It has long been thought that our personality is a set of stable characteristics. But is it? Perhaps we can change faster than we think.
THE BIG FIVE
According to psychologists, the Big Five personality traits shape personality. What does it include?
- neuroticism (and the opposite pole – emotional stability),
- openness to new experiences.
These traits are thought to become stable as we become adults. They may change, but the changes are gradual. Personality traits influence our social relationships, success, mental and physical health and other areas of life.
In 2017, psychologists from the University of Chicago published a study that suggests personality is much more fluid than we think. Researchers analysed more than 200 clinical studies in an attempt to understand how different types of psychotherapy and medication affected the character of people with mental illness.
It was found that personality traits changed over a relatively short period of time, from two to 16 weeks of treatment. The participants showed an increase in extraversion and a decrease on the neuroticism scale. Agreeableness and conscientiousness also gradually increased.
The results surprised the author of the study, Professor of Psychology Brent Roberts: “We had no idea that personality traits could be changed in just a few weeks or months. Years, yes, but months!”
The analysis showed that the changes were not temporary, but persisted long after the treatment had ended. We were talking about a real change in personality, not the temporary change in mood that occurs when symptoms of depression or anxiety disorder are relieved.
“Psychotherapists don’t just help patients to feel better, for example by relieving symptoms of depression,” stresses Brent Roberts. – They also equip clients with a tool that will help them at the end of therapy.”
Importantly, the degree of personal change is influenced by the client’s reason for seeking help. Patients with anxiety and personality disorders changed the most. Patients who abused drugs, alcohol or had an eating disorder changed the least. Researchers have not been able to determine the cause of the differences.
The results of the study suggest that we should rethink personality. We think of personality as a set of stable characteristics, but that doesn’t always seem to hold true. The next step is to find out how changes occur during therapy. It may not be because of specific treatments, but because of the underlying principle of psychotherapy: therapists give care and attention, and this triggers a process of positive change.