Personality changes: 4 key elements may help establish new traits

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Research shows that personalities can change over time. Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images
  • A new review offers guidance for people wishing to change their personalities in some way.
  • While our personalities remain stable across our lives, they also remain at least somewhat malleable, finds the review.
  • The authors found four elements that provide support for a personality change: pre-conditions, triggers, reinforcers, and integrators.

Effortlessly reconnecting with an old friend reminds us how little our personalities tend to change over time. Still, there may at times be a desire to change, and hopefully improve, who we are. There may also be wounds our personalities have suffered that we would like to undo.

A new review explores in detail the factors that enable or inhibit personality change. It offers a sort of rough roadmap for making such modifications, exposing some of the obstacles that can make permanent change difficult, and how to overcome them.

Our personalities may limit our access to things we want in life. We may wish to be less lonely, less anxious, more successful, or simply happier, with attitude adjustments our current personalities seem incapable of sufficiently supporting.

One of the review’s fascinating insights is that, although one’s personality tends to be largely stable over the long term, it never quite solidifies, remaining malleable across one’s lifespan.

Therefore, while we are unlikely to be able to entirely change the people we are, the review suggests that making modest changes to one’s personality is possible, and attempts to explain how a person might be able to make that happen.

The review is published in Nature Reviews Psychology.

The review’s authors present a quartet of mechanisms involved in personality change, which can also inhibit it if not understood.

Psychologist Dr. Carl Nassar, who was not involved in the review, described them:

  • Pre-conditions — Set yourself up for change
  • Triggers — Set your environment up for change
  • Reinforcers — Set your environment up to reinforce the change
  • Integrators — Make the change something you do in as many places as possible.

Overall, the goal of all four together is to help a person establish new personality habits that in time may become automatic.

Dr. Nassar noted that before getting started, however, “You’ll have to first do the work of identifying the parts of your personality you’d like to change and then take the time to uncover preconditions, triggers, reinforcers, and integrators that will truly support this change. That’s no easy task.”

“If you want to proceed, my advice would be: Don’t do this alone,” said Dr. Nassar.

He explained that people who know you are likely to have helpful insights to offer about your current behavior, and can help motivate you as you enact change, serving as your triggers and reinforcers.

Dr. Emily Moore of Stanford Medicine, who was also not involved in the review, considered the four mechanisms to be “a rough outline for how to begin modifying your personality.”

“Specifically, you would want to minimize the presence of mechanisms that reinforce personality stability — e.g., consistent environment, lack of insight — and slowly introduce preconditions, triggers, reinforcers, and integrators that are in line with the personality you desire,” she said.

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