But these aren’t the kind of changes that most people who buy self-development books are most interested in. They want to know whether they can change their personalities because they want to. Instead of changing jobs, entering a long-term relationship, or adopting a new identity, can people change their personalities intentionally?
Some studies hint at this possibility. One 2006 study found that college students who were concerned that they were becoming boring people increased their binge-drinking behavior in the hopes that they would become a more interesting person (I wouldn’t recommend this method!). Another study, from 2011, found that students strategically chose extracurricular activities that they thought would boost certain desirable characteristics, such as leadership.
More recently, Nathan Hudson and Chris Fraley, researchers at Michigan State University and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, respectively, looked at a sample of undergraduates who declared their goals to change their personality across a variety of dimensions (e.g., “I want to be more talkative”) at the beginning of a 16-week semester. Then, each week, they took personality tests to measure personality growth over time.
To help certain participants with their goals, the researchers randomly assigned half of the students to engage in a “goal-setting” intervention. In this condition, the researchers reminded the students of the traits they most wanted to change and asked them to come up with specific and concrete steps (e.g., “Call Andrew and ask him to lunch on Tuesday) and to generate “if … then” implementation plans (e.g., “If I feel stressed, then I will call my mom to talk about it”). The participants were also warned that very broad goals, such as “I want to be more self-disciplined and self-controlled,” were too vague to cause any lasting change.
Over the course of the semester, the student’s goals to change their extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability appeared to inspire actual growth in the desired direction. For example, people who said they wanted to be emotionally stable “more than they currently are” actually increased their emotional stability each month. What’s more, people who came up with concrete plans for reaching their goals showed much greater changes in extraversion, conscientiousness, and emotional stability than those in the control group. However, the intervention did not boost growth in agreeableness beyond merely wanting to be more agreeable.
As promising as these results sound, it’s important to point out that the effects were moderate in size. The changes happened slowly over the course of the semester, and resulted in some, but not radical, change. Rather than a knock against Hudson and Fraley’s methods, this finding points toward a commonly misunderstood truth about personal growth. According to Janet Polivy and Peter Herman, at University of Toronto, many people fail in reaching their personal-development goals because they have unrealistic expectations about the speed, amount, ease, and consequences of attempts at self-change—a phenomenon they call “false hope syndrome.”