Imagine the arrival of some high-tech brain device for treating mental health problems. It’s effective for many, but there’s an important side-effect. It changes your personality. Alarm ensues as campaigners warn that users risk being altered fundamentally for years to come. Now replay this scenario but replace the neuro-gizmo with good old-fashioned psychotherapy, and realise this: we’re talking fact, not fiction. A new meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin has looked at 207 psychotherapy and related studies published between 1959 and 2013, involving over 20,000 participants, with measures of personality taken repeatedly over time. The analysis has found that just a few weeks of therapy is associated with significant and long-lasting changes in clients’ personalities, especially reductions in the trait of Neuroticism and increases in Extraversion.
Talk of personality change can sound unsettling because we think of our personalities as reflecting our essential “me-ness”. But from a wellbeing perspective, the trait changes uncovered by this new research are welcome and may even underlie the benefits of therapy. Neuroticism or emotional instability is an especially important risk factor for future poor mental and physical health, and meanwhile high scorers on Extraversion are known to be happier on average and more optimistic. To read more from Christian Jarrett, click here.