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Personality Strengths Guide

Can We Change?

Can We Change Our Personality Traits?

While there is much debate over how much one’s personality can change, most of the literature agrees that time can, at least, round off the sharp edges of personality. For example, as we mature, we may realize that behaviors that we thought were cool and hip in our early teens are perceived as obnoxious in adulthood, and we make adjustments.

Is it possible to predict developmental outcomes in adulthood from early childhood personality? One 19-year longitudinal study followed 4- to 6-year-old children to age 23, identifying three personality types: overcontrolled, undercontrolled, and resilient (Denissen et al, 2008). Resilient kids are good at modulating their emotions, interacting with others, and bouncing back from adversity. Overcontrollers control their emotional and motivational impulses too much. They’re shy, quiet, self-conscious, and less able to act “natural” and “spontaneous” with strangers. Undercontrollers have too little control over impulses and tend to be restless, easily distractible. When frustrated, they exhibit aggressive behavior, without considering the consequences.

Researchers found that two personality traits — high aggressiveness (undercontrolled) temperament and high social inhibition (overcontrolled), each of which deviates from the personality pattern of the well-adjusted resilient child — may predict outcomes in adulthood. Compared with a control group of well-adjusted children, the undercontrolled children reported high negative emotionality at both ages 18 and 26, particularly feelings of being mistreated and betrayed by others. At age 26, they were described by knowledgeable informants as high in neuroticism, but low in agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. Psychiatric interviews and official crime records of participants at age 21 showed that undercontrolled children had a significantly increased risk for antisocial personality disorder, convictions for a violent offense, a high variety of self-reported offenses, and suicide attempts.

The maturity factor can never be underestimated in child development. Some kids mature faster than others. Functional MRI scans showed that the brains of young adults who were shy as toddlers worked differently from the brains of extroverted toddlers. Both undercontrollers and overcontrollers took longer than the resilients to grow up; for example, to leave home, develop romantic relationships, build a career.

Life events can change our brain’s wiring; hence, our personalities can change with our experiences. When the noisiest, most rambunctious subjects hit their 20s, they were still more aggressive than their peers, yet they had become considerably more modulated. It appears that negative feedback from peers over the years made them more self-conscious and quiet.

Personality is also influenced by culture and demographics. For example, kids from middle- and upper-class homes tend to have more confidence. Poor and lower-middle class kids may be angry about their starting place in life, which can accelerate aggression.

But if you’re a parent, take heart in knowing that even if kids start out overcontrolling or undercontrolling, their sharp edges can be rounded with experience and learning. Undercontrollers can learn to rein in their emotions and be more sensitive to others. And overcontrollers can work at being more outwardly sociable, even if they’re still introverts on the inside.

Let’s take a look at how personality traits differ between males and females and how personality influences work and academic performances.

Gender Differences in Personality Traits

Cross-cultural research of gender patterns in 55 nations, assessed by the NEO Personality Inventory, reveals some differences in male and female personality tendencies. Women were consistently higher across cultures in Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Extroversion (especially warmth), Conscientiousnessand Openness to feelings. Men were typically higher in assertiveness (a facet of Extroversion) and Openness to ideas. Neuroticism was the most prominent and consistent difference, with significantly higher differences found in women in 49 of the 55 nations surveyed (Costa et al, 2001).

These studies also demonstrated the influence of socio-environmental variables on gender differences in personality traits. Gender differences were largest in prosperous, healthy, more gender-egalitarian cultures. Men in highly developed world regions were less neurotic, extraverted, conscientious and agreeable, compared to men in less developed world regions. Women, on the other hand, tended not to differ in personality traits across regions.

A review of these studies found that, overall, higher levels of human development — including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education and economic wealth — were the primary nation-level predictors of larger gender differences (Schmitt et al, 2008). Researchers found that resource-poor environments (countries with low levels of development) may prevent gender differences, whereas resource-rich environments may actually facilitate them. They suggested that males may require more resources than females to reach their full developmental potential, also arguing that men may have evolved to be bigger risk-takers and socially dominant, whereas women evolved to be more cautious and nurturing.

Personality and Work Performance

  • Leadership and innovation. Cross-cultural studies have demonstrated the relationship between Big Five profiles of countries and economic innovation indices for those countries; for example, showing that Openness, Extroversion and Conscientiousness correlate with leadership and innovative ideas (Steel, Rinne and Fairweather, 2012). Individuals who are considered leaders typically exhibit a lower number of neurotic traits, maintain higher levels of openness (envisioning success), balanced levels of conscientiousness (well-organized), and balanced levels of extroversion (outgoing, but not excessive).
  • What leads to burnout? Trait neuroticism was significantly associated with professional burnout (defined as: cynicism, loss of efficacy and exhaustion) in managers. Extroversion, on the other hand, was associated with enduring positive work experience. Agreeableness was associated with professional efficacy, and negatively correlated with cynicism (Mehta, 2012).
  • Does it pay to be disagreeable? One study found that those who are high in agreeableness (especially men) tend to be less successful in accumulating income (Judge et al, 2012). In fact, a man who falls within one standard deviation below the mean in the study of “agreeableness” earns, on average, 18% more than a man who ranks one standard deviation above the mean in agreeableness. But what does “disagreeable” mean within the context of this study? People who may be just slightly more likely to disagree with a coworker or a boss from time to time to argue a point or defend a position. These individuals may be more willing to negotiate during the hiring process to get slightly more money. But it’s also only fair to point out that these “less agreeable” individuals were also more likely to be fired than agreeable individuals.

Personality and Academic Performance

Personality was not always considered to be a major factor influencing learning and education. But recent studies are demonstrating influential relationships between personality and various academic behaviors.

  • In a meta-analysis of personality-academic performance relationships in over 70,000 samples, using Allport’s Five-FactorModel, high academic performance was significantly associated with Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience. And, as has often been found with work performance, Conscientiousness has the strongest association with academic performance. In fact, Conscientiousness rivaled that of intelligence at all age levels except primary education (Poropat, 2009). Another study confirmed that these three dimensions (Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience) predict overall academic achievement (Farsides & Woodfield, 2003). Other studies consistently confirm that Conscientiousness is a stable predictor of exam performance (Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2003) and GPA (Conard, 2006). In contrast, Neuroticism is consistently shown to negatively influence academic achievement (e.g., Chamorro-Premuzic & Furnham, 2003). Individuals who experience anxiety, self-doubt, and negative emotionality are likely to disengage from the learning process and may not persist when facing difficulties.

How do personality traits specifically affect learning? Another study of 308 undergraduates’ GPAs, using Allport’s Five-FactorModel, investigated the effect of personality traits on learning styles and their affect on academic performance, finding that personality traits accounted for 14% of the variance in GPA (Komarraju et al, 2011). In a learning context, Conscientiousness is exemplified by being disciplined, organized, achievement-oriented having a good work ethic and using focused learning strategies. Extroversion is displayed through a higher degree of sociability, assertiveness, and talkativeness. Openness is reflected in a strong intellectual curiosity, eagerness to learn,  and a preference for novelty and variety. Finally, Agreeableness reflects the degree of empathy, trust, helpfulness, cooperativeness and ability to meet deadlines. Neuroticism represents the degree of emotional stability, impulse control, and anxiety. And neuroticism, again, was consistently found to negatively influence all learning styles, as well as GPA.

Researchers are concluding that personality and motivation may be intricately tied to individual differences in learning styles — both of which are an individual difference factor that reflect the enduring, stable approaches to how we process information. Our learning styles tend to follow us through life, long past our formal education. We tend to develop either agentic/shallow processing or reflective/deep processing, or combinations of each.

The 4 general types of learning styles include:

  • synthesis analysis — processing information, forming categories and organizing them into hierarchies
  • methodical study — methodical behavior while completing assignments
  • fact retention — focusing on the actual result rather than on understanding the logic
  • elaborative processing — connecting and applying new ideas to existing knowledge

Komarraju et al found that Conscientiousness is critical for learning and performance and appears to facilitate a variety of effective learning strategies. Conscientiousness and Agreeableness were significantly associated with all four learning styles, but Conscientiousness showed the strongest association with GPA. Extroversion and Openness were only correlated with elaborative processing. Openness was correlated with higher academic achievement.

Reflective learning styles (synthesis-analysis and elaborative processing) are conducive to deeper or more thoughtful learning. Intellectual curiosity (Openness) can significantly enhance academic performance as long as students can blend their scholarly interest with thoughtful information processing. Deep processors tend to be more conscientious, intellectually open, and extroverted, compared to shallow processors. Deep processing is associated with strategic study methods (methodical study) and a stronger ability to analyze information (synthesis analysis), whereas shallow processors prefer structured fact retention learning styles and are better suited for elaborative processing.

Students with high Conscientiousness and Openness tended to utilize each of the four learning styles, suggesting that those who are organized, disciplined, determined, and intellectually curious are more likely to use all four learning styles to maximize learning. They’re likely to be thorough, relate what they’re learning to existing knowledge and to their own lives, and to study in a systematic way, thus, which ultimately helps them excel on exams. On the other hand, the negative relationships between neuroticism and all four learning styles suggest that students who are given to worry and anxiety are likely to disengage from the learning process and fail to organize and categorize what they are learning into meaningful units.


Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2003). Personality traits and academic examination performance. European Journal of Personality, 17, 237–250.

Conard, M. A. (2006). Aptitude is not enough: How personality and behavior predict academic performance. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 339–346.

Costa, P. T., Terracciano, A., & McCrae, R. R. (2001). Gender differences in personality traits across cultures: Robust and surprising findings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 322–331.

Denissen, J. J. A., Asendorpf, J. B., & van Aken, Marcel A. G. (2008). Inhibited and Aggressive Preschool Children at 23 Years of Age: Personality and Social Transitions into Adulthood.

Developmental Psychology, 2008, Vol. 44, No. 4, 997–1011.

Farsides, T., & Woodfield, R. (2003). Individual differences and undergraduate academic success: The roles of personality, intelligence, and application. Personality and Individual Differences, 34, 1225–1243.

Judge, T.; Livingston, BA; Hurst, C (2012). “Do nice guys—and gals—really finish last? The joint effects of sex and agreeableness on income”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102 (2): 390–407.

Komarraju, Meera; Steven J. Karau; Ronald R. Schmeck; Alen Avdic (September 2011). “The Big Five personality traits, learning styles, and academic achievement.” Personality and Individual Differences 51 (2011) 472–477.

Mehta, Penkak (2012). “Personality as a predictor of burnout among managers of manufacturing industries..”. Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology 32: 321–328.

Poropat, A. E. (2009). “A meta-analysis of the five-factor model of personality and academic performance”. Psychological Bulletin 135: 322–338.

Schmitt, David P., Realo, Ann, Voracek, Maratin, Allik, Ju ̈ri. Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman? Sex Differences in Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008: Vol. 94, No. 1, 168–182.

Steel, G. D., Rinne, T., and Fairweather, J. (2012).  Personality, nations, and innovation:  Relationships between personality traits and national innovation scores.  Cross-Cultural Research, 46, 3-30.