How to change your personality, according to a cognitive neuroscientist
Dr Christian Jarrett explains how you can measure your personality accurately – and how to be more extroverted and less neurotic.
Your personality reflects your habits of thought, behaviour and emotions as they play out over the longer term. It’s distinct from moods or emotional states that vary over shorter timescales of minutes or hours.
According to the most evidence-based and widely endorsed OCEAN model of personality, the five main trait dimensions are:
- Open-mindedness: how willing you are to embrace new ideas and experiences.
- Conscientiousness: how self-disciplined and ambitious.
- Extraversion: how sociable and drawn to reward you are.
- Agreeability: how friendly and trusting you are.
- Neuroticism: how anxious and emotionally sensitive you are.
Together these are known as the ‘Big Five’ traits. Your scores on them are incredibly consequential, predicting your career success, happiness and even your longevity. For instance, strong extraverts tend to live shorter, happier lives. Highly conscientious people tend to do better at work. And people who are highly open-minded are less vulnerable to dementia.
Some personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs test, are popular, but they’re not seen as scientifically valid or reliable by mainstream personality psychologists – such tests don’t tap effectively into the Big Five and you’re likely to receive different scores each time you take them.
How much of our personalities are genetic?
About 30 to 50 per cent of the variation in personality between people stems from differences in the genes they inherited from their parents. Of course, that still leaves plenty of scope for early and later life experiences to leave their mark, such as marriage and divorce, illness, job losses, parenthood, peer pressure and bereavement.
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In fact, it used to be believed that personality was set in stone from around the age of 30, but longitudinal studies following the same people over decades have shown that personality traits continue to change over a lifetime.
It’s true that personality tends to stabilise the older we get, but that’s because many of us tend to settle into grooves of lifestyle and routine. With the right approach and determination, there’s no reason that you can’t deliberately alter your personality traits.
How can I become more extraverted?
Any attempts at personality change are more likely to succeed if they’re in the service of some larger value, cause or goal, rather than for the sake of it – or to please someone else.
For instance, striving to be more extraverted to help your burgeoning business via a greater willingness to network is more likely to succeed than attempting to be more extraverted just because you think it would be desirable.
Another golden rule is that you need to change your ways of thinking and behaving until they become habitual.
A good method for becoming more extraverted is using ‘if-then’ plans to boost your sociability, such as ‘If I’m sat on a train near a stranger, then I’ll make an attempt to start a conversation’. Also, it’s key to reappraise your anxiety in social situations as excitement.
It will be a challenge at first, but studies suggest that even strong introverts tend to enjoy acting extraverted more than they think they will.
Did lockdown change my personality?
It might have. Any radical, lasting change in circumstance, social company and emotional challenge is likely to influence personality traits.
That said, lockdown was not the same for everyone and we all came into it with a different set of baseline traits. Some people ended up living in social isolation for months; others had to juggle childcare and home working; while those in healthcare, essential retail or public transport were still working in the same environment but facing new challenges. This variety of lockdown means there’s no such thing as a single ‘lockdown personality’. Rather, the effects of lockdown will be individual to you.
For instance, if you’ve been isolated and become lonely, there’s evidence this can prompt reductions in extraversion. But being aware of these influences on your personality could help you deliberately combat them and get yourself back on track.
How can I become more open-minded?
The older we get, the more closed-minded we tend to become; that is, more stuck in our ways and beliefs. One way to counter this is to deliberately seek out new experiences and perspectives.
Pandemic restrictions allowing, make a pledge to try a different restaurant each time you eat out, for instance, or visit different destinations for your holidays rather than always returning to the same spot. Consider dabbling in new art forms, such as poetry or opera, that you might not have tried before.
Less obvious is to work on your physical and mental fitness, for example by taking regular walks and completing mind games and puzzles.
Such activities have been linked with increases in open-mindedness. The theory is that they help build your confidence and therefore your willingness to try new things.
Christian is a psychologist and author of Be Who You Want: Unlocking The Science of Personality Change (£14.99, Robinson).
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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.
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