“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” This ancient quote sums up the long-held view that our personality is fixed from childhood and nothing much changes after that.
But after years of observing the brain’s continued plasticity (ability to change), scientists firmly believe that this concept is no longer true. Our personality traits aren’t set in stone, and there’s evidence that we can change throughout our whole lives. In particular, a new study reported in the journal Psychological Bulletin shows that mental health treatments—including antidepressants, psychotherapy, reflective therapy, inter-personal therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)—can alter personality, especially when it comes to neuroticism. Neuroticism, one of the five common personality traits (along with openness, conscientiousness, extroversion/introversion, and agreeableness) is thought to be a driver of anxiety, moodiness, and depression. Some clinical psychologists see it at the core of every form of mental illness, from drug and alcohol abuse to depression and panic disorder.
“This really is definitive evidence that the idea that personality doesn’t change is wrong,” Brent Roberts, PhD, from the Psychology Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Science Daily. “We’re not saying personality dramatically reorganizes itself. You’re not taking an introvert and making them into an extravert. But this reveals that personality does develop and it can be developed.”
Dr. Roberts has studied personality traits for over 20 years. He’d seen evidence that factors such as life events can change someone’s personality, and he wondered whether direct intervention could do the same. So he turned to existing studies for an answer, in the end reviewing more than 200 research projects that tracked the progress of more than 20,000 people after various interventions. Patients included those with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, as well as some who were being treated for substance abuse. “We weren’t interested in certain types of therapies per se,” says Professor Roberts, “But we organized the data according to the different therapeutic modules that are used in clinical psychology.”
Because the clinicians involved had kept careful records, it was possible for Dr. Roberts to measure whether patients had changed their personalities and whether the change stuck around after the treatment ended. Based on questionnaires filled out before and after the treatments, which lasted 24 weeks on average, the patients became significantly less neurotic and a bit more extraverted after the interventions than they were beforehand. Many patients reported improvements in their outlook and well-being, with many saying the effects were long-lasting. Patients with emotional and anxiety issues changed the most.
Ultimately, Dr. Roberts found that there was no significant difference between the interventions. It was the intervention itself which seems to trigger the change. So if you’re currently in therapy, keep persevering, and watch for signs your therapy is working.
If interventions like CBT can change personality traits permanently, perhaps they could be used in other settings? “I’m interested to take what I’ve found from this and transport it into situations like classrooms, where we might be helping people to change their personality for the better,” says Dr. Roberts. “I’m very curious about what we can learn.”