Ep 164: How to Modify a Personality

Christian Jarrett, author of Be Who You Want, brings us knowledge on the science of changing: what exactly can we change and how can we make changes stick. Plus, how to turn difficult personalities into successful ones.

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Full show notes

It’s hard to think of a group that gets labelled more than teenagers. Whether we declare them slackers, class clowns, popular kids or outcasts, it can be easy to put them in boxes based on their personalities! But have you ever considered that personalities aren’t as constant as you might think? Maybe teens’ personalities change with time as they grow or fluctuate depending on who they’re with or where they are. They might even have the power to intentionally change their own personalities if they put their minds to it.

The debate over whether human personality is stable or fluid is one that reaches back through the history of psychology. Some scientists in the past believed that our personalities were set in stone by age thirty, while others believe there’s no such thing as a set personality at all! Are our personalities decided at birth, or are they decided by the events of our lives? Do we have a role in choosing our own personality or is it something that just happens to us?

These are the kinds of questions we’re asking Christian Jarrett this week. He’s been a leading cognitive neuroscientist for two decades with work featured on the BBC, in Vice, Guardian, GQ and more! His book, Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change, tackles commonly asked questions we all have about defining our personalities and changing ourselves for the better. He’s here to cover some of the most interesting points and give advice for parents of teens with rapidly changing personalities.

In our interview, Christian explains why teens are especially vulnerable to personality change! We’re also covering the effects of social situations on teens’ personalities, and how you can help your teen use certain techniques to actively work towards being the person they want to be.

Teens are Ripe for Personality Change

With their brains still developing and their minds impressionable, teens have a very high potential for personality change, says Christian. However, this can sometimes backfire! As Christian explains, there’s an interesting theory that attempts to break down teens’ personality development, called the disruptor hypothesis. According to this theory, although positive human personality growth is linear for the most part, our disposition actually regresses in the teenage years!

What does this mean, exactly? Well, as we go through life, we find ourselves “improving” our personalities–that is, becoming more conscientious, kind, patient, or mellow.  But because teen’s brains and bodies are going through so many transitions, they tend to backslide a bit, becoming more prone to anger, neuroticism, or self-centeredness! Sound familiar? If your teen’s behavior is less than tolerable, this might just be a contributing factor.

Luckily, there are ways you can help teens work through these rather undesirable personality traits–whether it be narcissism, grumpiness or chronic anxiety. In the episode, Christian shares certain techniques teens can practice to channel self-centeredness to serve the greater good. He also shares methods for teens to manage a tendency towards overwhelming worry or nerves. In these ways, teens are able to have control over their personality and the way they’re perceived by others!

For teens thrust into the chaotic world of high school, social situations can be pretty intense. As a parent, you may have pretty regular concerns about the people your teen is hanging out with! In the episode, we’re talking about how friends can affect teens’ personalities.

Why Social Groups are So Influential

One of the most effective ways teens can take control of their own personalities is by managing who they hang out with. By surrounding themselves with people who have positive, uplifting energies, Christian says teens can become more optimistic themselves. By reminding teens of this and helping them be intentional about who they're spending time with, you can help your teen become a happier person!

Christian emphasizes the importance of helping teens think critically about the friends they choose to keep instead of making those decisions for them. In Christian’s work studying teen brain development, he’s found that when parents interject themselves so much into a teen's life that they’re removing obstacles, it dampens the teen’s ability to develop emotional resilience. Giving them the responsibility of choosing their own friends may seem small, but it can help as they go forward into adult life.

Interestingly, research has found that although parents do have some influence over teens, it’s nothing compared to the influence of their peers. Christian explains how external forces have the largest effect on teen’s personality. When programs are set up to rehabilitate youth, they often fail because they rely on adult role models rather than peer influence, Christian says. If we want teens to become their best selves, it might be wise to encourage them to surround themselves with the right friends!

Beyond guiding their social lives, there’s a lot parents can do to promote a positive personality change in a teen.

Guiding Teens Towards Positive Change

Since teen’s personalities are so fluid, there are ways we can push them towards uplifting changes! Christian explains how at this point in their lives, personality acts almost like a skill that can be improved with practice and a growth mindset. In fact, research has shown that when teens are given guidance and tutorials about how to deal with emotional setbacks, they’re less likely to beat themselves up or be self deprecating, instead showing resilience and optimism.

One thing Christian and I talk about is goal setting. He explains how humans actually don’t have very reliable will power, so this is something you might want to take steps to help your teen develop. Teaching them to remove temptations or plan ahead can be really positive steps in the right direction. Say their goal is to go to the gym every week, but they can’t seem to get themselves out of bed. Christian suggests they take the effort to plan out a reward for themselves after their workout, so they’ll be motivated to go.

In addition to pursuing goals, Christian encourages teens to question their goals. Is this goal causing them too much stress? How does it make them feel about themselves? Teens can often feel stuck in dead ends, so it can be good to slow them down and turn them around before they get there. Christian explains how much harder it is for teens to make changes when there’s no real motivation behind it. If they’re doing it just to do it, they might not ever get there. If they really want to become a better person, then Christian believes it’s absolutely possible.

In the Episode...

On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
  • Why male and female personality development is different
  • How alcohol and marijuana affect personality
  • Why teens should learn to name their emotions
  • How to help a narcissistic teen
Thanks for listening! If you want to find more of Christian’s work you can visit his website, Christianjarret.com, where there’s a link to some awesome personality tests, or on Twitter @psych_writer. He’s also the deputy director of a Psyche magazine, which analyses the human experience through science, art and news–check that out at psyche.co. Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Christian Jarrett
Christian Jarrett
Editor of Psyche Magazine https://t.co/s1Esj2DVgK | SPSP award-winning author of BE WHO YOU WANT | Contributor @sciencefocus
Ep 164: How to Modify a Personality
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