Can you better yourself and change your personality?

Jan 16, 2023

Cavan Bonner

Many people seek to better themselves in order to achieve greater success and well-being. Indeed, most adults want to change some aspect of their personality, such as their self-control, emotional stability, compassion, or extraversion [1]. However, until recently, it has been less clear whether and how individuals can proactively change their personality traits.  

Psychologists define personality as stable patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Though personality traits are remarkably stable over the lifespan, research also shows that there are predictable and normative changes. As people develop throughout adulthood, they increase in their average agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability [2]. These developmental patterns follow a “maturity principle”: as we grow into new social roles as students, professionals, and spouses, our personality typically matures to meet the demands of these commitments. When individuals are actively invested in their social roles, the personality change can be especially substantial [3].  

Recent research finds that when people are motivated to change their personality, the changes are substantial and enduring. In a study of college students, simply reporting the desire to increase in a given trait predicted small but measurable growth in that trait over a 15-week study [4]. However, when students were randomly assigned to an intervention that gave participants detailed instructions about how to effectively change their personality, the magnitude of the change was twice as large compared to students who weren’t given such advice. In this case, the intervention instructed participants to create concrete implementation plans for how they would practice new, desired behaviors in specific circumstances (e.g., “if I feel stressed, then I will go to the gym later today”).  

While the desire for personality change is a necessary condition for meaningful change, people also need to develop effective strategies to practice new behaviors. One primary mechanism of volitional change is that repeated practice — motivated by the desire to improve — eventually leads to lasting personality change. A second mechanism is that over time, consistently and authentically behaving in new ways that depart from our old personality can slowly change our identity and self-concept [5]. For example, after enacting behaviors that improve their ability to study for difficult classes while maintaining a busy schedule, an initially disorganized student might re-evaluate their identity and decide that they are an organized and disciplined person. In turn, this newly developed identity may influence how that student makes future decisions in light of what they know about their personality (e.g., choosing to take a more challenging course or keep a busier schedule). In summary, the repeated practice of concrete behavioral skills are the essential building blocks of personality change, but meaningful identity development also appears to play a role in ensuring that personality change is enduring and consequential for future behavior.  

Though it may be some time until interventions based on this research are widely available to the public, these studies still suggest an actionable insight in the meantime: if you really want to change an aspect of your personality, identify concrete and specific behaviors that you can realistically practice in your everyday life. Underlying personality maturation — a process that occurs over the course of years, and ultimately decades — is lots of practice, patience, and repetition.  


Cavan Bonner received his B.A. in Psychology from Kalamazoo College in 2021, and currently works as a research manager at the Well-Being and Measurement Lab with Dr. Louis Tay. Cavan is broadly interested in how personality — including traits, values, and belief systems — develops over the lifespan.



[1] Hudson, N. W., & Roberts, B. W. (2014). Goals to change personality traits: Concurrent links between personality traits, daily behavior, and goals to change oneself. Journal of Research in Personality, 53, 68-83. 

[2] Schwaba, T., Bleidorn, W., Hopwood, C. J., Manuck, S. B., & Wright, A. G. C. (2022). Refining the maturity principle of personality development by examining facets, close others, and co-maturation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 122(5), 942–958. 

[3] Bleidorn, W., Klimstra, T. A., Denissen, J. J., Rentfrow, P. J., Potter, J., & Gosling, S. D. (2013). Personality maturation around the world: A cross-cultural examination of social-investment theory. Psychological Science, 24(12), 2530-2540. 

[4] Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 490–507. 

[5] Wrzus, C., & Roberts, B. W. (2017). Processes of personality development in adulthood: The TESSERA framework. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(3), 253-277. 

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