Scientists Once Thought Personality Was Set in Stone. They Were Wrong

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This text appeared within the September/October 2021 difficulty of Uncover journal as “Not Set in Stone.” Change into a subscriber for limitless entry to our archive.


If you happen to had been a rat, the odor of cat urine would probably scare you as a lot as a rattlesnake’s hiss. However the rat navigating a maze for Joanne Webster, pathobiologist at London’s Royal Veterinary School, was no abnormal specimen. Because it explored the labyrinth that stretched forward — cautiously, at first, then extra boldly — the rat stumbled upon a wierd odor wafting from one of many corners. The scent appeared to attract it in.

What the rat discovered so tempting, as did lots of his labmates examined within the maze, was certainly cat urine — turned, by some means, from rodent repellent to like potion. The rats had beforehand been contaminated with Toxoplasma gondii, a mind parasite that, because the scientists working the trials had been studying, significantly altered the way in which the rats behaved. Not solely did they show this probably deadly, definitely ill-advised feline attraction, however they had been additionally extra wanting to discover the maze than uninfected animals had been. For higher or for worse, their rat “character” had modified in the direction of a better stage of openness to expertise.

Analysis reveals that human character can change, too, generally even dramatically — and never simply due to a parasitic an infection. The truth is, personalities can fluctuate with age, shift due to life occasions and even change resulting from issues we ingest. What’s extra, we are able to really alter our personalities with our personal efforts, and making these modifications could also be less complicated than we expect.

Scientists discovered that rats contaminated with the T. gondii parasite had been extra adventurous than their uninfected friends. (Credit score: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock)

Malleable Makeups 

Again within the 1990s, it was usually believed that grownup character was fastened. (At the very least, as long as the mind stays intact.) In different phrases, it doesn’t change a lot as soon as we hit our 30s. Due to an inflow of recent research, nonetheless, researchers are actually discovering that character is definitely fairly malleable over time.

If you happen to check and re-test somebody over a interval of 10 years, there’s roughly a 25 p.c likelihood that their character traits will change, in accordance with a research co-authored by Brent Roberts, a character researcher on the College of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. And the longer you wait between checks, the upper the probability that the individual’s agreeableness (being well mannered, variety and pleasant), neuroticism (a bent in the direction of anxiousness, self-doubt and low emotional stability) or conscientiousness (being accountable, dependable and hard-working) will bear appreciable shifts.

Outdated views die exhausting. “Even some lecturers maintain the assumption that character doesn’t change,” says Roberts. “I’ve discovered this perspective to be resistant to the info.”

Generally, although, it’s straightforward to miss the assorted methods our personalities change through the years. Why? As a result of related shifts is likely to be occurring to our friends, too.

With Age Comes …

Many people have a look at our early youth with dismay, criticizing how reckless and self-centered we had been. Analysis reveals that as years move, most individuals’s character modifications in the direction of extra conscientious, much less neurotic and extra agreeable habits — which mainly means getting alongside properly with others. Comparable patterns have been discovered all throughout the planet, from Germany and Italy to Estonia, South Korea and Japan. Whenever you examine your self to your friends, “concurrently you possibly can look to be the identical individual, but additionally be altering, as a result of everyone is getting extra conscientious or everyone is getting much less neurotic,” says Roberts. Scientists name this “the maturity precept,” since most individuals would agree that turning into extra emotionally steady and conscientious — particularly, extra diligent and arranged — is an efficient factor.

Plus, a point of change occurs to virtually everybody. In a single 2019 research, as many as 97.9 p.c of individuals confirmed shifts in character traits throughout a 50-year interval. For many members, the modifications had been modest. However for a couple of they had been massive (by psychological requirements). “We discover that some individuals actually appear to bear dramatic modifications,” says Wiebke Bleidorn, a psychologist at College of California, Davis.

A rising batch of current research means that grownup character could be altered at any age – although, as Bleidorn and her co-authors present in a 2017 research, the magnitude of such shifts is by far the best for individuals of their 20s. And after we hit our 80s, the overall sample of change is now not for the higher. In a single Scottish research which adopted individuals for six years after the age of 81, their extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness all declined considerably as they grew older. “As a system, we are likely to deteriorate as we get nearer to dying, and character traits are a form of oblique indicator of our total functioning,” says Roberts.

Some researchers argue that such character developments — first turning into nicer and extra accountable with age, then extra grumpy and fickle — could also be biologically constructed into our species, a bit like kids’s developmental milestones. What appears to help this principle is the truth that character maturation is common throughout cultures. This holds true as properly in observations of chimpanzees, who flip extra agreeable and conscientious as they age. “It appears that there’s additionally one thing like a genetic program that drives character maturation,” says Bleidorn.

Most scientists at the moment agree that the way in which our character traits shift with time is just not solely merely organic, although; our surroundings probably performs a job, too. These modifications might comply with predictable life occasions and customary experiences, like falling in love, graduating, turning into a mother or father and, later, retiring.

Huge Moments 

Persona tends to be at its most steady in midlife. Bleidorn believes this can be resulting from the truth that that is additionally the interval when somebody’s atmosphere is extra constant. “Most individuals are carried out with having kids, stay in the identical home, have a steady social community, possibly the identical romantic accomplice — which can should do with their stability in character,” she says.

However, in early youth we expertise each loads of novelty and loads of character change. For instance, researchers have studied how individuals’s first severe relationships can set off such shifts. In a German research printed in Journal of Persona and Social Psychology, adults who began their first romantic partnerships between the ages of 18 and 30 grew to become significantly much less neurotic and extra conscientious in comparison with those that remained single. What’s extra, as Bleidorn notes, “these optimistic results stay even when individuals break up.” Getting your first job additionally appears to predictably change individuals for the higher. One other 2011 German research discovered that coming into the labor market boosts conscientiousness — we change into extra prone to present up on time, pay our payments, and work exhausting.

Most individuals change into extra conscientious over time. In the meantime, key moments, like first relationships and coming into the workforce, may set off character shifts. (Credit score: Vshnova/Shutterstock)

In the meantime, in case you occur to be a married girl, and also you’ve seen that because the marriage ceremony your husband is pleased to commerce his get together outfits for slippers, you aren’t alone. One research carried out on greater than 300 heterosexual spouses — particularly, 169 married pairs — dwelling in Florida confirmed that over the primary 18 months of marriage, new husbands grew to become a lot much less extroverted. For individuals who discover this disappointing, the upside is that stated husbands additionally grew to become extra conscientious — that’s, extra prone to take care of soiled dishes within the sink and pay payments on time. The character of the wives, then again, confirmed an uptick in emotional stability after their vows. As an example, they grew to become much less simply upset and fewer vulnerable to worrying.

Admittedly, the proof on how marriage modifications character is just not but as sturdy as it’s with first jobs or first relationships. The identical goes for the transition to parenthood or divorce. Whereas some researchers have discovered that turning into a mother or a dad makes individuals extra neurotic (consider all the brand new causes to fret), and fewer conscientious (which is smart given all the brand new calls for on their time), most research discover no variations in character between mother and father and other people with out youngsters.

Retirement, in the meantime, can generally trigger will increase in agreeableness, however not all research present these results. Divorce is a blended bag, too. For some it means extra extroversion; for others, much less. Roberts has a proof for such complicated outcomes: “It’s not the occasion per se, however your expertise of it,” he says. “It’s not the divorce, however whether or not it was a great or a foul divorce. That’s way more essential in terms of character change.”

Main life occasions, like divorce or retirement, probably have an effect on our character within the first place as a result of they modify our on a regular basis behaviors and thought patterns. If sustained, these modifications in behaviors can result in deeper, extra substantial shifts in character traits. In spite of everything, character traits are nothing greater than a sum of character states: moment-to-moment emotions, actions and beliefs. Whenever you work on these, you possibly can alter your character. Follow makes good, because the saying goes.

Altering It Up 

If you happen to’d like to vary no less than some a part of your character, you’re in good firm. A staggering 87 to 97 p.c of individuals stated they’d too, in a 2014 survey with 200-plus members printed within the Journal of Analysis in Persona. Conscientiousness topped the want listing of desired traits. Fortunately, given the right instruments, says Roberts, individuals can certainly alter their character.

In a single experiment, college college students entered a 15-week program designed to assist them change their character traits. The entire thought was primarily based on the oft-referenced adage to “pretend it until you make it.” Every week, the scholars obtained a listing of challenges by way of a pc program. These ranged from very straightforward, like saying “hey” to a cashier at a retailer to spice up extroversion, to tougher — say, arriving 5 minutes early for appointments to bolster conscientiousness. The scholars had to decide on a number of duties off a listing, with this system suggesting an increasing number of demanding choices because the trial progressed. All of it labored fairly properly. For instance, those that needed to extend their extroversion — and accomplished two challenges per week — managed to reliably enhance that specific character dimension over the semester.

Whereas these modifications don’t take a lifetime to perform, they don’t occur in a single day, both. Persona interventions, on common, require 24 weeks to convey out marked modifications, in accordance with a current evaluation of over 200 research. Neuroticism seems to be comparatively malleable; in these experiments, individuals grew to become significantly extra emotionally steady in simply 4 weeks.

One query that continues to be unanswered is how lengthy such results final. Roberts suspects that the perfect analogy right here is bodily train. “If I solely attempt a bit of bit, it’s in all probability not going to have a long-lasting impact,” he says.

There are some issues, nonetheless, that may change your character with virtually zero effort in your half — however with some probably nasty unwanted effects.

One research confirmed that habits tweaks helped members change sure traits, like saying “hello” to a cashier to spice up extraversion. (Credit score: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock)

You Are What You Eat 

People aren’t any rodents, however analysis signifies that T. gondii an infection can have an effect on our personalities, too. Research present that contaminated persons are much less conscientious and extra extroverted than those that are T. gondii-free. What’s extra, no less than 40 research have by now linked toxoplasmosis with schizophrenia. “Virtually all the things we’ve seen in rats [has been] seen in individuals too, proper right down to this weird attraction to the odor of cat urine,” says pathobiologist Webster, one of many authors of the research on the contaminated rats.

T. gondii is a tiny parasite which you could choose up from consuming undercooked meat or by altering a cat’s litter field. These single-celled organisms influence habits as a result of they’re “making an attempt to maximise transmission from an intermediate host — comparable to a rodent — to its definitive host, which is the feline,” Webster says. Experiments on rodents recommend that cysts of the parasite current within the mind can alter ranges of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that performs a job in reward and motivation. When a rodent is extra motivated to discover and extra interested in cat urine, it’s extra prone to be wolfed up by a cat, thereby spreading the parasite. Webster believes that T. gondii’s impacts on people are only a “knock-on impact” that wasn’t supposed for our species. But the parasite doesn’t know what host species it’s in, and can affect the habits of rodents and people alike.

Consuming undercooked meat might be not the neatest solution to change your character. However for many individuals, altering sure traits may have a substantial payoff. Excessive ranges of conscientiousness, openness to expertise, emotional stability and agreeableness have all been linked to relationship satisfaction, tutorial achievement, job efficiency, and even how lengthy we stay. Being very conscientious can decrease an individual’s mortality danger by 44 p.c — greater than even the perfect Mediterranean weight loss program. 

“If we may put conscientiousness right into a tablet, it will be essentially the most profitable pharmaceutical in historical past,” says Roberts.  

Though T. gondii infects rodents to get to the parasite’s feline host, it will probably influence human habits, too. (Credit score: Stuart Wilkins/Shutterstock)


Feelin’ Groovy

Getting older, going by way of main life milestones or constructing new habits aren’t the one issues that may alter your character. “Magic mushrooms” is likely to be notably efficient at shifting sure traits. In a 2011 research printed within the Journal of Psychopharmacology, their lively compound, psilocybin, has been proven to make individuals extra open to expertise, with results remaining even after a 12 months. Nonetheless, that specific research was small and has but to be replicated. One other hallucinogenic drug, LSD, may change mind dynamics and make individuals extra open to expertise, as demonstrated in a 2016 experiment utilizing fMRI scans. However whereas analysis and improvement in psychedelic remedy has accelerated lately, these substances nonetheless stay largely unlawful within the U.S. and most nations. — M.Z.


Marta Zaraska is a science journalist and writer. Her most up-to-date ebook is Rising Younger: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Assist You Reside to 100.

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