Debate of the WEEK: Can you really change your character?
IN THE NEWS: An age-old psychological myth has been busted, as scientists gather increasing proof that we can change our personality at will.
It can feel like a lottery. Are you an extrovert? Congratulations! You have a greater chance of being happy. Are you conscientious? Brilliant! You have a higher life expectancy.
But people who score highly for other traits might be less lucky. Studies suggest that those with high neuroticism scores are less likely to be satisfied in relationships. Meanwhile, high levels of agreeableness are linked to lower salaries.
For much of history, we have seen personality as something we cannot change. In 1890, the psychologist William James wrote that by the age of 30 personality is “set like plaster”. But surveys suggest that a minimum of two-thirds of people would like to change some aspect of their personality.
In more recent research, scientists are advising against seeing personality as a life sentence. In one 15-week trial, 400 people were tasked with changing their personalities through taking on two “challenges” each week, with promising results.
A larger trial of 1,500 people came to a similar conclusion: that participants could change their personalities so much that the changes were clear even to friends and family.
For some, the idea that character can change is a no-brainer. After all, even the word “personality” itself is derived from the Latin word persona, meaning “mask”.
But others are more loyal to the idea of a core or even pre-determined self: William Wordsworth wrote that “Child is the Father of the Man” — that we always move back to our childhood identity.
Aristotle’s famous 2,300 year old mantra was that we become what we repeatedly do. If a knife had a soul, the act of cutting would be a part of that soul.
Meanwhile, in Buddhism, the term anattā refers to the idea of “non-self” — the idea that there is no permanent, unchanging essence, self or soul in any phenomenon in the world, including human beings.
Can you really change your character?
Evidence from the studies cited shows that if we consistently adopt new habits, it is more than possible to change our personalities.
We might be able to develop certain traits, but ultimately personality is much bigger than that, based on all of our life experiences and biology.
Changing your character probably gets harder with age. Some studies show that whilst younger people have a more flexible sense of self, when the brain stops developing your personality becomes more fixed.
William Wordsworth-An English writer (1770-1850) best known for his poems about nature, such as Daffodils. Aristotle-A student of Plato, tutor to Alexander the Great and the father of political philosophy.