If you want to change, you have to follow through or else

Can you will yourself to change for the better? The good news is that psychologists think it is possible for you to erase your less desired traits. The bad news is that you have to go out of your head and do work for the change to happen.

Our personalities are not set in stone, but a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that wanting to change is not enough for it to happen — you have to follow through on the action if you want to grow.

Everyday challenges helped students change personalities

Nathan Hudson at Southern Methodist University and his colleagues recruited 377 college psychology students to choose two of the “Big Five” personality traits — Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism — to work on to change. The students were most likely to pick being less neurotic and more extroverted.

To become more zen and outgoing people, the students were told to do the activities of zen and outgoing people. For 15 weeks, the students completed weekly “challenges”— prewritten goals that would put their “thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in line with their desired traits.” For the students that wanted to be more extroverted, for example, they could accept an easy challenge of saying “hello” to a cashier or a harder challenge of taking on the leadership of a class project.

These weekly challenges had long-term effects. The more challenges the students completed, the more their personalities changed to fit their desired traits.

“The single largest implication of our study is that actively engaging in behaviors designed to change one’s personality traits does, in fact, predict greater amounts of trait growth across time,” Hudson said.

But before we overhaul our personalities, we might want to make sure if we can follow through on a challenge before agreeing to do it. The students who accepted challenges they could not complete had their goals backfire. Neurotic students became more neurotic. Aspiring extroverts became more introverted. The researchers suggest that this might be because it is demoralizing to fail to attain a goal. If you fail to introduce yourself to a stranger, you may beat yourself up more than if you had never tried at all.

It is encouraging to know that it is within our power to make these personality adjustments happen. But as with any kind of big goal, we cannot just sit and wait for change to happen to us — we have to live what we preach and practice our values.

Monica Torres|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.