How to solve the world’s problems? Change everybody’s personality

Psychologists say personality traits, that tend to be stable, can be manipulated.

Psychologists say personality traits, that tend to be stable, can be manipulated. Photo: Getty

Friends, it’s time to pull your head out of the feeding trough, give voice to your regrets and make a bunch of promises for the New Year that are bound to die quicker than butterflies.

You want to lose weight, cut down on drinking, get more out of life than just being an ornament on the couch, be kinder and more generous, keep your temper in check but at the same time be more assertive about the things that matter – and overall you pledge to work harder while also being there for your loved ones.

The New Year’s Resolution is a lovely idea but there’s one problem: an overwhelming society-sized lack of resolve to stick to them.

But something’s got to give, right?

So how to go about it and – just like all those people on talent shows – change your life with earnest affirmations? Repeating “I’m skinny and sexy and can sing better than anyone else ever” only goes far.

A self-help book on changing habits? Self-help books are terrific… for leading people to buy more self-help books.

Should you see a life coach, swimming coach, food coach? Sure. There are plenty of people keen to help you. Which is nice. But they’re only useful for as long as you can afford them – or put up with their hectoring pieties.

And there’s a fundamental problem here: If we can’t change ourselves, how can the world somehow become a kinder and more reasonable place?

Psychologists suggest targeting our personalities

An international group of researchers – spunkily called the Personality Change Consortium – has just published a review of recent research in personality science which “points to the possibility that personality traits can change through persistent intervention and major life events.”

They note that it’s long been believed that “people can’t change their personalities, which are largely stable and inherited.”

From toga times, it’ has been thought that personality is made up of different ingredients – except we call them traits – that each occur on a continuum of intensity.

The long history and ongoing argument about traits can be found here.

Famous Greek physician Hippocrates thought there were four traits, not five. Photo: Wikipedia/Creative commons

According to the ancient physician Hippocrates, we were made up of four types of temperament  – sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic.

Today, many personality psychologists are committed to the Big Five model – five traits that are thought to be stable and inherited. Four of them, according to a 2010 study, have been linked to particular brain structures:

  • Neuroticism (short version: negativity) is linked to a smaller medial prefrontal cortex, believed to regulate emotion.
  • Extraversion (assertive, go-getters) is linked to a larger-than-average orbitofrontal cortex, an area that lights up when the brain registers rewards.
  • Openness to experience (experimental and creative) wasn’t linked with particular brain activity in the 2010 study.
  • Agreeableness (getting on with people) is enhanced by regions that process information about the intentions and mental states of other individuals.
  • Conscientiousness (disciplined and well-ordered thinking) is linked to a larger-than-average lateral prefrontal cortex, where planning, problem-solving and decision-making is governed.

These traits, then, have to be reckoned with if we are to make personal changes such as exercising more and not getting on other people’s nerves quite as much.

As the researchers from the Personality Change Consortium observe, these five traits can “predict a wide range of important outcomes such as health, happiness and income” – and because of this, “these traits might represent an important target for policy interventions designed to improve human welfare.”

The ethical conversation, however, is one we will return to in the future. Too big and messy to be dealt with here.

Personality does seem to be a powerful force

A 2014 study found that personality “outsmarts intelligence at school”  –and that conscientiousness (steadily working away) and openness (curiosity) were the keys key to learning.

But how can we boost these traits in ourselves when they appear to appear in our DNA. A 2015 study examined the relationship between personality and patterns of gene expression.

The researchers found that extraversion was associated with increased expression of pro-inflammatory genes. Conscientiousness was associated with reduced expression of pro-inflammatory genes. The associations were independent of health behaviours.

Associate Professor Wiebke Bleidorn, director of the Personality Change Lab and co-founder of the Personality Change Consortium. Photo: UC Davis  

Associate Professor Wiebke Bleidorn is the director of the Personality Change Lab at the University of California, Davis. She founded the Personality Change Consortium with Dr Christopher Hopwood, a professor of psychology who co-authored the study.

“In this paper, we present the case that traits can serve both as relatively stable predictors of success and actionable targets for policy changes and interventions,” Dr Bleidorn said in a prepared statement.

The authors say strong evidence suggests that personality traits are broad enough to account for a wide range of socially important behaviours “at levels that surpass known predictors, and that they can change, especially if you catch people at the right age and exert sustained effort.”

The authors said there were “important questions that could be more informed by personality science”.

These include: What is the long-term impact of social media and video games? How do we get children to be kinder and work harder at school? How do we help people acculturate to new environments? And, what is the best way to help people age with grace and dignity?

There remains the big challenge

The Big Five traits remain relatively stable and, “thus while they can change, they are not easy to change”.

Oddly enough, the key may come from the self-help library of clichés: fake it til you make it.

That was the main take-away from a September study – spookily titled ‘Experimental manipulation of extraverted and introverted behaviour and its effects on well-being‘.

In the experiment, 123 participants were directed to “push the boundaries of their willingness to engage, by acting as extraverts.”

In short, they were told to be “as talkative, assertive, and spontaneous as they could stand” for a week.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a professor in the Department of Psychology University of UC Riverside and author of the bestseller The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Photo: UC Davis

Later, the same group was told to be “deliberate, quiet, and reserved” for a week.

Three times a week, participants were reminded of the behavioural change via emails.

A statement from the University of California, Riverside says: “According to all measures of well-being, participants reported greater well-being after the extraversion week, and decreases in well-being after the introversion week.”

Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, is author of the bestseller The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.

In a statement, Dr Lyubomirsky said the experiment  showed that “a manipulation to increase extraverted behaviour substantially improved well-being.

“Manipulating personality-relevant behaviour over as long as a week may be easier than previously thought, and the effects can be surprisingly powerful.”

Which brings us back to the Personality Change Consortium and how they believe these traits can be changed. The short version: Get them young, and go hard.

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