Can you change your personality?

behavior change
by Deborah Bell

As Vice President, Consulting, Deborah conducts assessments, manages consulting projects, and designs and delivers custom solutions. She enjoys building relationships with her clients and uncovering their needs so she can serve as a trusted adviser and business partner.

For most of the Big Five domains Read More, the answer appears to be yes, but…

It’s important to follow through!

That was one of main findings of a recent study¹ that examined participants over a 15-week period.

Individuals who accepted and completed a greater number of weekly behavioral challenges – which involved displaying specific, concrete behaviors prototypical of high scores on the Big Five domains they wanted to change – experienced more positive growth in those domains by the end of the study. That finding held true for Extraversion, Emotional Stability, and Conscientiousness.

Perhaps most interestingly, individuals who accepted more behavioral challenges, but failed to follow through on them experienced negative growth in that domain (this held true for all domains except Openness/Intellect). In other words, their standing on the domain lowered, relative to their peers, moving in the opposite direction of what their goal was.  

The authors speculate that failing to complete their challenge undermined their motivation to engage in other behavioral changes that would have happened naturally, without experimenter intervention. This seems to indicate that wanting to make a personality change, creating a plan to do so, but not implementing the plan has the potential to backfire.  Consistent with this explanation, another study² done by one of the same authors found that wanting to change a personality trait, but making no progress in doing so, led to worsening well-being over time.

A lot of other research³ suggests that volitional personality change is possible. The gist of how this occurs involves first changing personality states. Initially, this is done through deliberate effort. If we induce those states often enough, it becomes easier and starts to happen automatically. This can ultimately lead to change in a personality trait, which is simply an average of personality states across situations and over time.  

Changing a personality trait is hard work, but there are some things you can do to make it easier. 

Specifically, stress and a lack of sleep deplete cognitive resources that are required to act in a way that does not come naturally to us.  Thus, before attempting to make any changes in your thoughts, feelings, or behavior that you hope to have stick, make sure you’re practicing good sleep hygiene and have effective coping techniques to deal with any stress that you encounter. Then, make sure that you follow through with your plans! 


¹ Hudson, N. W., Briley, D. A., Chopik, W. J., & Derringer, J. (2019). You have to follow through: Attaining behavioral change goals predicts volitional personality change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(4), 839–857.

² Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2016). Changing for the better? Longitudinal associations between volitional personality change and psychological well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(5), 603–615.

³Roberts, B. W., Luo, J., Briley, D. A., Chow, P. I., Su, R., & Hill, P. L. (2017). A systematic review of personality trait change through intervention. Psychological Bulletin, 143(2), 117–141.

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