Personality as a target for interventions and public policy

A friend just passed along an article, Is Personality Fixed? Personality Changes as Much as ‘‘Variable’’ Economic Factors and More Strongly Predicts Changes to Life Satisfaction by Christopher J. Boyce, Alex M. Wood, and Nattuvadh Powdthavee, in Social Indicators Research:

Personality is the strongest and most consistent cross-sectional predictor of high subjective well-being. Less predictive economic factors, such as higher income or improved job status, are often the focus of applied subjective well-being research due to a perception that they can change whereas personality cannot. As such there has been limited investigation into personality change and how such changes might bring about higher well-being. In a longitudinal analysis of 8625 individuals we examine Big Five personality measures at two time points to determine whether an individual’s personality changes and also the extent to which such changes in personality can predict changes in life satisfaction. We find that personality changes at least as much as economic factors and relates much more strongly to changes in life satisfaction. Our results therefore suggest that personality can change and that such change is important and meaningful. Our findings may help inform policy debate over how best to help individuals and nations improve their well-being.

I once saw a talk by a marital-interventions researcher whose work showed strong and stable individual differences in marital quality growth curves, and very little that could predict the slopes of those curves (including marital therapy!). Yet when asked whether this suggested that he should be looking in greater depth at personality, he shied away from it. He said it’s not that he thought personality doesn’t matter, but he wanted to study things he could intervene with. This is not an unusual attitude I’ve encountered, especially among some social and clinical psychologists.

From my perspective, first of all, even if that were right, wouldn’t it be important to know the boundaries of what an intervention could do? And second of all, that’s a preconception about personality rather than an empirical finding. More and more research (including Jim Heckman‘s work on early interventions) is calling that preconception into question.

We still have a lot to learn about changing personality. But growing evidence is raising the possibility that by identifying personality antecedents of important life outcomes, you can learn more about what you should try to change, rather than what you cannot change. As long as intervention and policy researchers stick to the view that personality is unchangeable, though, that could remain a missed opportunity.

2 thoughts on “Personality as a target for interventions and public policy

  1. I couldn’t resist weighing in here to remind us that it matters a whole lot how we’re defining “personality.” While the big five traits are somewhat stable (though lots of great work has showed both reliable shifts over the lifespan and in response to life events), other components of personality, like narrative identity, may be more fluid. For example, in a great 2006 Journal of Personality study, Dan McAdams demonstrated both continuity and development in participants’ life stories. In your post, you describe a marital therapy researcher saying that very little could predict the changes in the growth curves of marital quality. Well, in a paper I published in February 2012 in JPSP, I found that in the context of individual therapy, changes in narrative identity actually came before improvements in mental health (above and beyond the impact of the big five traits!). While the study was not an experiment, and thus we couldn’t truly determine causality, it does suggest that one part of personality – narrative identity – does change, and when it does, changes in mental health follow. It also suggests that parts of personality may be amenable to therapeutic intervention in the service of enhancing clinical outcomes.

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