“That guy is an asshole.”
We all know that guy. Maybe he is a friend from high school. Maybe he is your older brother. Maybe he is you.
That guy has been an asshole all his adult life. He never changes.
But then, one day, he does. You meet him in the K-mart parking lot, and he is profoundly and truly different. Perhaps marriage changed him, perhaps children. Perhaps, like a prized Bordeaux, he simply improved with age.
Most of us know someone (like this asshole) who has changed his personality, or at least seemed to. So yes, personality change is possible, even as an adult. But can this change be intentional, or must it be left to the whims of fate, chance, and life experience?
A case of radical personality change (with a capital “R”)
You never want to be a noteworthy case in the medical literature, and Phineas Gage is certainly one of those.
Phineas was a healthy, 25-year-old railroad foreman whose date with infamy occurred while blasting rock near Cavendish, Vermont in 1848. If there is a lesson to be learned from his accident, it is to not position your head over a hole filled with gun powder while tamping it down with a three-foot metal rod.
And leave a mark it did: among other damage, it destroyed his left eye and significant portions of the frontal lobes of his brain. Incredibly, the otherwise young and healthy Mr. Gage survived only moderately worse for the wear.
Surviving such a devastating physical injury would have been noteworthy in itself, but that is not why Phineas has his own Wikipedia page. While his physical recovery was near-complete (apart from vision, obv), his friends and family reported remarkable changes in his personality after the accident—for the worse.
Pre-massive-headwound Phineas was hard-working, responsible, and well liked by his peers, but after the accident, Phineas was a changed man. “Fitful, irreverent…impatient…at times obstinate…capricious…gross, profane, coarse, and vulgar” were some of the adjectives used to describe his post-accident personality.
You see, the frontal lobes play a key role in high-level brain functions—including motivation, planning and social interaction—and damage to them can result in behavioral and emotional changes described in Mr. Gage.
Rather than a trip to the quarry with a crowbar, some TNT, and a bottle of whisky, are there less dramatic methods to change personality?
What is personality?
I had always thought of personality as this…thing…that people just…had. Uncle Bill yells at cats and drinks pickle juice; it’s his “personality.” But modern psychologists are in near consensus that we can boil down personality to five major core traits: extraversion, conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Extraversion is epitomized by the so-called “life of the party.” Individuals high in extraversion are social and outgoing, and harness energy from interactions with others. Those with the opposite trait—introversion—prefer and even need solitude, and gain energy from time alone.
Individuals with a high level of conscientiousness are organized and thoughtful, with good impulse control. This is the guy or gal at the office on whom you can depend to get the job done. Those low in this trait are sloppy procrastinators.
A high level of openness indicates open-mindedness and a willingness to try new things; these individuals are highly imaginative and creative. People with a low level of openness embrace routine and resist change.
Mr. Rogers (who actually lived in my neighborhood) would have scored high in agreeableness. These individuals are kind, helpful, friendly, and empathic. The opposite individuals are, well, assholes.
Neuroticism is the tendency to easily experience negative emotions. Those high in this trait are moody, anxious, and emotionally labile. The opposite of neuroticism is emotional stability.
Each of us falls somewhere along the spectrum for each of these traits, and this shapes overall personality.
Personality: Nature vs nurture?
How we develop our personality is far from agreed upon among psychologists. Elements of genetics (nature) and environment (nurture) are involved. Most estimate the degree of influence of nature and nurture at about 50% each.
Thus, if your mom and dad are both assholes, then you’ve got at least a 50% chance of being one too. I’m being facetious here, but you get the idea: genetics play a large role in our adult personalities.
The contribution of social environment and life events, i.e. nurture, to personality is less straightforward. Traditional teaching places the influence of nurture squarely on the parents. I have been convinced otherwise, and believe peer group is much more important.
Fear and loathing in Pittsburgh
Everyone has personality quirks and idiosyncrasies that they would like to rid themselves of. I am no exception.
Rather than expound upon all my psychological defects for the next 2000 words (and I could), I’ll focus on a few salient problems in this brief auto-psychoanalysis.
Introversion: I skew hard toward introvert on the extraversion/introversion scale, with social anxiety sprinkled on top. Entering a room full of strangers with the expectation of mingling is nothing short of a nightmare. Dr-Mrs-Dr. Curious tells me I hide it well, but I certainly feel it inside.
Fear: John Lennon supposedly said, “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love.” A bit schmaltzy, and the stuff of inspirational posters but, in my opinion, profoundly true. In my own decisions, I strive (and struggle) to use love as a motivating factor rather than fear.
Fear plays an evolutionary role in keeping us alive, but too much is paralyzing. It is a complex emotion connected to multiple personality traits. In my own personality, I suspect tendencies toward neuroticism and a lack of openness are partly to blame.
Appeasement: I’m a people pleaser, and I generally avoid conflict like the plague. At base, I care too much what others think of me. I give far too much weight to how my life choices will appear to those close to me, or even strangers, rather than what they mean to me.
This one is tricky to pin to a specific personality trait. It is related to fear, and thus the underlying neuroticism and lack of openness. My introversion likely contributes as well; I spend a lot of time inside my own mind, and as a result tend to over-think and over-analyze people and situations.
Anger: Yeah, I’ve got the stereotypical Irish temper. I learned to quell outward emotional bursts of anger many years ago, but I still feel that unmistakable rise and flush when some fool does me wrong. I’m not sure if this qualifies as scoring low on the agreeableness scale, but I’ve been told on good authority that I sometimes approach asshole territory.
Up until the 1990s, psychology dogma had claimed that personality did not change in adulthood. Research over the past few decades, however, has contradicted these formerly held beliefs.
Individual personality can and does change in young adulthood through old age. The average personality traits of populations also change, and in a predictable way: middle-aged individuals score higher than young adults on conscientiousness and agreeableness (damn kids!) and lower on openness, neuroticism, and extraversion.
Research regarding intentional personality change in “normal” individuals is hard to find online. A small Australian study seemed to indicate that it was possible via “personality change coaching.” Participants chatted with counselors (coaches) over a 10-week period, and the results suggested that personality traits can change over even this short period of time, and that the participants viewed the changes as “worthwhile and practically relevant.”
The techniques used to coach and change personality traits were eclectic and tailored both to the targeted trait (or sub-trait) and to the individual participant. More important than the actual techniques were the fact that it worked, at least in this small study.
Do I want to change my personality?
Let me kill the suspense: I have not yet hired a personality coach. But even if I could, would I want to? What impact would positive changes in one or more of my personality traits have on my life?
At least one large meta-analysis suggests that higher levels of extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness and lower levels of neuroticism were associated with more positive life outcomes. Increased extraversion, for example, is correlated with improved friendships and romantic relationships, increased life satisfaction, and more meaningful community involvement.
Armed with this information, some might still hesitate to attempt personality change. After all, isn’t personality who we are? Would we even be the same people after changing it?
At the risk of getting too deep and metaphysical, I don’t think these concerns are valid. We carry the same bodies with us throughout our lives, but what we think of as our “self”—our thoughts, feelings, desires, interactions with others, and even personalities—are in a constant state of flux throughout our lives.
So yes, I would (and should) want to change my personality if I could. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Do you have personality traits you would like to change, if you could? What are they? How might your life be different if you could change?