Wish you could be less neurotic or more outgoing? A new scientific paper suggests that maybe you can—with the help of a therapist, that is. While it was once assumed that people are stuck with the personality traits they’re born with, many scientists now agree that some characteristics are more fluid. But to hurry those changes along, according to the new study, it takes hard work and professional help.
The new paper, published in Psychological Bulletin, is a review of 207 previous studies that tracked changes in personality traits while people were seeing a therapist. Most were observational studies, rather than experimental; this means they could only suggest an association between therapy and personality changes, and not a direct cause.
But the findings do support the idea that traits like openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—known in psychology as the “big five”—can be changed in a relatively short period of time, says lead author Brent Roberts, Ph.D., a social and personality psychologist at the University of Illinois.
The trait that seemed most malleable was emotional stability, the review found, which relates closely to neuroticism. People tend to get less neurotic as they age, Roberts says, but his analysis showed that people in therapy can see measurable improvements after just four weeks of treatment—about half the amount of change normally expected over many years, from young adulthood through middle age.
It makes sense that people in the studies showed the most improvement in the area of emotional stability, Roberts says, since most people seek out therapy for issues related to depression and anxiety. To a lesser extent, therapy was also associated with changes in extraversion.
There’s less evidence to back up the theory that other traits can change this quickly, says Roberts. “It would be somewhat unfair to infer that going to a therapist does or does not change conscientiousness, for example, since most patients aren’t going for that type of resolution,” he explains.
The studies in the review followed people for an average of 24 weeks, and included people receiving medication, talk therapy sessions, or both. The researchers didn’t see big differences in results for different types of therapy, but they say that most patients in recent studies were undergoing a combination of the two.
More long-term studies are needed to better understand whether these changes are permanent, says Roberts, and to determine which type of therapies really do work best for transforming personality traits. But much of the research to-date does have promising follow-up results, suggesting that gains made during therapy persist for months or years afterward.
Roberts’ previous research has suggested that people tend to become more confident, agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable with age. But these changes are modest, he says, and it’s not well understood whether people can alter them deliberately.
“It’s a question that listeners to my presentations have been asking me for years,” Roberts says: “If personality does, in fact, change, can it also be changed? Initially, our position was always, ‘Well, maybe.’”
“But it seems odd to think you could transform somebody’s personality in a relatively rapid period of time, and I don’t think anyone really assumed it was the case,” he continues. In other words, therapy can certainly make you feel better temporarily—but does it really alter who you are deep down?
This research suggests yes, says Roberts. “I would say we now know that it is possible to change parts of your personality by working with a therapist,” he says. That should be encouraging news for anyone who’s thought about seeing a mental-health professional but wasn’t sure if it would really do any good.
The review doesn’t provide suggestions on how, exactly, to get treatment, but Roberts says the standard advice for choosing the right type of therapy likely still applies. Once you find a method that works for you, he does have one recommendation: “Don’t take the effort lightly,” he says. “The people in these studies and their therapists put in a lot of effort to make this type of change happen.”