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Is Your Personality Unchangeable for a Lifetime?

After decades of research psychologists have a fairly good understanding of the psychological component that remains with us from one situation to another – otherwise known as our personality.

At the very broadest level who we are is made up of five personality dimensions, known as “The Big Five” – our tendency to be agreeable, conscientious, extroverted, emotionally stable or neurotic and open to experience. But how personality develops through our lives is still poorly understood – and we are only just beginning to discover that there could be big socio-economic implications.

The idea that personality is more or less fixed over the course of our lives has been a popular belief in personality psychology for years. Changes due to biological factors were thought to occur until about the age of 30, at which point it was assumed that personality becomes set in stone. This is a belief that has permeated throughout society, which may have understandably led many to believe (rather dishearteningly) that it is impossible to change.

Change is possible

However, while personality is on the whole stable from one situation to the next, this does not mean it cannot and does not change over time. Personality researchers have traditionally paid little attention to aspects of long-term change, but there is now substantial evidence which shows that our personalities continue to change throughout our lives as described in the research by Brent Roberts and Daniel Mroczek published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

The good news from the research is that for those of us who experience significant personality change, the shift is mostly in a positive direction.

At the same time, people who were especially considerate, agreeable and emotionally stable at a young age were also more likely to be so later on.

“People who are more conscientious than others their age at 16 are likely to be more conscientious than others at 66,” said Damian.

“On average, everyone becomes more conscientious, more emotionally stable, and more agreeable,” said lead study author Rodica Damian, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston in a large studymined data from the Project Talent Personality Inventory, a repository of personality data on more than 400,000 people (in total) gathered over a 50-year period.  The value of the findings comes from the expansive timespan, which allows researchers to measure changes in personality traits like conscientiousness, extroversion and neuroticism over time.

How Do You Talk About Your Life?

How you talk about your life—to others and yourself—can have a great impact on your personality. Research shows than changing your life story can contribute to greater well-being.

Many people have changed their homes or schools in their lifetimes. For some, moving to a new location as a teen could end up in an traumatic experience of bullying while participating in sports. Much later in life, when they reflect back on that experience it can be just one of many episodes in life, or a traumatic turning point indelibly etched in their emotional memories. Or do they see it as another example of a difficult experience that had a happy ending – becoming interested in music or acquiring a best friend who also was bullied?

How they tell the story to others and themselves can have a profound effect on the kind of person they become.

Each of us carries around a virtual (if not a written journalized version) book of our lives, that tells our story. This story automatically expands whether we are conscious of it or not. The narrative provides meaning to life and also defines our identity.

We can also use storytelling to our advantage, especially when it comes to dealing with trauma. Studies show that writing about traumatic experiences, though painful and unpleasant in the moment, can help people process and incorporate the traumatic event into the larger life story. During follow-ups from these studies, participants reported fewer illnesses, went to the doctors less often, suffered fewer symptoms of depression, were less likely to miss school and work, and performed better at work. Researchers speculate that by processing traumatic memories in this way, they are less likely to be compulsively recalled  causing further suffering.

Not only are we continually producing narratives to order and structure our life experiences, we are also constantly being bombarded with narratives from the social world we live in. We create narrative descriptions about our experiences for ourselves and others, and we also develop narratives to make sense of the behavior of others

Researchers have investigated this process to provide greater clarity to the nature of these stories.

Their research has joined other which examine how we continually create and revise our stories about ourselves and how this reflects a key part of our personalities.

Dan P. McAdams at Northwestern University, explained this concept in his research published in journal Review of General Psychology:   “People differ from each other with respect to their self-defining life stories in ways that are not unlike how they differ from each other on more conventional psychological characteristics such as traits.”

“Life stories do not simply reflect personality,” McAdams says, “they are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values.”

In the almost two decades since McAdams made that claim, evidence has accumulated to support the idea that, alongside our goals and values and character traits, our personal narratives reflect a stable aspect of our personalities. (McAdams labels these three aspects of the self the “Personological Trinity”).

A team led by Kate McLean at Western Washington University described it in their recent paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “the stories we tell about ourselves reveal ourselves, construct ourselves, and sustain ourselves through time”.

To distill the most meaningful life story features, McLean and her team conducted three studies involving nearly 1,000 volunteers. Each provided stories of particular episodes from their lives or an overarching narrative summarising their entire life story. Based on a thorough analysis and coding of the narratives they produced, McLean and her colleagues believe there is a “Big Three” of key features that represent the characteristic way we tell our life stories.

The first of the Big Three is “Motivational and Affective Themes”, which examines the issues of autonomy and how a person connects with others with respect to if they are positive or negative.

The second of the Big Three is  “Autobiographical Reasoning”, which is how much we reflect on the experiences in our stories, find meaning in what’s happened, and discern links between key events and ways we have and haven’t changed.

The third of the Big Three is “Structure”, or how much our stories make sense, in terms of their timeline, facts and context.

The notion that our life stories reflect a stable and important aspect of our personalities may have important consequences.

Research by E.A. Waters and colleagues published in the Journal of Personality found that the “coherence” of their volunteers’ stories showed stability across the duration of the study (a feature similar to the “Structure” characteristic identified by McLean’s team). “The ways in which we tell autobiographical narratives reflect a stable aspect of individual differences,” the team concluded.

This finding was consistent with the research by Christin Kober and Tilman Habermas published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which shows that the content of events in our life stories acquires an element of stability from mid-adolescence, becoming increasingly consistent as we get older; and also  reflected in the research by William A. Dunlop and colleagues published in Social Psychological and Personality Science that the relative frequency of redemptive and contaminating sequences in young people’s stories shows a degree of stability over several years (that is, while the frequency of these stories changed over time, the participants who had relatively more of these sequences at the first telling also tended to have more at the second telling three years later).

Jack J. Bauer and colleagues examined the importance of self-stories as part of our personalities and published their work in the Journal of Happiness Studies. They concluded for example, “ if you’re the kind of person who would remember the positives that came out of that (hypothetical) bullying episode at your new school, it’s also more likely that you enjoy a greater sense of well-being and satisfaction in life.” In addition, they said, changing your narrative both in style and substance and help people re-interpret their personal stories in a more constructive light is the basis of what’s known as “narrative therapy”.

Our life stories similarly have main features by which each of us can be defined. Research by Jonathon Adler and colleagues published in Personality and Social Psychology Review measured a range of different aspects of people’s personal stories, including  “agency, communion, valence, redemption, contamination, closure, coherence (at least three kinds), exploratory processing, growth goals, integrative and intrinsic memories, positive and negative meaning-making, elaboration, sophistication, accommodative processing, differentiated processing, ending valence, affective processing, intimacy, foreshadowing, complexity”.

They found several aspects linked to well-being and narratives:

  • People who tell more positive stories and stories with more elements of redemption (for example, that time that you lost your job, but ended up switching career paths into something you enjoy much more) tend to enjoy greater wellbeing, at least based on research with Western samples, in terms of more life satisfaction and better mental health.
  • So do people whose stories express a greater sense of being a protagonist in the events of their life and having more meaningful communion with others. For example, the episodes they remember frequently involve loved ones and close friends, or shared hobbies. Engaging in more autobiographical reasoning and having greater structure to one’s life story also correlates with greater wellbeing.
  • Conversely, telling stories with more “contamination”, less autonomy and communion correlates with lower well-being.
  • Furthermore, there is some limited evidence that increases in the positive features of one’s life storyprecede subsequent beneficial consequences for wellbeing, rather than simply reflecting life going better.

So does this mean you can change or revise your life story by focusing on the positive outcomes from negative events? Will this result in a more stable and healthy personality?

A study tried to demonstrate this can be done.

Bradley K. Jones and colleagues published their research in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in which student volunteers were asked to write narratives so that they featured more redemptive sequences (such as by considering “one time that a failure has changed you for the better”).

Compared with control participants who weren’t prompted in this way, those encouraged to feature more redemptive sequences subsequently showed greater goal persistence, even several weeks later, saying that they tended to finish whatever they started. “Not only do these findings provide evidence that personal narratives can be shaped,” the researchers concluded, “they also suggest that shifting the ways people think and talk about important life events can influence their lives moving forward.”

Narrative Therapy

Narrative therapy capitalizes on this question and our storytelling tendencies. The goal is to uncover opportunities for growth and development, find meaning, and understand ourselves better.

This therapy is a specific and less common method of guiding clients towards healing and personal development. It’s revolves around the stories we tell ourselves and others.

Narrative therapy is a form of therapy that aims to separate the individual from the problem, allowing the individual to externalize their issues rather than internalize them.

It relies on the individual’s own skills and sense of purpose to guide them through difficult times. This form of therapy was developed in the 1980s by Michael White and David  Epston.

White and Epston theorized that subscribing to a harmful or adverse self-identity could have profound negative impacts on a person’s functionality and quality of life.

To this end, there are a few main themes or principles of narrative therapy:

  1. Reality is socially constructed, which means that our interactions and dialogue with others impacts the way we experience reality.
  2. Reality is influenced by and communicated through language, which suggests that people who speak different languages may have radically different interpretations of the same experiences.
  3. Having a narrative that can be understood helps us organize and maintain our reality. In other words, stories and narratives help us to make sense of our experiences.
  4. There is no “objective reality” or absolute truth; what is true for us may not be the same for another person, or even for ourselves at another point in time

In the realm of narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person integrates those facts and events internally—picks them apart and weaves them back together to make meaning. This narrative becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story, and the way she tells it, can both reflect and shape who she is.  A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.

In his research, Adler has noticed two themes in people’s stories that tend to correlate with better well-being: agency, or feeling like you are in control of your life, and communion, or feeling like you have good relationships in your life. The connection is “a little fuzzier” with communion, Adler says—there’s a strong relationship between communion and well-being at the same moment; it’s less clear if feeling communion now predicts well-being later.

According to a study by McAdams and Bradley K. Jones published in the Journal of Adult Development highly generative people—that is, people who are caring and committed to helping future generations—often tell stories about others who helped them in the past. McAdams suggests that narcissists are probably more likely to do the opposite—“People [who] are really good at talking about themselves and pushing their own narrative, but they’re not willing to listen to yours.”

“If our stories are about us as triumphant agents going through life and overcoming, and they underplay the role of other people and the role of institutional support in helping us do those things, we are likely to be less good at recognizing how other people’s lives are constrained by institutions and other people,” Monisha Pasupathi, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Utah says. “I think that has real implications for how we think about inequity in our society. The more the whole world is designed to work for you, the less you are aware that it is working for you.”

A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed. “You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story,” Adler says. “That can sometimes be a revelation—‘Oh, I’m not just living out this story; I am actually in charge of this story.’”