Is Personality Permanent? (And The Problem With Self-Help Books)

Firstly, I would like to thank everyone for their support of my previous post Give A Man A Fish. Thank you so much I have been overwhelmed!

Is Personality Permanent?

The joy of being free to not study anymore has worn off considerably already! It’s been only 6 weeks since I submitted my dissertation and found myself browsing through amazon book shop looking for something meaty I could get my brain working on…

I came across Mr. Hardy’s new book “Personality Isn’t Permanent” and it reminded me of a conversation I had with my kiddo a while back. I explained to kiddo that in my 7 years of study, I have learned that the evidence that personality is permanent is overwhelmingly robust. I asked if he thought that despite the evidence, could someone deliberately change their personality. The answer that we agreed on was that we did not know but how could we test it? We decided we could test this theory by testing my personality after my career change!

Personality Traits

Personality traits have been broken down into 5 pro-social traits and 3 less socially desirable traits. The pro-social traits are Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extraversion and Neuroticism. The 3 less desirable traits (dark triad traits) are Psychoticisim, Narcissism and Machiavellianism. We all possess these traits (good and bad) on a continuum from low to high, depending on our genetics and childhood experiences which infers the differences in the natural behaviours and attitudes you can observe in others in day to day interactions.

The important word is infers. Psychologists and researchers do not state that because someone is high in trait agreeableness, say, that they will be accommodating in every situation. It simply means that this person would be more likely to be agreeable and accommodating in nature than someone who scores low in this trait. Narcissism and Machiavellianism are traits that are strongly related to crime, but someone who scores highly in these traits is not necessarily going to commit crime…

Personality traits indicate the most likely behaviours and attitudes of each person. However, other factors also influence day to day behaviours and actions such as beliefs, experiences, gender, age, economic means, residential status, social expectations and norms in the country they inhabit, physical/mental health, ability to meet basic needs, education attainment and so on. 

Research is always adding information to the pool of accepted (and rigorously tested) scientific knowledge, yet the notion that personality traits are static and enduring remains some 30 years after the initial categorisation of traits into the “big 5” by Costa and McRae. The likely behaviours associated with high or low scores in each trait also remain constant despite continued testing and research.

Test Of Personality Change

So now we come to my own “experiment” on whether personality can change…

Prior to my current job, I worked in accounts for many years. I enjoyed sitting at my desk day after day methodically inputting data and preparing and interpreting accounts. It was a happy day if I did not have to interact with another person, because, you know, they’re scary!

I know and accept that I am an introvert. I find gatherings of people draining and have to withdraw after a while to recuperate on my own. I am also high in conscientiousness so a job in accounts suited my personality (I love spreadsheets and repetitive tasks, yay!). However, ever the enigma, I am also high in openness and agreeableness, traits associated with enjoying and accepting change, new ideas and… spending time with others! I know, I know, I am quirky and weird… I have found knowing my traits to be useful to understand some of my preferences and tendencies but have not relied on them for confirmation of me as a whole person. It is waaaaayyy more complicated than that…

Anyway, I “fell” into accounts to please others (Parents and husband) who insisted I “get a proper job”. When I divorced, I decided to do something to please myself for a change and started to study psychology (and get tattoos and piercings…). Psychology is something that was always of interest to me and I saw it as some kind of “holy grail” to understand why people do what they do, and why I am the way I am. What I discovered is that people are complicated and there are a myriad number of reasons why people act the way they do! I didn’t find the ultimate understanding of human behaviour, but I found emotional and mental peace, a whole load of knowledge to fill my noggin and that is a win as far as I am concerned!

Anyway, wanting to use my new-found knowledge I quit accounts and embarked on a new career facilitating intervention programmes, standing in front of a bunch of strangers helping them develop their thinking skills. My boss in my accounts job was worried that I would hate it as it was so far outside of my comfort zone. Bizarrely, I do not hate it! I relish standing up in front of others teaching and helping them. I even discovered my artistic side and can fill a flip chart with drawings and information at the drop of a hat.

So, how has 2 years of a job more suited to an extrovert affected my score in trait extraversion? Hardly at all! I scored very low, around 10%, prior to my change in career… it now stands at a whopping 12%! (woooooo!) All other traits remain the same as they were when I tested prior to a career change.

I appreciate my “experiment” was lacking in scientific robustness and sufficient participants to be able to generalise… But I intentionally changed my job using skills and behaviours associated with a personality that is completely different from what is natural to me and my personality did not change in any meaningful fashion. I am certain that no matter how hard you try to change it, your personality will be constant. However, the time scale of my observations is very short, and over the longer term, there is evidence of a change in scores for each trait that had previously remained constant, particularly as you approach retirement age.

The Problem With Self-Help Books

I had intended to purchase Mr. Hardy’s book, as I was interested to see what he had to say on the matter. I mistakenly thought it was a book on personality filled with reasoning and legitimate research that contradicted what my professors had taught me, and my own many hours of studying. I am open to learning and adapting my understanding based on new information and evidence. However, I soon discovered this was another self-help book added to the already saturated market.

I was obviously briefly misled by the title of the book and because of this, I feel uncomfortable about the potential to mislead the unsuspecting reader.

As a self-help book, it may be beneficial as he is talking about changing behaviours and beliefs in order to overcome trauma and for self-development. The things he appears to be advising are similar to a life coach and/or therapist when you are looking for advice for making changes in your life which have proven to be beneficial to many. How beneficial these are without the support of a coach or therapist is not known. 

I am not against self-help book per se, but I cannot recommend Mr. Hardy’s book, as personally, I feel he epitomises all I dislike aboutsome self-help authors — misleading and taking advantage of honest people who have a potentially serious problem in their lives they are looking for help with.

Mr. Hardy calls himself a doctor when his own biography states that he has not achieved a Ph.D.  So at best, he is a graduate, just like myself. (I could not be bothered to spend time searching for the school he completed his undergraduate degree in order to check the alumni for proof of his graduate status, sorry). I do not know what the legality of falsely claiming to be a doctor is in the States, but doing so here in the UK is frowned upon by the British Psychological Society and could lead to litigation and claims of fraud. 

Secondly. Mr. Hardy has totally misunderstood personality and is confusing it with identity and behaviour which is dumbfounding given he is a “Dr. of psychology”! Identity and Behaviour is something you CAN change relatively easily through determined effort and education… He is making very bold claims that decades of legitimate research, is a myth.  And is then cleverly marketing his book and his “revelations” and generally misleading his potential audience. I feel quite strongly about this. I am not certain how he sleeps at night, to be honest.

Thirdly. In this podcast, Mr. Hardy talks about Myers Briggs tests as being unscientific (sic). Not only is Myers Briggs based on many years of scientific research, but they are also actually a behaviour and aptitude test, not a personality test. Mr. Hardy also mentions Freud’s work on personality. Psychological research and knowledge have progressed considerably beyond the theories of early behaviourists of pre-1940s. I do not know of anyone working or studying in the psychological fields that mention or consider Freud except for briefly mentioning his studies to show the foundations and history of modern research!

Mr. Hardy claims that believing your personality is fixed prevents you from moving on from trauma in life and not fulfilling your potential…

In my humble opinion, that is tosh. Believing your identity is fixed and unchanging can be life-limiting. For example:

I identified as an accountant for many years. I now identify as a facilitator… my personality is still the same… Had I not seen myself as anything other than an accountant I would not have met my many wonderful new colleagues, learned new skills nor be able to call my previous boss a friend (because I struggled with being friends with a boss… was she my friend or my boss at any given time? Confusing!).

I recently acquired the identity of a blogger… my personality is still the same… For many years I was too scared to put words on a blog post let alone publish one…

I identify as someone who suffers from M.E. who struggles with fatigue and flare-ups but I am determined to walk up Pen y Fan (because I want to) and I am finding ways of making this happen… my personality is still the same…

I have suffered considerable trauma in my life… Is my personality holding me back from achieving what I could achieve? Am I trapped in a permanent state of trauma because of my unchanging personality? In my humble opinion, no… actually it might be, maybe my conscientiousness is holding me back (lol), but it appears there is nothing I can do about that! 😉  

I would be willing to revisit this blog with an update if Mr. Hardy was willing to send me a copy of his book. Perhaps I’ll spend the money I was going to spend on it on trekking poles for my hiking/mountain climbing endeavours instead!

What Do You Think?

Have you ever taken a personality test? If you are curious and want to do so this is the closest I could find to Costa and McRae’s original test which is only available with permission for scientific research. There is no need to purchase the full report, the overview is comprehensive enough for curiosity.

Do you think personality is fixed or do you think you can change it?

Is there a topic you would like me to discuss next? Even if it’s not psychology-related, I would relish a research project!

Rachael x

Further reading on personality if you would like to explore further…

I’m not a fan of Wikipedia but this page on personality is pretty accurate and in-depth at a basic level https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personality

If you would like something a bit more scientific…

useful piece showing the evolution of trait theory

Costa and Mcrae

About the guest author:

Rachael Barkham is the mastermind behind Stagger Onwards Rejoicing.

This talented British blogger is a proud mother — the kind of mother that wants the best for her children and is deeply passionate about life.

19 thoughts on “Is Personality Permanent? (And The Problem With Self-Help Books)

  1. Wonderful interesting post. From my perspective, I think core personality can’t be changed but with inculcating certain habits the basic traits can be changed. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

    1. Ah thank you. I was a bit nervous about posting and agonised for hours over it….I’ll have to find a more cheerful subject for next post! Thank you for your support

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent review on an interesting topic, Rachel. Our personality is who we are. I don’t feel it can or should be changed but some aspects can be controlled.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantastic post Rachael…..
    I have changed alot of traits & behaviors I did not like in myself over the years. I’ve gotten alot of counselling to help me process past trauma & done EMDR treatments also. AS I;ve seen progress in dealing with PTSD & Anxiety issues, I can see more of my original personality coming thru’.
    Who I was as a child; teenager; young adult; older adult & now a Senior (how did THAT happen?) I see alot of my positive personality traits still within me after all these years.
    I still need to do some ‘tweaking’ on a few traits but overall I am the person I started out to be…..
    Thanks for a great post!
    Sherri-Ellen in Canada

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Sherri-Ellen. Thank you for reading and commenting. you’ve been on an incredible journey, one I can relate to, sounds like you are doing great. Best wishes x

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are most welcome Rachael…I have had a very interesting & challenging Life. It has not always been stable (nor have I) but I have soldiered thru’. Got Counselling when needed & I refuse to give up.
        I enjoy reading your posts. You have alot of insight Rachael…..
        Good wishes for a lovely weekend!
        Sherri-Ellen

        Liked by 1 person

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