Is It Ever Too Late to Change Your Personality?

As we go through midlife, we may wonder whether we're permanently stuck with the personality we've had since our youth. Once you reach that certain age, you may worry that you'll be an eternal extrovert or, conversely, forever locked in the introvert's shell you've come to resent. There's a tendency to believe that personality is set in stone, especially if you believe the argument that it's our genes that create that permanent edifice that forever dooms us to be static over time.

We also become discouraged by the behavior of public figures who show no ability, if not inclination, to redefine themselves. This is exactly what happened in April 2016, when presidential candidate Donald Trump announced that he would become more "presidential." Political analysts were skeptical, and indeed, only a few days later the promised change evaporated. So much for personality transformations.

Reinforcing that view of personality as stable is the general gist of one of the most well-known theories in the field of personality known as the "Five Factor Model." This model proposes that you are born with a particular combo of highs and lows on the magic five dispositions known as "OCEAN" (or "CANOE"): openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Fortunately, the view that personality is unchangeable is changing. In a pair of experiments conducted by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychologists Nathan Hudson and Christopher Fraley (2015), undergraduates were coached in changing the traits that bothered them the most. Over a 16-week intensive intervention, students were helped to complete an action plan directed at increasing or decreasing their target trait. In four of the five traits, the IU undergrads actually were able to transform themselves.

The key to change, as noted by Hudson and Fraley, is to make a specific plan to change specific behaviors. Don't just say you're going to be "more outgoing and sociable." Instead, decide that on this particular day, you will make the effort to initiate an interaction with someone else. Call that person you've just met and set up a chat over coffee. You have to commit to making these small changes if you want to see the big changes you desire.

The great thing is that once you start to tinker with the behaviors that bother you, you'll start to change the way you think about yourself. Your narrative goes from "I've always been a worrywart" (high on neuroticism) to "I can feel relaxed if I want to." Seeing yourself as in charge of your personality rather than being run by it may be the key to having your personality suit instead of define you.

Although the personality change study involved undergrads, there's no reason you can't take a page from their playbook. You can change, at any age, especially if the change is one that you truly want.

Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits?. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 109(3), 490-507. doi:10.1037/pspp0000021

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