To Change or Not To Change

David Brooks and Gail Collins co-write a great weekly column for the New York Times called The Conversation. Here’s an exchange about relationships from their column last Wednesday, entitled “Toasting With a Half-Full Glass”:

David: I’m trying to focus on the positive these days. Somebody gave me good advice recently. The world is divided between glass-half-full people and glass-half-empty people. It’s also divided between givers and takers. When you are choosing a spouse or a friend, you want a glass-half-full giver. You definitely do not want a half-empty-glass taker.

Gail: Can I send a shout-out to my spouse? He is definitely a giver. Also, the other night I heard him tell someone: “Marriage becomes truly happy when you stop trying to change your mate.” So I’d say go for a glass-half-full, giver, nonchanger.

The concept of being a changer or nonchanger really resonated with me, because it represents a belief regarding personality. Do you think people can change, and you can change them? You’re probably a changer. Do you think personality is relatively fixed and immutable? If so, you may be more of an accepter, or a nonchanger. But the fundamental question of how flexible personality is continued to intrigue me, so I did some research.

picture taken from www.psychometric-success.comFirst, a little primer on personality. According to this description of the five-factor model of human personality, there are five main personality domains:

  • Extraversion: This trait includes characteristics such as excitability, sociability, talkativeness, assertiveness and high amounts of emotional expressiveness.
  • Neuroticism: Individuals high in this trait tend to experience emotional instability, anxiety, moodiness, irritability, and sadness.
  • Agreeableness: This personality dimension includes attributes such as trust,altruism, kindness, affection, and other prosocial behaviors.
  • Openness: This trait features characteristics such as imagination and insight, and those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests.
  • Conscientiousness: Common features of this dimension include high levels of thoughtfulness, with good impulse control and goal-directed behaviors. Those high in conscientiousness tend to be organized and mindful of details.

Research suggests that an individual’s trait profiles remain relatively stable across the lifespan; for example, a longitudinal study of Harvard graduates followed for 45 years found that personality is fairly fixed from the collegiate years to the later adult years. Similarly, personality remained fairly stable over time in studies of over 20,000 German adults and 13,000 Australian adults. In fact, most available data indicate that personality gets increasingly fixed from childhood until adulthood, reaching a steady consistent state by around age 30. At that point, you are who you are. However, there are nuances in these overall trends.  In both the German and Australian adults, personality was most stable in middle age, with young and older adults seemingly less consistent. Moreover, over the lifespan, adults appear to become more agreeable and conscientious, but also more introverted. That is to say, on average the aging adult gets happier, more dependable and a bit less social. And finally, in the German study, personality both predicted life events and changed slightly in response to them, suggesting that who we are not only determines our experiences but ultimately reflects them.

So, can people change, and can we change them? To some extent, who we are and what we become tend to be relatively fixed, but our ability to respond to the events and people most important to us has some fluidity. Although our personalities are relatively defined from an early age, across the lifespan we are both the changer and the changed.


2 thoughts on “To Change or Not To Change

  1. Great post. I think about this question a lot: how much can we actually change ourselves? With all of the self-help books, articles on self-actualization and personal transformation, we have come to assume that profound change is possible. But perhaps it isn’t. Or, perhaps the personality remains relatively stable while behavior remains mutable. I wonder if there is a measurable way of distinguishing personality from behavior.

  2. That’s a great comment, because I did find some interesting research on personality vs. behavior and the distinction between the two. This distinction is particularly relevant and thought-provoking in children/adolescents, because as parents we often times confuse the two as behavior and personality are NOT synonymous.

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