To see personality in action, look no further than Washington State’s Stevens Pass ski resort circa 1993.
At the top of Hogsback Express, you can see my brother, not yet four feet tall, wearing a neon orange motorcycle helmet wider than his shoulders and already a natural born daredevil. He points his skis straight down the mountain and takes off, knees bent, body crouched, skis locked in position.
If you look back up the mountain as he whizzes by, you can see me. I’m skiing horizontally across the mountain (slow and cautious as ever), reaching the far side, stopping to turn my skis around, then skiing back across the mountain—my skis perfectly perpendicular to my brother’s. (A brother from another mother, if ever there was one.)
If you ask my parents what it was like to raise me and my brother—two wildly different kids—they'll probably say that it was like trying to shape a mold that’s already started to set.
Personality is a collection of patterns—of thought, behavior and feeling—that make up who you are. As any parent suspects, it’s partly (but not entirely) genetic. You surely know from experience that you can change your mind, your actions and your feelings. That means your personality can change too, whether you set out to better yourself or just take life as it comes.
But psychologists didn’t always believe that.
At the turn of the 20th century, when psychology was still in its infancy, Freud suggested that sometime around age five (when kids supposedly resolved their desire to have sex with one parent and kill the other), personality was fully developed. Whoever you were at five was the same person you’d be at 50.
Around the same time, psychologist William James proposed what became known as the “plaster hypothesis,” based on his famous quote that “by the age of 30, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” In that view, your personality was set in stone by the end of young adulthood.
James’ theory held until the mid-90s when scientists starting thinking that didn’t sound quite right.
Personality researchers went back to the drawing board, setting up experiments to test whether the “Big 5” personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism—actually change over the lifespan.
Turns out, they do.
Not only do people change, they tend to change in predictable ways. As you get older, your personality generally improves, a trend known as the “maturity principle.” While you might look at your parents and think they’re sorely set in their ways, they’ve most likely become more agreeable, more conscientious and less neurotic (or more emotionally stable) as they’ve aged. If your mom's stubbornness drives you crazy, imagine what she must have been like at 20.
Most personality changes are natural responses to normal life transitions like going to college, having kids or retiring. In fact, one of the most common personality trends is that people become more conscientious as they enter the workforce and less after they retire. That makes sense, since keeping your job requires all of the skills that conscientious people excel at—skills such as organization, self-discipline, thoroughness and drive to achieve.
In fact, these normal life transitions might spur change better than dramatic, unexpected transitions that totally upend your world (like getting divorced or losing your job).
“Unexpected and unpredictable events are threatening and likely to provoke a need for stability,” explains Wiebke Bliedorn, Ph.D., a personality researcher at the University of Bielefeld in Germany, citing a 1993 study. On the flip side, the normal life stages we all go through come with clear expectations and demands, so they offer more security and we feel freer to grow.
For a small-scale example of the same idea, picture me again on the ski slope. If my parents drop me on the mountain by myself, I become more cautious because I’m totally freaked out by the prospect of getting down. But if they ski next to me, showing me what to do, I feel safer and take more risks.
Challenging yourself to step outside your comfort zone (or being forced to by parents who really like skiing) can speed up the process of change, and give you a chance to grow.
For most of us, changing our personalities seems like a daunting (even impossible) task. But before you throw in the towel, let’s go back to what personality is: patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. Lasting changes in those patterns are changes in personality, so anything that challenges you to break your patterns—to think, feel or act differently—can influence your personality.
Say you decide to enter therapy because you feel shy and have trouble making friends. The therapist might help you recognize that you believe others won’t like you because you’re shy (a pattern of thinking), you feel anxious in social situations (a pattern of feeling), and you avoid those situations to alleviate the anxiety (a pattern of behaving).
To help you become more extroverted, the therapist might have you “fake it ‘til you make it.” In other words, she would teach you to go into a social setting and pretend like you feel comfortable talking to others. The more you try out new behaviors—starting a conversation with a stranger, inviting a co-worker to lunch—the more you’ll realize that people actually do like you if you appear to like them. You’ll feel more comfortable in social situations and start socializing more. Slowly, you’ll start to develop new patterns.
As you do, those patterns begin building new pathways in your brain and by the time your personality has really changed, your brain has, too. “Personality is a result of one’s neurophysiological structures,” says Joshua Jackson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. “Personality change—versus simply being more agreeable while your boss is breathing down your neck—would lead to changes in the brain.”
By the same token, some people’s brains may make them more open to change. People who thrive on novelty (with a dose of persistence and an active imagination) may grow more, probably because they put themselves in new and challenging situations.
But don’t get the idea that a wallflower can ever become Kanye West. “There’s definitely something about you that you’re bringing to all these new situations across time,” says Jackson. “No one is going from complete introvert to complete extrovert.”
Psychologists think of it this way: Imagine that you line up a group of teenagers in order from the least to the most extroverted. If you follow up with them when they’re 60, they’ll be in roughly the same order.
However, all of them may have shifted in the same direction. For the most part, they will all become more conscientious, more agreeable and less neurotic. Relative to each other, they haven’t changed, but relative to themselves, they have.
Today, my brother and I are like evolved versions of our early 90s selves. The cautious little girl I was is still in there, but I’m more daring, excited to tear down a ski slope. My brother (after skiing off a cliff in middle school) is a bit more careful now and turns his skis at least a few times before the bottom of the run.
Which, really, is quite a change.
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