Do you want to be more productive at work? Do you want to stop worrying so much, or to be more compassionate toward others? If so, you’re not the only one — judging, that is, by the number of self-help books and seminars that tout personality-change regimens. But what does it really take to alter your personality?
In a 2014 article published in the European Journal of Personality, researchers Marie Hennecke (University of Zurich), Wiebke Bleidorn (University of California, Davis), Jaap Denissen (Humboldt-University Berlin), and Dustin Wood (Wake Forest University) presented a framework describing three preconditions for self-directed personality change. According to this framework, in order to successfully alter a personality trait people need to
1. feel that changing the trait is desirable or necessary,
2. consider the change to be feasible, and
3. make a habit of the initial changes.
In the first step of the framework, the behavioral trait change may be “desirable” in and of itself (e.g., becoming more emotionally stable), or as a means to an end (e.g., being liked at work in order to get a promotion). However, the desire or need to change a personality trait is not enough; people also need to believe that such change is actually possible in order to attempt changing the necessary trait-related behaviors. If people consider the change to be feasible, they begin altering their behavior, replacing old behaviors with desired behaviors in situations that relate to their specific goal (for example, becoming friendly and cooperative in interactions with coworkers).
In order for initial behavior changes to turn into stable trait changes, people must consistently enact the desired behavior in the appropriate context. Through consistent pairing, the new behaviors that were at first effortful to enact will become automatized such that certain contexts will act as automatic triggers for the desired trait-related behavior (e.g., instead of having to consciously try to be nice to your colleagues when you see them, you will, over time, unconsciously behave this way in these situations).
Does this type of goal-directed behavior change reflect actual personality change? The authors assert that if multiple sources (e.g., self-reports, peer reports, third-party behavioral observation) all indicate stable and consistent behavioral change over time, then one can assume that the behavioral changes reflect actual personality changes.
We may also ask whether the traits we have influence our goals or whether our goals influence our traits — the proverbial “chicken and the egg” question. The authors argued in this paper that our goals can influence our traits and drive changes in them. Longitudinal studies that examine the desirability of personality traits, personal goals, and personality change over time using multiple measurement methods will expand our understanding of the relationship between goals and self-directed personality change.
Hennecke, M., Bleidorn, W., Denissen, J. J., & Wood, D. (2014). A Three‐part framework for self‐regulated personality development across adulthood. European Journal of Personality, 28, 289–299.