yourself?

The Mental Crowbar Approach

The classic impulse when attempting to re-boot your personality might be to turn to a shrink, or mind-coach, or seek more direct routes to ‘opening your mind’ – after all LSD was introduced as a commercial psychiatric medication in 1947, before being made illegal. Brent Roberts at Illinois University found that 4-8 weeks of psychotherapy can indeed impact on your personality, dialling up the extroversion and dialling down the neuroticism. A more invasive method was studied by John Hopkins University School of Medicine – the effect of one journey down the rabbit hole, on magic mushrooms, was enough to increase ‘openness’ scores for a year afterwards, apparently. Both of these methods are pretty heavy, and one is undoubtedly illegal where you are, so what does that leave?

‘Wooly goals, such as ‘think positive thoughts,’ or ‘meet new people,’ were less likely to be effective’

Be Specific To Create Change…

In 2015 Nathan Hudson and Chris Fraley published a study that asked volunteers to write down personality traits that they’d like to change. They found that after 16 weeks the volunteers had managed to increase scores for extroversion and conscientiousness, and reduce scores for neuroticism. But the study reports that wooly goals, such as ‘think positive thoughts,’ or ‘meet new people,’ were less likely to be effective than more specific, attainable goals with an ‘if… then’ component, such as: ‘If I find a social situation intimidating, then I will force myself to strike up a conversation, rather than stay anonymous.’

The study created two groups – one was given behavioural advice to help them achieve their goals, and the other wasn’t. But the difference in the results wasn’t significant. It seems that simply identifying a personality trait that you want to develop, and regularly reflecting on how you rate yourself, can be enough to create a positive change, within months.

…But Don’t Tell Anyone

Unless you’re the kind of person whose day isn’t complete unless you’ve shared a photo of your breakfast, and logged every mood shift with an emoji feed, then avoid announcing your goal to become more outgoing at gatherings, or conscientious at work, to anyone. ‘A growing body of literature has found that sometimes the very act of declaring a goal (especially publicly) is construed by individuals as progress toward that goal, which can undermine motivation to actually pursue the goal,’ report Hudson and Fraley. Instead, write down your goal(s), give yourself a percentage score, and seal it in an envelop to be opened 16 weeks later.

WHAT NEXT? Watch Derek Sivers’s TED talk presenting the evidence on why you really shouldn’t tell anyone your goals…