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Your personality sucks — scientists can change it

Turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.

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So, you think you have a shitty personality. Maybe you lose your temper at the slightest pressure, or let others walk all over you. Maybe you are overwrought with anxiety, or can't get a grip on a new relationship. Maybe you just don't like yourself.

Some people might learn to live with their faults, others might try therapy. For everyone else, however, there could soon be an app for that.

In a new study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, psychologists outline the design for an app they call PEACH — PErsonality coACH — which they claim can help you tweak your own personality to meet your goals.

Matthias Allemand is a co-author on the study and professor at the University of Zurich. He tells Inverse the app is designed to be used specifically by people who don't have a clinical personality disorder, but who perhaps just want to improve themselves in some way:

"People who would like to change their personality for reasons such as self-change or personal growth," are the ideal users for this app, he explains.

Personality changes are achieved using "micro-interventions," which are geared towards tweaking users' levels of openness, neuroticism, and extroversion. These interventions take the form of personalized coaching, goal tracking, and educational videos.

Allemand and his colleagues tested the app on more than 1,500 people. Overall, they saw significant, long-lasting improvements in users who were trying to increase or decrease certain personality traits.

Why it matters — Finding yourself stuck in personality patterns you know don't serve you is not only frustrating, but can even damage your personal and professional relationships. A simple solution like this could offer an opportunity for people to make a real, positive change in their lives without spending the time and money on therapy or a life coach.

Not only that, but the changes seen with the app lasted three months after the participants stopped using it, suggesting the interventions have a long-term affect on personality.

"For example, when people become more conscientious and exhibit more conscientious behaviors, this will show up in their everyday lives — e.g., being more punctual, exhibiting more health-promoting behaviors, etc.," Allemand says.

The background — The science of personalities is far from new. The "Big 5" personality traits psychologists (and Buzzfeed quizzes alike) rely on to define personality types are:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Neuroticism
  • Agreeableness
  • Extraversion

According to personality theory, whatever ratio you have of these five different traits will define your personality type. Personality is influenced both by your genes and your environment, but whatever your personality type, it is not necessarily set in stone.

In past research, scientists have shown how certain therapeutic methods can tweak someone's personality (as self-reported by the participants themselves), but as the authors of this new study point out, these older studies suffer from being both small and relying on self-report. Essentially, they miss a crucial secondary metric (although perhaps just as subjective as the self-report): What do your friends and family think about your apparent changes in personality?

In the new study, Allemand and his team devised a randomized study of 1,500 participants which included both self-reported and observer-reported measurements of personality change.

What they did — An important prerequisite for this study was that all the participants were open to changing some aspect of their personality. In general, participants were either interested in decreasing levels of neuroticism, increasing levels of conscientiousness, or increasing their extraversion.

One group of participants completed a week of assessments, followed by ten weeks of using the app. They then were assessed for one more week, and then had a follow-up assessment 12 weeks after they stopped using the app to see if the changes had stuck.

To work out if just the intention of change alone was enough to alter personality, the control (or waitlist) group went through a 4-week wait period before their assessments and intervention. Both groups underwent weekly assessments and tracked their progress in their app.

During the intervention phase of the trial, participants conversed with a chatbot, and kept a diary of their intentions. They also watched education videos with lessons and tips for attaining their personality change goals.

What they discovered — By the end of the trial, both participants and their loved ones saw significant improvement in those who were looking to increase a positive trait, like conscientiousness.

But participants who sought to decrease a negative — such as neuroticism — may have had less success. These participants also tended to self-report significant changes for the better, but unlike the positive trait group, these changes were less noticeable to others.

The authors also report that participants in the experimental group demonstrated more change in their intended direction than those in the waitlist group.

"It turned out that the the effects of the intervention persisted 3 months after the intervention ended," Allemand says. "But of course, future studies are needed to examine whether personality change can be maintained over longer time intervals."

What's next — As Allemand points out, whether this app offers a permanent way to fix your less-than-sparkling personality, scientists can't yet be sure.

"This is an important question for future research," Allemand says. "Our study is the first testing the effectiveness of a digital intervention to change personality traits. Research is needed to replicate our work."

For example, in the future, it will be important to better monitor how participants use the app, so that researchers can see whether more attentive participants do better than others in achieving their goals.

They also write that more tangible measurements of change, like actually achieving more at work as a result of a personality intervention, will be important to track as well.

Ultimately, apps like this one can only ever do so much, Allemand points out. Whether or not such apps can succeed may be down to one, unknowable factor: The user themselves.

"People have to want to change. Without a change goal, they will not work on themselves," he says.

Abstract: Personality traits predict important life outcomes, such as success in love and work life, well-being, health, and longevity. Given these positive relations to important outcomes, economists, policymakers, and scientists have proposed intervening to change personality traits to promote positive life outcomes. However, nonclinical interventions to change personality traits are lacking so far in large-scale naturalistic populations. This study (n = 1,523) examined the effects of a 3-mo digital personality change intervention using a randomized controlled trial and the smartphone application PEACH (PErsonality coACH). Participants who received the intervention showed greater self-reported changes compared to participants in the waitlist control group who had to wait 1 mo before receiving the intervention. Self-reported changes aligned with intended goals for change and were significant for those desiring to increase on a trait (d = 0.52) and for those desiring to decrease on a trait (d = −0.58). Observers such as friends, family members, or intimate partners also detected significant personality changes in the desired direction for those desiring to increase on a trait (d = 0.35). Observer-reported changes for those desiring to decrease on a trait were not significant (d = −0.22). Moreover, self- and observer-reported changes persisted until 3 mo after the end of the intervention. This work provides the strongest evidence to date that normal personality traits can be changed through intervention in nonclinical samples.
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