Personality and Change – Is our Personality Really Fixed? An ABCD approach to thinking about how we can change


Dynamic personalities. Source: Davidturnswood via Wikimedia Commons


Changing times evoke questions about change.  What prompts us to change?  How fixed, really, is our “personality”?

The way that we initially respond to these questions may be shaped by our views of personality itself.  Do we see personality from a mostly top-down perspective?  From a top-down perspective, we think of personality as someone’s general predisposition to act and feel in certain ways, that then guides, filters, and funnels the types of situations and interactions (“states”) they are likely to experience.

Or do we, instead, think of personality in a largely bottom-up way?  From a bottom-up perspective, we think of personality as the accumulated average of how someone tends to behave and feel across varied situations and interactions – a summary of the many experiential “states” they have transitioned through.  We can think of personality from a top-down “encompassing” perspective (the trait summarizes and overarches many states) or from a bottom-up “emerging” perspective (the trait emerges from an accumulation of states).

Two Perspectives on Personality. Source: Wilma Koutstaal, adapted from Figure 2 of Sosnowska et al. (2019).


But, what if neither the bottom-up nor the top-down perspective entirely captures what we mean by “personality” and so both can be true, to varying extents?  Encountering day-to-day situations that invite us to change (e.g., changes in our life circumstances, unexpected obstacles or setbacks, new opportunities) may – depending on how often we encounter such situations, how we respond to them, and on our own and other’s reactions – cumulatively lead to personality change.  As pictured below, this is the iterative and more contextually-anchored perspective that is suggested by one recent Personality Change Model.  Note how dynamic and iterative the change model is.  Note, too, how it’s not only our individual selves, such as our predispositions, goals, or abilities, but also our physical, sociocultural, and interpersonal environments that, together, can promote personality change.

A Personality Change Model. Source: Wilma Koutstaal, adapted from Figure 1 of Wrzus & Roberts (2017).


What are we considering when we talk of “personality”?

Personality is, in part, about how we typically tend to behave – for example, whether we are most often talkative or are usually quiet, or whether we are likely to jump at the opportunity to explore new ideas and new ways of doing things or, instead, are more prone to stick to the tried-and-true approach we’ve used many times before.

But personality is not just about how we are likely to behave or to act.  It is also about how we generally tend to feel, for example, are we usually upbeat, hopeful, and optimistic, or not, and how stable our feelings typically are, or how volatile.  Personality is also about what we usually find pleasant, fun and rewarding (or not), and what motivates us, keeping us going and trying again and again.

One helpful way of thinking of the different dimensions that all contribute to personality, and what its components are, is what has been called the ABCD framework:

A = affect (what and how we feel, or emotion/mood)

B = behavior (what and how we act or do things)

C = cognition (what and how we think)

D = desire (what and how we want things; what we try to bring about, or to prevent)

 So, what about changing our personality?

In the past several years, views about personality have themselves been changing.  Rather than seeing personality as for the most part stable and constant, many researchers now take a more dynamic view of personality that emphasizes both continuity or constancy and change.

For example, across our lives, one factor contributing to changes in personality is alterations in our social roles and responsibilities.  Indeed, many studies have found that, as individuals move from later adolescence into adulthood, their personality characteristics gradually become more adaptive and appropriate to their new situation such as new work responsibilities or new personal relationships.  New roles bring with them different goals, and new ways of thinking and responding.  If repeatedly experienced, these new ways of thinking and responding may become habitual or “trait-like” – as pictured in the Personality Change Model.

But what about other sorts of life-related events, such as engaging in a new type of training or intervention?  Could these also significantly change someone’s personality?

The answer seems to be yes.  One recent large-scale summary of many different studies  measured personality before and after various sorts of interventions. The systematic meta-analysis – including more than 200 studies, and more than 20,000 participants – showed that personality traits can, indeed, change after different types of change interventions, such as an 18-hour course helping undergraduates learn to better understand and deal with their own and others’ emotions.  The alterations in personality traits also appeared to be comparatively long-lasting – with changes still apparent after time periods of six months, and one or more years after the intervention.

So what personality characteristics changed?  The largest and most consistently observed changes were found in emotional stability.  Significant changes were also found for extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and blended combinations of traits.  Changes in “openness to experience” – broadly encompassing one’s tendency to flexibly explore novel ideas and experiences – were also observed, for some but not all of the different ways of assessing change.

By adopting a view of personality that is a mix of bottom-up and top-down processes, and as something that emerges over time, and with repeated experience, change may emerge if we change our environment or our goals and the many experiential “states” we cumulatively inhabit over time.  By actually taking a first step into the desired new direction such as being more open or more conscientious – and then another step, and another, and another – new ways of thinking, acting, and feeling will be repeatedly experienced, and may become habitual or trait-like.  We may indeed deeply change ourselves, and in a positive, lasting way.


Nelis, D., Kotsou, I., Quoidbach, J., Hansenne, M., Weytens, F., Dupuis, P., & Mikolajczak, M. (2011). Increasing emotional competence improves psychological and physical well-being, social relationships, and employability.  Emotion, 11, 354–366.

Roberts, B. W. et al. (2017).  A systematic review of personality trait change through intervention.  Psychological Bulletin, 143, 117–141.

Sosnowska, J., Kuppens, P., De Fruyt, F., & Hofmans, J. (2019). A dynamic systems approach to personality: The Personality Dynamics (PersDyn) model.  Personality and Individual Differences, 144, 11–18.

Wilt, J., & Revelle, W. (2015). Affect, behaviour, cognition and desire in the Big Five: An analysis of item content and structure. European Journal of Personality, 29, 478–497.

Wrzus, C., & Roberts, B. W. (2017).  Processes of personality development in adulthood: The TESSERA framework.  Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21, 253–277.

Are inquiring minds creative minds? Does curiosity catalyze creativity?

Source:Ronald Keith Monro via Wikimedia Commons


We all have likely seen them, at one time or another:  the job advertisements calling for curiosity as part of the desired “package of qualities” of the successful applicant.  The ways in which curiosity is described might differ.  But the message is much the same:  what is needed is (choose the one that most resonates with your past encounters) –– a passion for learning; a thirst for knowledge; an inquiring mind; hands-on curiosity –– paired with innovative and creative thinking, and an ability to think “outside the box.”

The connection between curiosity and creativity seems so clear and obvious, that we scarcely notice that these two different qualities have been linked together.  But what is the empirical evidence for their association?  How closely connected are they, really?  And, if they are associated, what is the direction of their connection:  Does curiosity fuel creativity?  Or does having a creative cast of mind catalyze curiosity?

Despite our intuitive sense that there should be a strong association between curiosity and creativity, only recently has the nature of the connection between them begun to be systematically probed.

For more see: Creativity –– What’s Curiosity Got to Do with It?

Can we be sad and creative too?

Putting sadness in creative focus.
Source: pdpics via Wikimedia Commons


Sometimes in trying to understand creativity and emotion we draw hard and fast rules. We are quick to see the potential of positive moods for creativity and for helping us see the big picture. But we underplay the role of negative moods — seeing them as leading us to narrowly focus on the trees, and miss the forest.

Can it be that the human mind, and the human mind when it meets with the messy complexities of emotion, is altogether that simple and tidy? What might happen if (for whatever reason) our thinking processes were predominantly detail-focused and our mood was quite positive? Or if our thinking processes were broad and abstract but our mood was somewhat sad?

—> For more, check out our latest Psychology Today post: “When Emotion Meets Thinking.”


Are you recognizing what really energizes your creative making?

Source: m-louis via Wikimedia Commons

Ideas in your head.

Ideas on paper.

Asked which one is better for carrying your creativity forward:  conjuring and imagining ideas in your mind’s eye, or physically sketching them on paper, it’s a fair bet that we’ll say sketching.  Put your ideas on paper.  Capture them.  Put those representations out there –– physically –– in the world.  Grab a pen, a pencil, it doesn’t too much matter, but get those ideas on paper, out there, in the world, not just in your head.

We’ve read this, heard this, been told (and maybe even told ourselves) this many times.  But why?

—For more see:

What makes some teams smarter than others?

How could we answer this question? To find out what makes some teams smarter and work better than others we could look separately at the characteristics of individuals in the team (e.g., how intelligent they each are or how open to experience they each are). Or, instead, we could look at how the team as a team worked and problem-solved together.

To answer what enabled teams to work well collectively, researchers looked at newly formed teams (of four members each) who were asked to think together to perform a wide range of tasks. They were asked to generate ideas, solve puzzles, detect patterns, and make evaluative judgments.

Groups that collectively showed greater intelligence, as shown in higher performance across this wide range of tasks, were distinguished by two factors:

(1) They communicated more often and their communications were more evenly distributed across the team.

(2) Individuals on the team excelled on a test that measures social/emotional perceptiveness (“Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test”). This test asks you to judge someone’s mental state (e.g., curious, preoccupied, interested) from a photograph of just that person’s eyes.

These two factors were earlier established as important to effective team collaboration in experiments using small face-to-face teams. A more recent study (published in late 2014) asked a new question—would the collective intelligence of groups that met solely online or only virtually be influenced by these same two factors?

Newly formed teams of four people were situated in a room. There were two types of teams, and two types of rooms. For face-to-face teams, the members met in a small room, each team member with a laptop, and they could all see one other, talk directly, and they knew who was on their team. For the online teams, the team members were randomly co-located with other team members in a large room interspersed with other similarly scattered teams, where they did not know or see each other and could communicate solely on laptops using text-based chat online.

If directly reading subtle interpersonal cues (e.g., facial expressions, tone of voice, body language) during face-to-face interactions is a critical team mechanism then it would be expected that online teams would perform more poorly. But that wasn’t what was found—the online teams, who scored high on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, did just as well as the face-to-face groups who also had high abilities on that test. This suggests that the virtual teams could still perceive subtle interpersonal cues in the text messages they shared, perhaps conveyed through sentence structure, phrasing, word choice, timing, or tone.

Equally important, the effects of conversational turn taking also were the same in both groups. In online teams where participation was more equally shared, and not dominated by one or two individuals, online teams performed a wide range of tasks just as well as their face-to-face peers who also had a democratic approach to group problem solving.

So, it’s not just your cognitive ability or how smart as an individual you or your team members are—it’s also how well you can coordinate and be “heedful” of others in your group and the situation you jointly find yourselves in (whether working virtually or face-to-face). Part of the key to better team performance is also making sure that each team member shares in communicating within the group.

Sharing in communication and noticing interpersonal cues, whether in the eyes or “between the lines,” may contribute to a broader group characteristic of heedfulness. As we observe in Innovating Minds:

 “In heedfulness the actions and thinking of a group or team emerge based not entirely on habit but on a ‘heedful’ monitoring and comprehending of an unfolding dynamic situation. Each person acts in a way that converges, supplements, or assists with the overall collective effort.

Heedfulness is not solely an effort at paying attention. Rather it is this, combined with an active taking care and staying in touch with new information and its immediate and broader implications—for ourselves, for others, and for a collective envisioning of a larger unfolding joint enterprise.”

—> For more see also:

David Engel, Anita Williams Woolley, Lisa X. Jing, Christopher F. Chabris, & Thomas W. Malone (2014). Reading the Mind in the Eyes or Reading between the Lines? Theory of Mind Predicts Collective Intelligence Equally Well Online and Face-To-Face. PLoS ONE, 9, e115212, pp. 1-16.

Anita Williams Woolley, Christopher F. Chabris, Alex Pentland, A, Nada Hashmi, & Thomas W. Malone (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Science, 330, pp. 686–688.

An example of the Reading of the Mind in the Eyes test can be found here.


Oh no, my cow just fell over—but I can reboot

Suppose you need to translate technological computer terms, such as “browser” or “cache” or even “crash” into another language in which such technological terms are absent? How literal can you be—or is metaphor what is needed?

How do we convey meaning effectively when the cultural building blocks are so different?

Take this imaginative approach:

“Ibrahima Sarr, a Senegalese coder, led the translation of Firefox into Fulah, which is spoken by 20m people from Senegal to Nigeria. ‘Crash’ became hookii (a cow falling over but not dying) . . . In Malawi’s Chichewa language, which has 10m speakers, ‘cached pages’ became mfutso wa tsamba, or bits of leftover food. The windowless houses of the 440,000 speakers of Zapotec, a family of indigenous languages in Mexico, meant that computer ‘windows’ became ‘eyes.’”

The translation project is also a great example of goal synergy: “As well as bringing the linguistically excluded online, localisation may keep small languages alive.”

Analogies and metaphors are part and parcel of our communicative repertoire and we can use them more or less purposively, and more or less creatively. Metaphors and analogies are not curlicues—they are enmeshed in how we think. They are not mere ripples on the surface but currents that move the stream—and us—forward.

As we observe in our book Innovating Minds, analogies:

“are clearly important in the generation of our ideas but they can also serve several other functions in fostering positive creative change and development.  Analogies enable us to use what we already know in order to better understand or grasp something that is novel or less familiar.  In one study of new product development projects, 6 of 16 people interviewed explicitly noted that analogies helped to promote communication between team members, designers, and engineers during new product development.  Two of the interviewees even stated that enhanced communication was the most important aspect of the analogy in the given project.  The communicative and explanatory functions of analogies may prove especially pivotal in bridging between teams and individuals with quite disparate backgrounds, task priorities, and thought processes.”