One More Time—Can We Change?

Last week Jeremy Dean’s PsyBlog posted “Tested: Whether You Can Change Your Personality At Will,”
and then a day later posted “8 Psych Tips for Changing Yourself and Other People.” He reported on a study that found many people desirous of being more extraverted, more agreeable, and more conscientious—all three familiar Big Five traits. Said differently, many people would like to be nicer and more self-disciplined. Hmmm… Nothing new there. 1,959 years ago, plus or minus a few days, the apostle Paul penned an epistle to the Romans, lamenting with them “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (7:19, King James version)

So, with respect to a common malaise among us imperfect souls, nothing has changed. Society has long valued being nice and being self-disciplined, and individuals have repeatedly lamented their shortcomings in that regard. However, in Dean’s piece, new research suggested that such change was possible. Based on a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dean said individuals showed significant change in behavior (e.g., shaking hands and smiling more frequently) over the course of 16 weeks.

The conclusion of the average reader of both of Dean’s posts would likely be that, if you want to be different, trait-wise, go right ahead. No problem. Make up your mind to smile ten more times daily, to make eye contact with significant others while conversing, or to read a book a month, and you’re a new person. A changed person. Well, at least for 16 weeks.

Here’s my concern with this research and with Dean’s reporting:

  • Most people can keep a new habit going for 16 weeks.
  • People can temporarily adapt to circumstances.
  • Temporary changes in personality are called “states.”
  • States tend to return to their set point, their normal trait level
  • Permanent personality change is difficult if not impossible.
  • Permanent changes in habits are more likely than permanent changes in traits.
  • Traits comprise thousands of habits.

Even such a simple trait as Warmth has many ways of expressing itself—from giving a pat on the back to writing a thank-you note. To change one habit associated with warmth is possible, but it is not the same thing as changing one’s level of warmth. I can double the number of thank-you notes I write, but that is not likely to make me a warmer person, any more than throwing a rock into the ocean would change it into a rockpile.


The problem with making it sound easy to change one’s personality is that it makes people who try to do so and fail feel guilty. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I change? Permanently?

We can adapt to circumstances—for a while. If I am not naturally warm, I can schmooze at a cocktail party for two hours and do all kinds of warm things—smile, shake hands, laugh at people’s witticisms, hug a friend, compliment someone’s achievement or outfit, listen attentively to long-windedness, ask about someone’s kids/parents, and soSophocles forth. But once I’ve done two hours of warmth—an unnatural role for me—I’m ready for my cocoon. Sophocles warned us around 441 B.C.E. about the cost of not adapting to circumstances, about not sucking it up and doing something for the moment that is not necessarily natural for us. Here is Haemon speaking to his father, Creon, in the play Antigone, hoping to sway the king to back off of a decree to take the life of Haemon’s fiancée, Antigone:

No, though a man be wise, ’tis no shame for him to learn many things, and to bend in season. Seest thou, beside the wintry torrent’s course, how the trees that yield to it save every twig, while the stiff-necked perish root and branch? And even thus he who keeps the sheet of his sail taut, and never slackens it, upsets his boat, and finishes his voyage with keel uppermost. Nay, forego thy wrath; permit thyself to change.

Or, more simply, the tree that doesn’t bend with the wind, cracks. Indeed, we must change as circumstances require. I must be warm on occasion. I must be perfectionistic on occasion. I must exert leadership on occasion. But being a warm, perfectionist leader is not my natural temperament. To attempt to permanently change my temperament in that direction would be well-nigh impossible.

In September of 2013, I posted “Changing Habits versus Changing Traits.” This piece summarized the research on neuroplasticity—the science of behavior change. Here was my conclusion:

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.

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