A question we often get asked is whether it is possible to actually change one’s personality. This question has interested psychologists for decades, with recent research showing that we are able to shape our personality more than previously thought.

Nature or nurture? Our personalities are shaped in part by our genetics – the “nature” part of the equation. As all parents can attest, we are all born with differences in temperament.  Even from a very early age, we can identify reliable differences in how children respond to stimuli or handle stress. To a surprising degree, the temperament seen in young children, considered by psychologists to be the “building blocks” of later personality, predict the course of our lives. Scratchy, hard-to-soothe children are more likely to react negatively to stress in later life than placid babies.

Of course, temperament interacts with the way we are raised and the experiences we have throughout our lives – the “nurture” part of the equation. By the time we reach adulthood, who you are and how you show up has been shaped by both of these forces, and the important thing to remember is that we can change neither of those things.

For this reason, personality was considered relatively fixed in adulthood. However, for several years, research has been showing that personality does shift in adulthood. The latest research shows that people become more prudent, emotionally stable, and assertive as they pass into late adulthood, although our energy and intellectual curiosity dwindle after adolescence. However, this can also be seen as a maturational process, rather than a categorical personality change.

The critical question is whether we can actually successfully choose to change our personality and alter our behaviour. Here the evidence is mixed, but hopeful. Consider Bill Gates, who started as a stereotypical computer nerd, became a talented entrepreneur, morphed into an aggressive empire-builder, but then started giving some of his untold millions away to charity.

First, we must follow Aristotle’s famous dictum, “Know thyself!”.  Self-awareness is the necessary first step in beginning to change.

Second, in order to shift our personality traits, we need to act (and act consistently) in ways that do not come as naturally to us. A shy person who wants to become more extroverted might deliberately seek out opportunities to meet and interact with new people, or take on opportunities to lead others or be in the spotlight. These changes will be difficult and tiring since they require energy to pursue and conscious thought to do.

Third, we need to concentrate on small, attainable changes, rather than big dramatic shifts. Aggressive and confident leaders who talk too much might do better by scheduling active listening time into meetings than by declaring that they will now be warm and fuzzy leaders.

Finally, practice makes perfect. The more we behave differently, the more we gradually shape our personalities, and the easier and more comfortable acting this way becomes. This shaping happens because the more our brain does any one thing, the more developed the pathway for doing that thing becomes, even if it goes against our “natural” inclination.

It’s important to say that making these efforts is unlikely to make us completely different people. Very few people totally change their social identity or how they see themselves. These efforts are more like subtle “tweaks” to the way we routinely interact with the world and those around us.

There are a couple of catches worth mentioning.  Recent research howed that people who set goals to change their personality traits but didn’t follow through on those goals actually  became lesslike they wanted – for example, those who wanted to become more open-minded and set goals to do activities that opened their minds but didn’t actually do them became lessopen-minded over the course of the research.

And, ironically, personality predicts how successful you will be in changing your personality. Neurotic and insecure people are more likely to change, whereas highly adjusted and resilient individuals are less changeable. Likewise, optimism tends to breeds overconfidence and hinders change by perpetuating false hopes and unrealistic expectations.

So, the takeaway message? If you really do want to shape your personality toward more or less of a certain trait, you can do so, but you need to set goals and plans you can stick to and follow through on them.

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(Thanks to Dave Winsborough for reviewing this post)