We often grow up hearing clichés like “A leopard can’t change its spots” or “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” These sayings reinforce the belief that fundamental aspects of our personalities remain static throughout our lives. But is it really true? Can our personalities truly remain the same? Research increasingly suggests that personality, far from being an immutable essence, is more fluid than previously thought.
Traditionally, many psychologists defined personality as a set of relatively enduring and consistent characteristics that influence one’s thinking, feelings, and behaviours. The Big Five personality traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism – are often used as a benchmark to describe and evaluate personality. These traits, however, aren’t set in stone.
Factors influencing personality changes
Several factors can drive changes in an individual’s personality:
- Life experiences. Major life events, be they traumatic experiences or significant life transitions such as moving to a new city or starting a new job, can induce changes in personality. For instance, someone who was once introverted might become more extraverted after spending a year travelling and meeting diverse groups of people.
- Ageing. It’s well documented that certain traits alter as we grow older. Studies have shown, for example, that conscientiousness and agreeableness generally increase as we age, while neuroticism and openness tend to decrease.
- Therapy and interventions. Therapeutic interventions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can lead to changes in personality traits. An individual seeking therapy for anxiety, a feature of neuroticism, may find that they become less neurotic as a result of successful treatment.
- Social and environmental context. Our surroundings play a role too. The culture, social norms, and values of where we live can shape our personalities. A Pew Research Center study highlighted that personalities of individuals in different countries changed over a few decades, likely influenced by shifts in cultural and socio-economic conditions.
The malleability of personality
Several studies offer tangible proof of our capacity for change. A noteworthy example is a 2009 study which found that while personality traits show stability over a five-year period, they can exhibit significant change over several decades. This suggests that while we might feel “fixed” in the short term, the longer arc of our lives tells a story of evolution.
Moreover, another enlightening 2017 study indicated that both self-perceptions of personality and personality itself could be intentionally changed within mere weeks. Participants who underwent a 15-week intervention focusing on changing specific personality traits, such as increasing their extroversion or decreasing neuroticism, were not only successful in doing so but also maintained these changes months later.
The significance of fluidity
Recognising that our personalities are not fixed has profound implications. It means that individuals aren’t confined to predetermined boxes, nor are they fated to remain a particular way if they desire change. This perspective provides hope to those who wish to evolve and grow, dispelling the myth that we’re perpetually bound by the characteristics we exhibited in our youth.
Additionally, understanding this fluidity is crucial in spheres like clinical psychology. It signifies that therapeutic interventions can be designed not only to treat specific disorders but also to facilitate desired personality changes, thereby improving an individual’s overall well-being.
Embracing the potential for change
In conclusion, while certain aspects of our personalities might remain stable over short periods, the entirety of our lives is a testament to the human capacity for change. As individuals, it’s liberating to realise that we hold the potential to reshape and redefine who we are. As we navigate the twists and turns of life, we should take solace in the fact that change is not just possible, it’s a fundamental part of the human experience.
Charlie Aloware is a psychotherapist and freelance writer, who believes in the endless spectrum of human adaptability.