How To Change Your Personality, At Least A Little
The Atlantic's Olga Khazan set out to be more extroverted and less neurotic, and it worked. What does that mean for you?
This week's Very Serious podcast is a bit different.
Olga Khazan is a science writer for The Atlantic, and I really enjoyed her recent feature on personality change. She set out to change her personality in three months — more extroverted, more agreeable, less neurotic. And she had some success with an approach that included trips to improv class and anger-management. So I had her on the podcast to talk about how her personality journey went and what others might learn from it.
When I say “personality,” I’m not talking about Myers-Briggs tests. There is no prattling on this podcast about who’s an “INTJ.” Current psychology academics generally subscribe to a five-factor personality model that assesses people for extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness and neuroticism. These traits are spectrums — nobody is a total introvert. And where people sit on these spectrums is correlated to life outcomes: more conscientious people do better in school; more extroverted people make more friends; less neurotic people are happier.
Even without effort, our personalities tend to change over our lifespans. Olga notes that people tend to become more conscientious and less neurotic as they age, a phenomenon you might know as “maturing.” On a more actionable note, some intentional interventions have been shown to affect personality — for example, even a month of therapy can materially reduce neuroticism, like you'd hope it would.
Of course, what makes a “good” personality is to a large extent a matter of opinion; the world needs people who are more and less agreeable, more and less introverted. But there are reasons to want to be in one place or another on these spectrums, and Khazan looked at the psychological research to assess how she could change her personality to produce better outcomes for herself.
The results were mixed. Improv improved her extroversion. Meditation and gratitude journaling reduced her neuroticism (or at least, she did these things and her neuroticism declined). Anger management class didn't improve her agreeableness, but you can't have everything.
I haven't sought intentional personality change myself — or at least I haven’t conceived of what I’m doing in my life that way — but I have noticed personality change over my lifespan, both through introspection and by taking “big five” personality inventories, long ago in college and recently as I did research for this podcast.
I am much more extroverted than I was when I was younger. That’s a change I'd attribute to a combination of choosing a career that requires a lot of interpersonal interaction, reaching a place of self-assurance as a gay man, and feeling better about my physical appearance. I'm also somewhat more conscientious — though maybe it just feels that way because technology does such a good job of keeping track of my calendar so I show up for things like a conscientious person would.1 As Olga notes on the podcast, personality consists in large part of what we do; you can fake it ’til you make it on at least some of these traits.
One thing Olga wrote that surprised me was that there are not large country-to-country differences in personality averages — an observation that makes me wonder about how much personality change can happen at scale. But I hope individuals will benefit from the knowledge that they can take some agency here, and that the things they can do to exercise it might actually be fun and interesting, rather than chores.
I hope you enjoy the podcast. And if you have feedback or ideas, please send an email.
I also get spillover benefits from my husband’s extraordinarily high conscientiousness; he doesn’t just know where his keys are, he knows where I put mine down.