There are five traits that psychologists use to identify personality type: extrovert/introvert, openness to new experiences, agreeableness (concern for social harmony), conscientiousness (self-discipline), and neuroticism (emotional stability). A human's level of extrovertion is considered to be pretty much a set thing by the time you reach adulthood; changing only slightly over time. Scientists believe that our personality traits not only determine what we're like, but can also influence social relationships, work experiences, mental and physical health, as well. A recently published paper, however, suggests that a person's personality might be more changeable that was previously thought.
Researchers at the University of Chicago reviewed and analyzed over two hundred studies to see how psychotherapy and pharmaceutical drug treatments impacted patients with mental health issues. Although clinical studies don't aim to change personality traits, they often get measured, making it easier to see when, and if, shifts occur. What they discovered was that in as little as 2 to 16 weeks of therapy, personality traits did, indeed, shift in both positive and lasting ways. In particular, neuroticism went down while extroversion went up significantly. Conscientiousness and agreeableness went up slightly. Only openness didn't change much, if at all. The most surprising part of the study was how quickly these changes came about and the fact that they weren't just temporary.
Why is this study important? Conscientiousness and neuroticism are tied to our relationships, work, and health. So being able to alter these has the potential to dramatically change the course of a person's life. Although the type of therapy that was administered didn't make any difference in whether or not personality was altered, the client's reasons for entering therapy, did. "Those who sought therapy for anxiety or personality disorders (borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder) changed the most, while those with substance abuse issues or eating disorders changed the least," according to Brent Roberts, psychologist and lead on the study. Why this is, is unclear since personality disorders are as difficult to treat as substance abuse issues. It does suggest, however, that not everyone is able to change to the same degree and more research will be needed.
Most of us think that our personalities are the stable part of us, but it's becoming obvious that isn't always true. It could be that the type of therapy someone seeks isn't all that important, but what is important is to find someone who gives the client positive and caring attention. At any rate, this study throws a monkey wrench into personality research.
Whatever your personality type is, it is possible to change those things that may be less than desirable. With that in mind, I'm hopping off to find a positive and caring shrink....