Do you wish you could be more outgoing? Or maybe you have a temper and would like to be more levelheaded?
It might seem impossible to change such core aspects of your personality. After all, research shows that the Big Five traits — openness, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism — are largely heritable, with 40 percent to 50 percent of our personality coming from our genes.
However, while our personalities are relatively stable, they do change over time, and new research reveals that we can actually elicit that change.
Research by Dr. Lesley Sue Martin at the University of Wollongong in Australia found that motivated people can change their personality in just 10 weeks with a mix of motivation and coaching.
"Our personality has a significant impact across all areas of our lives," Martin said in a news release. "It impacts our mental and physical health, what we achieve in life and our relationships. If people are able to change specific personality traits for the better, people are likely to live happier and healthier lives."
Half of the 50 participants in the study wanted to change alter their neuroticism, or "the extent to which we emotionally react when things happen to us," according to Martin, and a quarter of them wanted to change their conscientiousness.
Openness was the trait that very few people were willing to change.
Martin and a team of coaches and psychologist first assessed if the participants were motivated to really make the changes they wanted, and then over the next 10 weeks, participants had one-hour coaching sessions that related to different personality facets.
When the coaching concluded, Martin found that significant changes to specific personality facets were evident in everyone, and participants were able to maintain these changes even three months later.
How is such change possible?
Personality refers to individual differences in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, so altering your personality doesn't necessarily mean reworking your genetic code — it's about changing those mental patterns.
However, it wasn't always believed that such changes were possible.
Sigmund Freud believed that our personalities were fully developed by the age of 5, so whoever we were in kindergarten was the same person we'd be in retirement.
Around that same time, William James, another psychologist, proposed his "plaster hypothesis" which stated that, "by the age of 30, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again."
But today we know this isn't true. As we mature, we all change in predictable ways that are normal responses to life events like working, attending college and having children, which typically cause us to become more conscientious and agreeable and less neurotic.
A review of 152 longitudinal studies found the biggest changes in personality occur from childhood through the 20s. After that, change is still possible, but it requires more effort and happens more slowly.
The key is to consistently challenge yourself is to step outside your comfort zone, and this can result in growth.
Why it matters
New research in personality science digs deeper into this concept. The Personality Change Consortium, an international group of researchers committed to advancing understanding of personality change, agree on the need for persistence, but they also consider the influence of major life events. They reach the same conclusion: It's possible, but it's not easy.
But the scientists also ask another set of questions: Not just why you might want to change your personality but why public policymakers should recognize that it's possible and how policy should change to reflect that.
"Parents, teachers, employers and others have been trying to change personality forever because of their implicit awareness that it is good to make people better people," said Christopher Hopwood, a professor of psychology at University of California Davis, who along with Wiebke Bleidorn, started the consortium. As writer Becky Oskin explains in a release for UC Davis College of Letters and Science:
Resources are often invested in costly interventions that are unlikely to work because they are not informed by evidence about personality traits. “For that reason, it would be helpful for public policymakers to think more explicitly about what it takes to change personality to improve personal and public welfare, the costs and benefits of such interventions, and the resources needed to achieve the best outcomes by both being informed by evidence about personality traits and investing more sustained resources and attention toward better understanding personality change,” the researchers said.
Implementing the change
For example, if you desire to be more extroverted, a therapist might coach you to pretend you're comfortable in social situations and to try striking up a conversation with a stranger. In other words, "fake it till you make it."
The more often you do this, the more new patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving will develop, and new pathways will form in your brain — in short, changing your personality.
This exercise is similar to what Jason Comely did to overcome an anxiety disorder. As he grew more withdrawn, Comely realized what he feared was rejection and he decided to do something about it — by getting rejected once a day.
He started by asking a stranger in a parking lot for a ride. Later, he went on to request discounts at checkouts and ask people for directions.
"When Comely became more extroverted, he was surprised to discover that people often granted his requests," writes SFGate.
By turning rejection into something he wanted instead of something he feared, Comely changed himself. He even began selling his Rejection Therapy cards to give others the opportunity to challenge themselves to overcome their fears.
But can such changes really last in the long-term?
"We don't know. That has not been studied yet," Brian Little, a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge, told New York magazine. "It's possible that with a lot — as in, many years — of practice, people can retrain themselves to behave opposite to their true natures."
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was published in March 2015.