Research Briefing Paper for Schools, Settings and Services
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- A little discussed effect of therapy: it changes your personality
Roberts, B.W., Jing, L., Briley, D.A., Chow, P.I., Su, R., Hill, P.L. (2017).
A systematic review of personality trait change through intervention. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 143(2), Feb 2017, 117-141.
This item originally appeared in the British Psychological Society’s online Research Digest, January 19, 2017
Imagine the arrival of some high-tech brain device for treating mental health problems. It’s effective for many, but there’s an important side-effect. It changes your personality. Alarm ensues as campaigners warn that users risk being altered fundamentally for years to come. Now replay this scenario but replace the neuro-gizmo with good old-fashioned psychotherapy, and realise this: we’re talking fact, not fiction. A new meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin has looked at 207 psychotherapy and related studies published between 1959 and 2013, involving over 20,000 participants, with measures of personality taken repeatedly over time. The analysis has found that just a few weeks of therapy is associated with significant and long-lasting changes in clients’ personalities, especially reductions in the trait of Neuroticism and increases in Extraversion.
Talk of personality change can sound unsettling because we think of our personalities as reflecting our essential “me-ness”. But from a wellbeing perspective, the trait changes uncovered by this new research are welcome and may even underlie the benefits of therapy. Neuroticism or emotional instability is an especially important risk factor for future poor mental and physical health, and meanwhile high scorers on Extraversion are known to be happier on average and more optimistic.
The authors of the new research, Brent Roberts at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and his colleagues, also report that personality change appeared to occur remarkably quickly. Roughly four or more weeks of therapy was enough to induce meaningful change. In fact, beyond eight weeks, more therapy was not associated with greater personality change. Therapy-related changes to trait Neuroticism were especially significant – a few weeks of therapy led to about half the amount of increase in emotional stability that you would typically expect to see someone exhibit over an entire lifetime (as a general trend, most of us slowly but surely become more emotionally stable as we get older).
Roberts and his team were particularly interested in whether the therapy-related personality changes they uncovered simply reflected an effect of mood or a genuine change in traits. Consistent with the idea that these were true trait changes, they found that personality change was larger in participants in treatment groups compared with those in control conditions, and that changes were found to last over the course of years without fading.
The researchers also uncovered a small number of “non-clinical” trials that involved healthy participants undertaking cognitive training and other interventions rather than psychotherapy, and that measured personality over time. Here too there was evidence of significant personality change, again arguing against the idea that the effects of psychotherapy on personality merely reflect a return to a non-depressed mood or to one’s natural personality pre-illness. However, Roberts and his team cautioned there were only a few of these non-clinical trials and they tended to be conducted over short time scales, so the question of whether psychotherapy is transforming a client’s personality or “remaking” it to an earlier state remains open for now.