TUCSON, Ariz. — Is your personality set in stone? A University of Arizona study finds some things are hard to change, unless you get some get help along the way. Researcher Erica Baranski says time and life circumstances are factors which help give people the attitude adjustment they’re looking for.

College, marriage, and retirement are just a few of the major life events that alter a personality. Baranski’s study questions whether people can change certain aspects of themselves just by pure will, regardless of their circumstances.

Researchers studied two groups: 500 adults between 19 and 62 years-old and 360 college students. They measured five key personality traits of both groups: extroversion (outgoingness), conscientiousness (mindfulness), agreeableness, openness to experiences, and neuroticism (emotional stability). The study also asked participants if they have a desire to change anything about themselves. If their answer was yes, they were asked to write a description of what they wanted to change.

Sometimes, changing your personality makes things worse

Members of both groups generally wanted to increase their outgoingness, mindfulness, and emotional stability. Six months in the study, college students were surveyed again. The remaining adult participants were surveyed one year later. Results show that both groups were unable to achieve the personality goals they set for themselves. For some, the opposite actually happened and unwanted changes emerged.

“In both samples, the desire to change at ‘time one’ did not predict actual change in the desired direction at all at ‘time two,’” Baranski says in a university release, a postdoctoral psychology researcher in the University of Arizona Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance. “In the general population sample, we didn’t find that personality change goals predicted any change in any direction.”

College students did see some changes in their personality, even picking up traits other than what they desired. For example, students who craved to improve conscientiousness often became less conscientious over the six months. Baranski states these students may have already had low conscientiousness, putting them at a disadvantage from the start.

Younger people are more susceptible to change

Students seeking to be more extroverted however, are actually seeing their agreeableness and emotional stability rise. Baranski suggests these young adults indirectly put their energy into being less anxious and more friendly; traits which line up with all three characteristics.

The authors add that college students seem to go through more changes in personality than the general population. Students may have trouble aligning their desired goals with reality, due to the many changes occurring in their lives.

“College students are thrown into this new environment, and they may be unhappy and may look within selves to become happier and change some aspect of their personality,” Baranski explains. “There is a bombardment of other things that they’re told they need to achieve, like doing well in a class or choosing a major or getting an internship, and those goals might take precedence. Even though they know more sustained and introspective change might be better, the short-term effort is more attractive and more necessary in the moment.”

For future studies, Baranski recommends looking at how professional intervention helps people make the positive changes they’re looking for in themselves.

“Across all the studies that have been done on this topic over the last several years, it’s clear that most people want to change an aspect of their personality,” the psychology researcher says. “If left unattended, those goals aren’t achieved, so it would be helpful for people who have those goals to know what is necessary for them to accomplish them.”

This study is published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

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