Some doctors balk at the idea of trying to change a patient's personality, but a new study suggests that they're doing it already.
The results show that talk therapy or psychiatric medications can change personality in healthy people and those with psychological disorders. What's more, changes can be relativity rapid, occurring over a four- to seven-month period, and long-lasting, continuing years after therapy, according to the study.
Most mental health professionals don't think about psychiatric treatments as a means of changing personality — they view treatments as a way to change behavior, said study researcher Brent Roberts, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The findings are provocative, the researchers say, because for a long time, psychologists thought personality traits were static. While some recent research suggests that personality traits can change over time, most had assumed this change was difficult and incremental — not a quick process.
A lot of people get upset by the idea of changing personality because "they feel like you're screwing with somebody's intrinsic nature," Roberts said. But, "We're already changing [patient's] personality traits, whether we like it or not."
The findings present a new way of looking at how psychiatric therapies work, and raise the question of whether interventions should more directly target personality. Personality traits affect many different areas of life — including relationships, and school and work success —although their consequences often go unnoticed, Roberts said.
"We know that people who are less anxious and more conscientiousness do better in school and the labor market," Roberts said. Perhaps by doing an intervention on young people, to make them more conscientiousness, "you may make them more successful in their jobs at 40," he said.
Unintentional personality change
In the study, Roberts and colleagues reviewed 144 studies involving more than 15,000 people. The studies all employed some type of intervention — such as talk therapy, antidepressant medications, meditation, or cognitive training — and an assessment of personality traits. But none intentionally tried to change personality.
There was a significant change in the personalities of people who underwent interventions, compared with people in control groups in the studies, who did not, the researchers found. The biggest changes were seen in people with psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety. But even healthy people had personality changes, most noticeably if they took medication, Roberts said.
The personality traits that changed the most were neuroticism, a tendency to experience negative emotions such as anxiety and depressed mood; and extroversion, a tendency to be sociable, outgoing and experience more positive emotions.
In some ways, it is not surprising these treatments would change personality because there is overlap between personality traits and mental disorders. For instance, a lot of the characteristics of the trait of neuroticism can be symptoms of depression, said Thomas F. Oltmanns, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.
Early results from Roberts' study were presented last month at the Association for Psychological Science meeting in Washington D.C. The study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Personality and health
Doctors who treat physical health conditions might also want to think more critically about the role of personality, Oltmanns said. Unhealthy habits, such as smoking, drinking, physical inactivity and overeating, are related to personality traits, he said.
Some studies show that when people quit smoking, they also exercise more and lose weight, Roberts said, indicating that an aspect of their personality may have changed and affected multiple behaviors. Studies also suggest that weight gain is linked with personality change.
While psychiatric treatments may improve neuroticism, more research is needed to understand how to improve other personality traits, such as conscientiousness, that may have an effect on health, Roberts said.
More research needed
However, before researchers know for sure how much personality change can improve lives, they need to get better at measuring people's personalities and behaviors, experts say.
"I think understanding personality, personality change and personality stability is crucial for the mental health field, yet do not think we are at a point to make prescriptions on what clients or clinicians should be doing yet," said Christopher Nave at psychologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Some studies suggest that problems with assessing personality may have led to an overestimation of how much personality really changes over time.
"An anecdote would be that you never hear someone say it was a lot easier to change [their] partner/spouse's personality than they initially thought," Nave said.
Other studies show that, when researchers examine people's own reports of their personality traits, the traits improve over time, but if researchers examine their spouses' reports, the traits get worse, Oltmanns said. So including partners' reports as well as self-reports in personality trait assessment may help doctors better understand the role personality plays in different aspects of life, Oltmanns said.
Nave said researchers are also not very good at measuring behavior outside of a laboratory. "To make a determination of whether clinicians can focus more on changing personality versus behavior requires a more systematic examination of what people actually do," Nave said.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.