Dunedin Study head reveals how you can change your personality

by Jane Clifton / 22 December, 2018
Richie Poulton: “I was still an adolescent at 26. A lot of people are.” Photo/Sharon Bennett/Listener

Richie Poulton: “I was still an adolescent at 26. A lot of people are.” Photo/Sharon Bennett/Listener

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Contrary to the fixed personality types of the Myers-Briggs assessments, world-leading research from New Zealand has found that change is possible; it just takes time and it’s better to start young. 

We all come with a genetic factory setting, but when it comes to personality, we’re not as hardwired as we are for, say, baldness or eyesight.

Decades of self-help books, some of them even with a bit of science at their command, suggest we can, if we put our minds to it, cherry-pick at will from among the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator’s 16 personality types or change our attachment type from preoccupied avoidant to secure.

It turns out there’s some truth among the mumbo jumbo.

Central to the nature-versus-nurture debate is whether one’s personality is fixed or mutable, and the latest word is, it’s mutable – just not quickly. The world-leading longitudinal Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Study at the University of Otago has found that personality traits have a tendency to deepen as we get older, and they can be affected by life experiences. After analysing data from a cohort of young adults at age 26, whom researchers have been tracking since birth, a landmark report from the study found work had an effect on personality.

It found distinctive changes in personality traits between adolescence and entry into the workforce, and not always the expected ones. For instance, the much-vaunted “constraint” weighting, which measures how much self-control and conscientiousness an individual has – which is believed to be a strong precursor to a successful, well-adjusted life – was not as big a factor in affecting how people got on as young adults as their emotional maturity and outlook on life.

It was already known that people tend to become more self-disciplined and positive as they move from the teenage years into adulthood. But what the study has added to this picture is that a person’s work experiences can have a big effect on the extent and nature of those changes.

Change can come

The head of the “Dunedin Study” at the National Centre for Lifecourse Research, Professor Richie Poulton, says this does sound a bit obvious and there are “normative” factors in personality change, such as the effect of becoming independent, having to submit to work requirements, forming a long-term relationship and becoming a parent. Also, he says, we now know that brain development, particularly that which modifies impulsiveness, is not complete until about the age of 24. “I was still an adolescent at 26. A lot of people are, so that’s a factor here, too.”

But, Poulton says, the data’s confirmation that personality is not, as was once widely thought, unchanging is extremely reassuring. “Personality study is the field of how we deal with things and it’s helpful to know that it’s far more dynamic than we might have thought.”

This has welcome policy-formation implications, which, handily enough, Poulton is helping to shape as chief science adviser to the Ministry of Social Development, and to the Prime Minister in her role as Minister for Child Poverty Reduction.

Poulton. Photo/Supplied

Start young

Poulton says the key time for positive change remains in early childhood, where individual temperaments can most easily be moulded to improve future well-being. Young children with a tendency to be aggressive or impulsive can be conditioned over time into more positive traits – not least because such change brings immediate benefits. “The world rewards you when you have those positive traits, when you don’t hit people or act up or shout and you can share and communicate.” Both Poulton and the report are not afraid to use the old nana word, “nice”. The report says those who start life with a high score for “niceness”, meaning positive and pleasing interpersonal skills, such as sociability, did better younger and earned more.

Life’s difficulties only compound for people the further they get towards adulthood with negative traits such as anxiety, aggression and a sense of alienation still in the ascendancy. The study has found that those who had a higher proportion of these negative traits at 18 went on to have poorer work experiences. By 26, they had lower-prestige jobs, reported less satisfaction with their working lives and had trouble making ends meet. “Alienated and hostile adolescents appear trapped in a self-fulfilling and vicious cycle,” says Poulton. “Their personality disposition leads them to work experiences that undermine their ability to make a successful and rewarding transition to the adult world.”

Poulton says the recent spate of self-help books on the subject of willpower are generally close to the mark in saying that long-established habits, manifestations of personality traits, can be changed – but not all at once and not quickly. “You have to keep chipping, chipping, chipping away. And there’s the ‘nudge theory’ that your environment can encourage you towards positive behaviour and away from what you’re trying to change. But it does have to be a bit challenging, too, so you build resilience. And the other important thing is that, as your nana also said, ‘If you fall over [or] make a mistake, get up and try again.’ Mistakes, going two steps forward and one back, are inevitable. You have to keep chipping away.”

This editorial was first published in the December 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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