With the new year underway, many have thought about making some changes. You could be tired of being stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaviour and considering psychotherapy. Initially, you may be enthusiastic about making such changes only to remember that the majority of people give up their resolutions early on, with only 12% making progress in their goals. With these kinds of stats, you might conclude it’s not worth the bother. You are who you are, people’s personalities don’t really change, you might as well just accept this and get on with things.
But hold on. New research (2) has analysed 207 psychotherapy studies that tracked changes in personality over the course of therapy. Significant and enduring changes in clients were discovered. What’s more, you don’t have to attend therapy sessions for years to achieve these results. Even a few weeks of therapy can make a difference.
In the study described, the main measure of change was ‘Neuroticism.’ (3) This term is used to describe a major personality trait, in this case the degree to which a person suffers from emotional instability. People who score high in Neuroticism perceive the world as distressing, threatening and unsafe, and experience high levels of anxiety. This trait is an important predictor for future poor mental health.
In this analysis, it was discovered that therapy led to a decrease in people’s levels of Neuroticism. In addition, their levels of Extraversion increased, meaning they became more outgoing and sociable. Interestingly, there was no strong evidence that specific types of therapeutic interventions worked better than others. For example, CBT and psychodynamic therapy were equally effective with levels of Neuroticism decreasing and Extraversion increasing. Nor did a person’s age or gender appear to make a difference to the positive therapeutic outcome.
The finding concerning age is significant. It supports the plasticity principle, ‘that personality is an open system and amenable to change throughout a person’s life span.’ In addition, the studies that included long-term follow ups after therapy had ended, showed that changes lasted for well over a year. There was no indication that progress faded out over time.
Discussing these findings (with a little caution), professionals in the field point out that this is an important paper. It contributes to a little discussed outcome of therapy; the role of personality in mental health. It could lead to the development of therapeutic interventions that focus directly on changing personality traits, rather than thinking about such changes as a side-effect of the therapy. It also challenges arguments that therapeutic change only happens slowly.
It appears then, that personality traits are not set in stone and can be changed. Especially the traits of neuroticism/ high anxiety and emotional instability.
If you are thinking about having some psychotherapy persevere, follow it through. There is increasing evidence that you could achieve deep, meaningful and enduring change.
(1) A ‘Trait’ is a concept used to represent stable and enduring characteristics or patterns of behaviour. In contrast, a ‘State’ represents a temporary way of being, thinking, feeling, behaving and relating.
(2) Roberts, B.W., Luo, J., Briley, D.A., Chow, P.I., Su, R., & Hill, P.L. (2017) A systematic review of personality trait through intervention. Psychological Bulletin, 143(2), 117-141.
(3) Neuroticism (sensitive and nervous vs secure and confident) and Extraversion (outgoing vs reserved) are two of what is known as the ‘Big Five’ personality traits. The others are ‘Openness’ (ranging from curious to cautious), ‘Conscientiousness’ (organised vs careless), and ‘Agreeableness’ (compassionate vs unkind).
Jane Craig is an experienced chartered clinical psychologist working in the NHS and in private practice, using a variety of approaches depending on the problems you are facing. Jane sees individuals and couples at our Lewes practice.