By Tory Shepherd/ The Guardian
That’s the question behind the multibillion-dollar self-help industry, the proliferation of blogs and podcasts that promise to make you a better human, and the ubiquitous and vacuous “inspo” memes.
It taps into a feeling that maybe we could be, should be, more than we are.
Along with all the fluff and pseudoscience that has sprung up around that question, though, is some serious science about whether humans can transform themselves, and how.
The recent debacles in Canberra have seen promises of personal reformation. Liberal National Party backbencher Andrew Laming is off to empathy lessons after he apologised for his treatment of women online, then scoffed at his own apology, before being accused of taking a picture of a bent-over woman.
Nationals leader Michael McCormack reckons his mob should improve after sitting around listening to an expert for “an hour or so”.
The idea of such easy penance has provoked some scepticism. A range of psychologists has warned against the idea of a “quick fix”, saying any such training needs to be voluntary, prolonged and intense.
But what about the bigger question: is change possible?
Raye Colbey says it is. When the Adelaide Hills woman heard about the boatload of asylum seekers who crashed on Christmas Island in 2010 (dozens of them died), she thought: “Serves you right”. Then asylum seekers moved in to her neighbourhood when the Inverbrackie Detention Centre was created, and she railed against that decision.
Then she was asked to be part of the SBS documentary series Go Back To Where You Came From, and she travelled to Africa and Malaysia to meet people hoping to find refuge.
“It changed me, it really did change me in that instance,” she says now. “And I have far more compassion…”
There are limitless ways in which a human might change. The University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change focuses on changing people’s habits. Senior research fellow Dr Michelle Jongenelis says that’s hard, and complicated, but possible.
People might be lacking the knowledge that gives them the necessary motivation to change – many people don’t realise that alcohol causes cancer, for example, so that knowledge gap needs to be bridged. Smokers might not care about dying early, but they’ll care about living long enough to chase around after the grandkids, or about saving up for a holiday.
Once people have the motivation to change, they need to believe they can change.
“Then it’s about goal setting, and the goals need to be smart goals,” Jongenelis says. “Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed.”
But wait, there’s more. To sustain changes, you have to keep assessing how you’re going so you don’t slip back. And, Jongenelis says, behavioural changes are different from personality trait changes – like changing your empathy levels, for example.
“Empathy is different to attitudes,” she says. “For some people it’s not something that can be taught.”
So, to personality traits.
A 2018 meta-study of data covering 50,000 people found four of the “big five” traits – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – changed throughout a person’s life. The four declined. “Participants became, on average, more emotionally stable (save for an uptick in neuroticism at the very end of life) but generally less outgoing, less open-minded and less orderly and self-disciplined,” the study found.
The results on the fifth trait, agreeableness, were mixed:
“The exception was the trait agreeableness (related to warmth and empathy), but actually this trait was found to change in each individual study, but in different directions for different studies (sometimes increasing through life, sometimes diminishing), such that it appeared stable when considered in aggregate.”
In 2019 a paper published in the journal American Psychologist that also looked at the big five again found personality traits were not set in stone. There are other studies that back these findings, and more specific research that life events can change us. Traumatic events, for example, and even processes including menopause.
Still, the thing that keeps people perusing the self-help shelves is wondering whether they can change their own personalities wilfully, intentionally, in a specific direction. A recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that people trying to change their own personalities – without help – generally failed. That study again looked at the big five traits and found some people even changed in the opposite way to what they wanted.
The Personality Change Consortium is a global group of researchers working together on the topic. Their most recent publication argues that not only can personality traits be intentionally changed, but that there’s an argument they should be changed.
“These changes can shape people’s successes and failures in life,” the researchers write. “Personality traits may thus occupy a particularly sweet spot at the interface of social science and public policy.”
Psychologists have developed a range of training models and techniques to change personality traits – there’s even an app for that.
That brings us back to the idea of empathy training. There is plenty of evidence that empathy can be taught in childhood, but it gets more complicated when it comes to adults. John Malouff writes in the Conversation that empathy involves “understanding the emotion of another person, feeling the emotion and responding appropriately to it”.
The University of New England associate professor writes that while children learn empathy as they grow up, there are effective methods to teach adults to be more empathic. Those methods are “in many ways similar to those used to teach a new dance or how to give a good public speech”. In other words, empathy can be taught as a skill or craft.ed getting on boats and coming over here and I begrudged them.
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