Personality Set in Stone? - Change Week


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Beautiful Freak.

The incredible story of identical twins separated at birth and reuniting often results in the pair having undeniable similarities in very specific habits. The perplexing scenario has intrigued psychologists to investigate where these behaviors truly derive.

A widely publicized study of twins separated at birth dates back to 1979. The study, launched by psychologist Thomas Bouchard, featured about 60 pairs of twins chronicled through their lives, recording how both individuals were remarkably alike.

Twins James Arthur Springer and James Edward Lewis were adopted by different families. After going about their separate lives for 39 years, they were reunited through the help of Bouchard. The brothers learned that each had married and divorced a woman named Linda and remarried a Betty. They shared interests in math and carpentry, smoked and drank the same amount, and even experienced headaches at the same time of day.

Twin studies in the movement of personality psychology set the standard in personality theory. Psychologists in the field coined the phrase that personality is in fact “set in stone,” especially by the ripe age of 30.

The same branch of psychology has attempted to supplement abstract structures of the mind into a more life-like account of the individual psyche. Since its inception in the 18th-century Enlightenment, the entailing line of research and theories have been plentiful yet conflicting.

Dr. Carol S. Dweck, a Social and Developmental Psychology at Stanford University, has stirred the sea in this field with her 2008 study, “Can Personality Be Changed?

Dweck’s research focuses on the malleability of beliefs as the core to our personality structures. Disregarding the commonly used model of the “Big Five” personality traits, such as extraversion and openness, Dweck claimed that prior psychological studies “often neglect the levels in between and yet these are arguably the most important parts of who we are.”

These levels in between are seen as self-reinforcing beliefs that we craft through our life experiences. Dweck and other psychologists conducted another study in 2007 examining the malleability of our belief in intelligence, as to whether we consider it innate or gained through hard work.

During the experimental phase, students transitioning into junior high school participated in 8-session workshops. Both the control and experimental groups were given the same study skills, but the experimental group was told that the brain was like a muscle that improved with exercise.

As a result, the experimental group showed a significant improvement in grades and motivation toward schoolwork.

The workshop program called Brainology was developed out of Dweck’s research and was since implemented into about 600 school systems nationwide. It is a computer-based program, which runs for five to 12 weeks, and continues to show improvement in students’ study habits. However, conflict arises at the request for long term results in these personality changes.

Christopher Nave, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University, recently published a study on the consistency of average personality traits through a long term time frame. In 2010, he interviewed people who participated in a personality study back when they were children in 1960, and discovered that many exhibited the same average personality traits.

Nave recently spoke with BTR about his research and the possibility for transformation.

“Absolutely you can change your personality, but the one thing my research is saying is that maybe it’s a little bit more difficult than we originally thought,” says Nave. “We largely stay in a set range of our personality. In any given situation I behave from a 1 to a 9 on a shyness scale, but on average, I am probably am always going to be a 5 or a 6.”

Similar to when physicians are advising people on weight loss, the prospect seems possible, but in reality, the actual change requires a lot of work and time.

Jeanette Taylor, Department Chair of the Psychology Department at Florida State University, conducts research with twins for various psychological studies. She spoke with BTR and explained the complexity in nurture-versus-nature discussion.

“It’s important to be aware that there is not even a debate on nature versus nurture any more. We are well past that in science,” says Taylor. “It’s really a matter of what’s the proportional influence.”

She continues that data from studies have clearly shown that a person’s psychological state is a combination of factors–even a strong genetic influence in someone’s personality will never establish it as fixed.

Outside the theoretical and controlled world, clinical professionals approach the matter in a different perspective.

Randy Gottesman-Smolian, a Clinical Social Worker specialized in psychology, spoke with BTR about the danger in considering theories in regards to real individuals.

“There are a number of good theories out there. I think you have to apply them to the person and not the person to the theory,” says Gottesman-Smolian. “I work with a medical model where I assess patients in a psychosocial biological approach. You don’t ever fully change the person.”

The assessment model regards all the factors in development of the person’s mental health. She explains that a full transformation is unlikely. Ultimately, patients’ ability to alter certain personality traits can only come from themselves.

A mean range of personality stability exists in mass studies. However, their conclusions do not mean that we are devoid of the power to make long-lasting, positive change on our outlook.

“Maybe we should embrace more of what we are,” says Christopher Nave. “Instead of continuing to strive to be different, maybe we should embrace what we are so we can find situations that better fit us and match our personality.”