Changing Habits versus Changing Traits

Neuroplasticity (or more simply, plasticity)—the ability of the brain and nervous system to reshape itself—is a hot topic. Norman Doidge (The Brain that Changes Itself; 2007), Michael Merzenich (Soft-Wired; 2013), Jeffrey Schwartz (You Are Not Your Brain; 2011) and other neuroscientists write with optimism about our capacity for rewiring ourselves. The very term plasticity suggests the opposite of “etched in stone.”

However, as with much discovery, enthusiasm can create false hopes for panaceas or easy fixes. Too many of us tend to think in all-or-nothing terms. Either we cannot change ourselves, or we can do a total makeover. To think in shades of gray complicates things. However, life itself is comprised of shades of gray. We are not fat OR thin, but rather we are somewhere on a continuum. We are not calm or anxious, but somewhere on a continuum. Those who have argued for a genetic basis of personality talk about us being hardwired, while those who argue for environmental influence on personality talk about us being malleable, plastic, like a blank slate. Personality is neither nature nor nurture, but both interacting, intertwined.

At the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, we teach human resource professionals the use of the Five-Factor Model in the world of work. We show how an individual’s traits can support or not support their work performance, job satisfaction, and life in general. Every day we get the question: “I don’t like my score on X—can I change it?” The answer is yes and no—behavior change is a complex process, and one should be forewarned before committing to a behavioral makeover.

Here is my best effort at summarizing the process and its assumptions succinctly:

  1. Traits are not 100% hardwired—best estimates are around 60%. That leaves a LOT of wiggle room for allowing the environment to shape who we are! That 40% would include opportunities for the efforts of cognitive behavioral therapists and other neuroplasticity proponents as well as the influence of our parents and peers.
  2. “Hardwiring” is a complex subject—it refers to nerve pathways, relative size of brain and other physical structures/organs, chemical levels, quantity of receptors, how long a habit has had to become established, and so forth.
  3. The research on neuroplasticity is focused on modifying specific habits, not complex traits.
  4. One trait, such as Warmth, is comprised of hundreds of habits. To change one such habit would be an aim of neuroplasticity therapy (earlier called cognitive behavioral therapy). For example, eye contact is associated with warmth, so for someone reluctant to make eye contact, a therapist might work on changing that habit so that it becomes more natural.
  5. So, to change a trait to a substantial degree, we are talking about changing dozens, if not hundreds, of habits that comprise that trait. Other habits that contribute to our warmth include sensitivity to touch, comfort touching others, our tendency to smile, our tendency to vary the pitch, volume, and timbre of our voice, the tenseness/relaxedness of our posture, our level of physical activity, our ability to keep our mouths shut and listen to others, our habit of paying compliments to others, whether we are huggers, the quality of our handshake—the list goes on. And, each specific habit—such as eye contact—might need to be broken down into its many different contexts—eye contact with parents, with a partner, with children (my children versus others’ children), with police officers, with my boss, with customers, with hostile people, with same/opposite sex, with seductive people, and the list goes on.
  6. It might be more satisfying to set out to change one’s way of life in a way that builds around our stronger characteristics, rather than to set out to change those characteristics. For example, a sales person low in Warmth might switch from face-to-face sales to telephone sales. This would enable them not to worry about inadequate eye contact, touching, activity level, hand-shaking, and so forth, and to focus just on modulating their voice.

I’m all for plasticity. However, I think it should be reserved for individuals a) whose natural behavior is not working for them, b), who are not free to change their circumstances in order to build on their strengths and c) who are strongly motivated to change one or more of those behaviors/habits.

3 thoughts on “Changing Habits versus Changing Traits

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  1. As usual, Pierce Howard goes beyond the usual happy talk of people with a program to sell (“Be whoever you want to be in 24 hours!”) and provides balanced prescriptions based on solid data. This is refreshing especially in the psychological realm where most folks say and believe whatever they want regardless of the facts. Keep up the great work Pierce!
    Baird Brightman PhD @ WORKLIFE STRATEGIES [www.wklf.com]

  2. The important but classic debate of fixed determinism and free will or change/choice is now embedded in neuroscience. My years of teaching and clinical practice have made me realize an important factor that goes psychologically into more depth. That factor is attachment. Is attachment hard wired–and if the mother child bond or parental bonds are disrupted–what would the impact be on personality traits?
    Early papers by Bowlby expressed that the mother-child bond was hard wired and had evolutionary purpose to protect the child from predators. Also, that anxiety is an affective response to either separation from a loved one or external threat; and finally, infants and children loss.experience grief when they experience loss. Thus a developmental history background may present an interesting factor to plasticity and interpreting a Big 5 profile.
    There is an excellent paper by Reid Meloy see link.
    http://www.forensis.org/PDF/published_18.pdf

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