New research describes effective ways of changing long-term personality traits & other persistent behaviour patterns (2nd post)
Last updated on 16th August 2016
I recently wrote the blog post "New research describes effective ways of changing long-term personality traits & other persistent behaviour patterns (1st post)" where I introduced two new research articles - Hudson and Fraley's "Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change personality traits?" and Elliott et al's "Psychometrics of the Personal Questionnaire: A client-generated outcome measure". The Hudson & Fraley paper describes an intriguing way of deliberately changing long-term personality patterns. The Elliott et al paper suggests an alternative way of setting up personal change targets. My own blog post from earlier this year "A project to change long-term interpersonal patterns: background" illustrates similar territory.
So how did Hudson & Fraley proceed? Well they took a Big Five personality questionnaire and got participants to rate each behaviour from +2 ("I want to do this much more than I currently am") to 0 ("I do not want to change this trait") to -2 ("I want to do this much less than I currently am"). Then in their first - unsuccessful - intervention, they asked participants in the active arm of the study to complete a brief writing task envisioning "what it would look like if you attained your desired change ... the purpose of this step is to envision what specific changes you would like to make". Afterwards, they were asked to "list 3 ways that you can try to attain the changes you desire over the next week. Think of both general and specific steps you can take to try to change yourself." At each subsequent wave, these participants were reminded of their goals from the previous wave, and asked to rate on a scale from 0% to 100% how successfully they had attained their goal. Participants created new goals each week (although, naturally, participants could reuse goals from the previous week, if desired).
Well this first experiment turned out to be a flop. Compared with a control group, participants in this initial "actively-trying-to-change" intervention didn't do well in making measurable shifts in their personality styles. Hudson & Fraley discuss various possible explanations for this lack of effect and speculate whether the weekly goals people came up with were simply not specific enough. They now did a second experiment where they made three alterations. Firstly they got participants to monitor their behaviours every day using the "Daily Behavior Questionnaire". I have put together a version of this assessment tool downloadable in either Word doc or PDF format. Possibly more practical still is a weekly format of the questionnaire, again accessible in Word doc or PDF format. This regular monitoring is quite likely to have boosted people's ability to change - think, for example, about the effects of getting people to carry a pedometer or to write down everything they eat. They are both interventions that appear to be just about monitoring, but which have been shown to promote behaviour change as well. What we record we tend to pay more attention to. The second alteration may also have boosted change somewhat. It involved checking in with participants more regularly to confirm that they still had the same goals for change.
The third alteration was possibly the most important. The authors wrote "In Study 1, participants in the treatment condition were given relatively unstructured instructions to generate weekly goals to help them attain their desired personality trait changes. Many participants created extremely vague, nonspecific, nonmeasurable goals, such as, “talk to more people,” “learn to love myself more,” “make plans ahead of time,” “be more thorough in my work,” or “stay organized.” These types of broad goals can be ineffective in aiding goal pursuit. Rather, research suggests that forming more specific implementation intentions, such as, “If I encounter situation X, then I will do Y,” can be more efficacious and lead to higher rates of goal attainment than do vaguer goal intentions (Gollwitzer & Brandstätter, 1997). Thus, during each wave of Study 2, participants in the intervention condition were coached to create very specific and concrete “small steps” (e.g., “Call Andrew and ask him to lunch on Tuesday”) as well as “if . . . then” implementation intentions (e.g., “If I feel stressed, then I will call my mom to talk about it”). Further, they were warned that “broad goals like ‘I want to be more talkative and sociable’ are too vague, and therefore nearly impossible to attain.”
I'm a big fan of implementation intentions, and the linked technique of mental contrasting. I can very much see that thoughtful & determined use of these techniques would be very likely to boost the effectiveness of change intentions. It will take a bit of work that's likely to be amply rewarded ... so do visit the two blog posts starting with "Implementation intentions & reaching our goals more successfully" and also the third post "Mental contrasting: a way to boost our commitment to goals we care about". Also well worth exploring is the acronym-friendlier updated version of these methods described in the two posts starting with "How to WOOP".
So there we have it. This second experiment in supporting people make measurable changes in their personalities was a good deal more successful. And if people can choose to alter their personalities, at least to a measurable, observable, significant extent ... then this is relevant for pretty much any serious attempt to change long-term patterns of thoughts, feelings, behaviours and relationships with others & the world. Big stuff. What would you like to change? Maybe have a look at the three blog sequence "Goal renewal boosts wellbeing" and download the handout "Goals - ACT WISeST" (as a Word doc or as a PDF file). Then note the five part change programme:
a.) What does your overall goal involve? Take time to visualise & write about what the wanted end state actually looks like. When you've reached your change goal, how will you be feeling, thinking & behaving. Please write about this clearly & concretely. And as a second part of this goal visualisation exercise, please do your best to really feel what is likely to be so special about achieving this goal. How do you think it might be to have genuinely & deeply made the changes you want to make. Allow yourself to get a sense of how joyful, satisfied, peaceful or other feeling state that you hope this change could lead to.
b.) How can you measure your progress towards this goal? If this wished for state qualifies as 100%, what percentage of this state do you feel you've currently achieved ... as an approximate, intuitive "guesstimate"? Are there any other reasonably well validated scales that you could use to assess progress ... for example scales of wellbeing, flourishing, positive & negative feelings, happiness, self- & other-compassion, self-esteem, vitality, curiosity, conscientiousness, extraversion, self-esteem, self-determination, and so on (for examples see the "Wellbeing" sections in the "Good Knowledge" area of this website). How do you currently score on any relevant scale you choose, and how would you score if you had achieved the changes you want to make?
c.) What are the obstacles to reaching this goal? What needs to change? What needs to be increased or decreased or done differently? What gets in the way of you reaching your goal?
d.) Choose three intermediate goals for the coming week (and WOOP them): Choose three specific, measurable things you can do in this coming week that will move you towards your overall goal. It's fine if they're quite small intermediate goals ... better to move forward in small achieved steps than to make the steps too big and not manage them. Progress is likely to be achieved by working just beyond your comfort zone ... too easy and there's no progress, too far and there's danger that it becomes a break not a stretch. If you regularly achieve your weekly goals, start making them a little harder. If you find yourself not managing them ... OK ... this is helpful information, pull back a little and make the steps a bit smaller. Now set up WOOP or straightforward Implementation Intentions for any of these intermediate goals that this method is relevant to.
e.) Recommit each day: At least once daily (maybe as a short meditation/visualisation exercise), recommit to the overarching full change goal you have set yourself (including reminding yourself of how precious it will be to achieve it). Remind yourself of the obstacles to achieving this overarching goal. Use a WOOP or other Implementation exercise to set up the "When X happens, I will do Y" intention. Make sure you have a recording system in place for noting how you do with these weekly goals, and probably weekly note your overall progress using the "guesstimate" 0-100% assessment and possibly too the well-validated general scale you might have chosen.
Voila! And very well done ... !!!