If the self-help industry is to be believed, no one is perfectly content with their own personality—everyone wants to know how to win friends, become more charismatic, or learn to be assertive. It may not be as hard as you thought, though. Changing your personality may just be a matter of goal-setting, according to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Just as your personality changes over a lifetime—theoretically becoming more agreeable and conscientious as you mature—actively deciding to change some aspect of your personality can help you move in that direction.
In two 16-week experiments conducted by psychologists Nathan Hudson and R. Chris Fraley of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, participants focused on changing their personalities in at least one area of what psychologists call the Big Five personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability/neuroticism, and openness to experience. Out of 135 subjects drawn from an undergraduate psych class, some people were asked to create a plan to make the personality changes they desired—goals they were asked to re-evaluate each week. Participants in the control group merely evaluated their own personality traits.
In respect to extraversion, having a stated goal did predict whether or not participants would report changes in their personality, though the effect was limited to the more narrow personality change they wanted to make. So participants who wanted to become more gregarious, for instance, moved toward that goal, but didn’t experiences changes in the broader category of extraversion (at least not in the short study period).
In a follow-up trial with 151 students, participants also provided ratings of their trait-relevant daily behavior, in addition to the goal-tracking used in the previous test. Again, those who thought of goals to change their personalities experienced greater changes in the direction of their goals. People who wanted to become more extraverted and agreeable reported more behaviors relevant to those personality changes on a daily basis, too.
As the researchers write, “people who want to increase in extraversion may modify their thoughts, feelings, and behavior to be more extraverted—which in turn may calcify into lasting increases in trait-extraversion.” In other words, people will try to act like the extraverted person they want to be, thus in time becoming truly extraverted. Or, if setting goals to be more extraverted changed their identity in regards to their own extraversion, this would translate into more extraverted behavior.
One caveat: The study solely evaluated personality changes via the participant’s own reports on their personality, and it’s possible that people might over-report their own progress, believing they have become much more conscientious than they really have, for instance.