Ep 164: How to Modify a Personality

Episode Summary

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.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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 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! Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Clue your teen into the knowledge that they are in charge of who they are:

“Our personality traits are shaped by our values and goals in life rather than the other way around.”

-Christian Jarrett

2. Remind your teen of a quick and easy calming strategy:

(Members Only)

3. Drop some knowledge on your teen about achieving goals: 

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: You are doing a lot of stuff. You do all kinds of writing. You are a cognitive neuroscientist. What got you interested in the science of personality change, and why is this a topic that you thought was so important enough to spend all this time and energy writing such a thorough book about?

Christian: Well, like you say, for about 20 years or so, I’ve been reporting on new psychology findings, neuroscience findings, and it was like, how much are we capable of truly changing ourselves? It was a common theme that I noticed kept coming up. A lot of psychology seems to boil down to that.

Andy: Right.

Christian: I wanted to write kind of a book for the public, a mainstream book rather than a textbook. It resonated with me, and I thought it would resonate with the readers. There’s so much self-help advice out there isn’t there? And I’ve certainly, myself, reported on lots of kind of insights from psychology studies and that kind of thing, so yeah, there’s just always this question kept cropping up, how much can we truly change, deep down?

Andy: Yeah. So personality, you’ve got a lot of interesting research in here about personality changes over the lifespan, and seeing that there’s actually a lot of change happens between people’s personality as a child and then later on as an adult, and you talk in your book about how adolescence is a big reason for that. A lot of change happens during that time, I guess. I mean, we know teenagers are kind of moody and cranky, but are you saying that there’s actual changes happening in their actual personality during these years?

Christian: Yeah. That’s right. Personality change actually continues right the way through life, into old age. William James, the famous American psychologist, said our personalities were set like plaster around age 30, but the modern longitudinal findings that track people over decades have found that personality change continues right through life.

Andy: Interesting.

Christian: But it’s important. An important caveat is that there is a thread of continuity also, that you can—

Andy: Yeah, yeah. Because you feel like the same person, and you don’t feel like you change your personality too much…

Christian: Yeah, so there is this thread of continuity. You can look right back into your childhood, and find the kind of roots for your adult personality, and you’re quite right. Then in adolescence, I would say of all the life stages, adolescence is the time of kind of peak personality change.

Christian: I don’t know if you’ve come across this, but there’s something called the disruption hypothesis. Generally, right through the life course, there’s something called the maturity principle, which is that our personality traits kind of change in an advantageous way, on average, as we get older. You know, we kind of mellow, become more conscientious, that kind of thing. So that’s, through the whole life, you get this kind of gradual improvement, I suppose you could say. But the exception to that is in adolescence, where you get this temporary regression, where teens kind of, their trait neuroticism goes up, their conscientiousness goes down, that kind of, you know, it declines. Psychologists call it the disruption hypothesis, because it’s like their personalities are temporarily disrupted, and kind of regress. Which I can imagine some parents would probably identify with that.

Andy: Yeah, right? So that’s just a temporary thing, and then they start to kind of just climb back up after a couple years?

Christian: That’s right. Yeah, later in adolescence, they kind of recover and start to improve again, and get back on that sort of conveyor belt toward the gradual improvement.

Andy: So they’re less conscientious, they’re going to during the teenage years, and more also neurotic, more—

Christian: That finding was actually for girls only. The heightened neuroticism. For boys and girls, the disruption hypothesis describes the finding of lower conscientiousness and lower agreeability. Agreeability is another of the Big Five traits.

Andy: Right. Yeah, we want them to be agreeable, yeah. So, you talk about how we can be influenced, our personality can be influenced by the people that we hang out with, and I feel like a lot of parents resonate with that, because you always feel like you know what kids are influencing your kids, like whatever they’re doing, you’re like, “Oh, I know what kid influenced them to do that.” You talk about self-monitoring, I guess, like high self-monitoring and low self-monitoring. Does that influence like how much are your teenagers going to be influenced by their peers, or how do you think about that?

Christian: Yeah, well, I’m sure you’re familiar with this research that suggests parents’ influence on their kids, including their teenagers, is not as large as we tend to think in popular kind of discourse that it is.

Christian: Yeah, and a lot of the influences are actually, besides obviously the kind of genetic influences, that you can’t really do anything about, besides that, a lot of the main influences are outside of the home, and they’re unique to the child. So even if you have siblings in a family, there’s this expression that some of the researchers use around this, that actually no two kids are raised in the same family, because everything’s different for each child, depending on their birth order, depending on the friendship groups they hang out with, and socialization effects, which is how our personalities are shaped by the people we hang out with. Those effects are kind of maximal in the teenage years and early adulthood. They tend to decline-

Andy: That makes sense.

Christian: Yeah, they tend to decline later in life, so programs have been set up to try and help vulnerable teenagers with issues, like around antisocial behavior, that kind of thing. When they failed, that tends to be because all the emphasis has been put on kind of adult role models and parenting practices, and what the research has suggested is that what those unsuccessful programs were not realizing is just how important the peer influence are, and unless you get the peer groups on board as well, and educate and support across a vulnerable teenager’s friends and so on, it’s not going to work, because they’re still mixing with friends who are having a harmful influence on them or leading them astray, and shaping their personality in unhelpful ways. Then those adult influences and adult role models are just not going to be effective.

Andy: So, you talk about how situations, in different situations, we act in different ways and have different personality traits, and how we can sort of select those situations properly to promote positive personality traits that we want to have in different times. I wonder, part of me is like, okay, well so that’s a good idea, so we should make the situation in your home better, for your teenager to have more positive personality traits, but then, is that not so good, because then that doesn’t teach them how to do it themselves, and they need some of that difficulty, or something? So I don’t know, just kind of thinking about that.

Christian: Yeah, I think there’s definitely a balancing act there. I mean, the research with adults has shown that by being more intentional and conscious about the kind of situations we put ourselves in, doing activities that help us obtain a more positive mood, hanging out with people who make us feel good about ourselves and bring out positive aspects of our personalities, because there’s something called affective presence, which is this notion that everyone kind of varies in how they make other people feel, and the side of their personalities that they bring out with other people. So by being more cognizant of those kind of effects, then as adults, we can actually draw out the more positive aspects of our personality, like lower our neuroticism, increase our openness to experience, that kind of thing. But you were quite right. I mean, with teenagers and kids, there’s also this whole line of research that suggests if you kind of remove all the challenges away from-

Andy: Yeah, we’re not supposed to do that, right?

Christian: Yeah, they’re never going to learn to do anything for themselves. They won’t develop resilience, emotional resilience, so I would say it’s a balancing act, and it’s about having a conversation with your child or teenager about the kind of boundaries, or the level of challenge that they’re comfortable with, and where possible, don’t keep jumping in to do things for them, and resolve problems for them. I mean, one sort of theory that I guess it applies in adulthood, but it’s particular pertinent for teenagers, is social investment theory, which is this idea that our personality traits are to some extent shaped by the roles that we take on in life, and that dovetails really nicely with the idea that it’s beneficial to give teenagers suitable levels of responsibility, especially if those responsibilities are transparent, so they know what is expected of them, and they’re duly rewarded for when they live up to their responsibilities. That’s kind of creating a culture and an environment that’s going to cultivate a conscientious personality. I mean, that applies in adulthood, but it’s particularly appropriate in adolescence.

Andy: You talk a lot about different substances, and how they affect personality. I think that’s kind of interesting also, because I think teenagers can get into using substances for these reasons, like drinking alcohol to feel more extroverted. Is that true? What are the effects of alcohol on personality? I think it’s helpful to know about the research about this kind of stuff when you’re trying to talk to your teenagers about all these different substances and stuff like that.

Christian: Yeah, well the acute effects on personality when you’ve had a few beers, that’s kind of one thing. And yeah, the studies there, there was an amusing study that kind of gave different names to these four kind of different ways that intoxication can bring out different effects in a person’s personality. One of them was The Nutty Professor, I think was one of the… One was Mary Poppins, which was this idea that when you are drunk, you act with more agreeability. I can’t remember all of them, but I think one interesting insight that came out there was the mismatch between people’s own verdict on their kind of drunk personality-

Andy: We think we’re really fun when we’re drunk, and, “I’m not like other people, that are lame when they’re…”

Christian: Exactly. So yeah, there’s this mismatch. People think their drunk personality’s a certain way, and their friends and relatives say, “No, it’s not like that at all.” But those are the kind of… Yeah, those are the acute effects, but long-term, chronic, like chronic overindulgence in alcohol is associated with negative kind of personality outcomes later in life, and… I mean, there are close links between physical health and personality traits. Personality kind of gets beneath the skin so to speak. It is related to our physical health and our brain health, so any kind of behavior like a drinking problem, as well as harming your physical health, it’s going to manifest in harmful ways for your personality as well.

Christian: So that’s worth bearing in mind. It’s going to do things like lower your trait conscientiousness, increase your trait neuroticism, which is your emotional instability, and that kind of thing, so yeah, it’s definitely worth bearing in mind. Similarly, there’s research on chronic kind of overuse of cannabis, again, similarly showing over the longer term, over periods of… You know, over the years, people who use a lot of cannabis will see declines in their conscientiousness, that kind of thing.

Andy: Yeah. You have an interesting thing in here, it says, “A study of undergraduates found those who smoke weed showed less initiative and persistence, even after controlling for initial underlying personality differences.” So it is true, the stereotype of the stoner who’s too chilled out to bother doing very much at all.

Christian: Yeah, I think there’s an element of truth to it. Yeah, I mean there will always be exceptions I’m sure, but I don’t want to be a total killjoy about it. I mean, there are some findings suggesting temporary benefits to creativity and openness to experience that can come from using various substances, whether it’s cannabis or taking psychedelics. It’s probably worth drawing a distinction between the acute changes that can take place and the kind of chronic effects if you have a problematic relationship with a substance.

Andy: You talk about the importance of just believing that we’re capable of changing our personality.

Christian: Yeah, definitely. Well, there was actually… I was reminded as I was getting ready to chat to you, there was a study a little while ago that gave teenagers… I think it was like a 30-minute tutorial in the malleability of personality, and it had these beneficial effects for them over the coming months, when they… It’s similar to, which I’m sure you’ve come across, and your listeners as well, the kind of growth mindset theory. It is similar to that, so it’s just in this case, rather than being applied to learning and intelligence, which in the original research, this study kind of applied it to personality, and it found when teenagers were given this tutorial, in the subsequent months, when they were confronted with challenges in life and that kind of thing, they were far less likely to beat themselves up about it and see it as diagnostic of what’s lacking in themselves. They were more likely to take a constructive approach and realize that there are things that they can do to adapt, and learn, and to discover solutions to the challenges.

Christian: It’s beneficial to young people, but also for adults. I mean, I think recognizing the malleability in our personality is, I hope, empowering for people to discover that. If they’ve ever felt boxed in, or people making assumptions about them, or if anyone’s ever been frustrated sort of by their traits. There are definitely things that you can do. Personality is a meaningful concept. It matters, but it’s kind of trainable to an extent.

Andy: Sure. You can’t completely 180 yourself.

Christian: Yeah, exactly, but to a degree, it’s more akin to a skill.

Andy: Right. So that’s important as a parent, to communicate to your kids, that this is something you can work at and get better at, just like other things.

Christian: Yeah, and I mean, my book has quite a lot of stories of individuals who have achieved sort of positive personal change in their lives, and I think quite a few of them had very problematic teenage years, so it’s quite encouraging to realize while there are these important links between adolescent personality and later life outcomes, that is always on average, you know? That’s looking at everybody in the round. But there are exceptions, and there are people who have managed to break out of that kind of story if you like, that was set up for them earlier in life. Even people like Emma Stone, the actress, she was cripplingly shy as a teenager. She ends up being a Hollywood star.

Christian: I have someone I talk about in the book, Catra Corbett, who’s an ultrarunner, one of the few people in the world who’s run 100 miles more than 100 times. She was like a petty kind of drug dealer in late adolescence, and she managed to channel some of that obsessive and extrovert side to her personality, she managed to channel that into running, and became more conscientious later in life, so… Antony Joshua, the Olympic gold medalist boxer and heavyweight champion, he was arrested as a teenager for carrying drugs, and getting into fights, and that kind of thing, and he’s now held up as this kind of role model, of he’s so courteous, and I know that he’s a boxer, so he’s in a combat sport, but outside of the ring, he conducts himself in such a respectful, civil way, and is very respectful of his opponents, and he’s nurturing the next generation as well. He’s very concerned with nurturing kids from vulnerable and challenging backgrounds. I mean, you would never have thought that. If he’d taken a personality test as a teenager, he wouldn’t have come out too good, his scores on that.

Andy: Right, yeah.

Christian: Yeah. He’s turned his conscientiousness score, I would say, and his agreeableness, he has kind of turned 180, I would say.

Andy: Yeah. Seems like it. Right. And you have stories in your book of people who really have huge changes in what we would see as completely opposite of how they used to be, so there, why it’s definitely possible to really make big changes.

Christian: Yeah, and it’s often by finding a cause or something like that, that is meaningful to them, that brings out the better side of their personalities, or sort of re-channels some of their attributes.

Andy: That makes sense.

Christian: Yeah, in a healthier fashion. I talk about Maajid Nawaz, who was like a terrorist sympathizer in his teenage years, and he used to walk around with like a knife strapped to his back and that kind of thing, and he’s now an advocate for peace and tolerance, so change is definitely possible.

About Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett is the author, editor or contributor to ten books, spanning psychology, neuroscience, self-help and productivity. His latest is Be Who You Want. Christian’s earlier books include This Book Has Issues, 30 Second Psychology, The Rough Guide to Psychology, and Great Myths of The Brain, which, together, have been translated into twelve languages to date.

Over the years, alongside his editorial roles and authoring books, he has written about the human mind and behaviour for countless publications around the world, including authoring his own Brain Watch blog for WIRED, a Brain Myths blog for Psychology Today, a neuroscience column for New York magazine, a personality column for BBC Future, and an anxiety advice column for VICE Tonic. His writing has also featured in GQ Italia, New Scientist, BBC Science Focus, The Guardian, The Times, Womankind, 99U, Aeon, Big Think, The Telegraph, Outdoor Fitness, BBC WorkLife and many more publications.

Christian is recognised as a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, a global digital magazine that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophical understanding and the arts.

Christian has made countless appearances on international radio and podcasts; presented at international business conferences; given seminars at leading universities; and spoken on the subject of personality change in many venues, from London bars to Harrow boarding school.

Want More Be Who You Want?

Find Christian on his website, Twitter, and LinkedIn and Psyche Digital Magazine.