All things nice

Con­trary to the fixed per­son­al­ity types of the My­er­sBriggs as­sess­ments, world-lead­ing re­search from New Zealand has found that change is pos­si­ble; it just takes time and it’s bet­ter to start young.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Jane Clifton

Your per­son­al­ity is not set in stone, says Richie Poul­ton.

We all come with a ge­netic fac­tory set­ting, but when it comes to per­son­al­ity, we’re not as hard­wired as we are for, say, bald­ness or eye­sight. Decades of self-help books, some of them even with a bit of sci­ence at their com­mand, sug­gest we can, if we put our minds to it, cherry-pick at will from among the My­ers-Briggs Type In­di­ca­tor’s 16 per­son­al­ity types or change our at­tach­ment type from pre­oc­cu­pied avoidant to se­cure.

It turns out there’s some truth among the mumbo jumbo.

Cen­tral to the na­ture-ver­sus­nur­ture de­bate is whether one’s per­son­al­ity is fixed or mu­ta­ble, and the lat­est word is, it’s mu­ta­ble – just not quickly. The world-lead­ing lon­gi­tu­di­nal Dunedin Mul­tidis­ci­plinary Health & De­vel­op­ment Study at the Univer­sity of Otago has found that per­son­al­ity traits have a ten­dency to deepen as we get older, and they can be af­fected by life ex­pe­ri­ences. After analysing data from a co­hort of young adults at age 26, whom re­searchers have been track­ing since birth, a land­mark re­port from the study found work had an ef­fect on per­son­al­ity.

It found dis­tinc­tive changes in per­son­al­ity traits be­tween ado­les­cence and en­try into the work­force, and not al­ways the ex­pected ones. For in­stance, the much­vaunted “con­straint” weight­ing, which mea­sures how much self-con­trol and con­sci­en­tious­ness an in­di­vid­ual has – which is be­lieved to be a strong pre­cur­sor to a suc­cess­ful, well-ad­justed life – was not as big a fac­tor in af­fect­ing how peo­ple got on as young adults as their emo­tional ma­tu­rity and out­look on life.

It was al­ready known that peo­ple tend to be­come more self-dis­ci­plined and pos­i­tive as they move from the teenage years into adult­hood. But what the study has added to this pic­ture is that a per­son’s work ex­pe­ri­ences can have a big ef­fect on the ex­tent and na­ture of those changes.


The head of the “Dunedin Study” at the Na­tional Cen­tre for Life­course Re­search, Pro­fes­sor Richie Poul­ton, says this does sound a bit ob­vi­ous and there are “nor­ma­tive” fac­tors in per­son­al­ity change, such as the ef­fect of be­com­ing in­de­pen­dent, hav­ing to sub­mit to work re­quire­ments, form­ing a long-term re­la­tion­ship and be­com­ing a par­ent. Also, he says, we now know that brain de­vel­op­ment, par­tic­u­larly that which mod­i­fies im­pul­sive­ness, is not com­plete un­til about the age of 24. “I was still an ado­les­cent at 26. A lot of peo­ple are, so that’s a fac­tor here, too.”

But, Poul­ton says, the data’s con­fir­ma­tion that per­son­al­ity is not, as was once widely thought, un­chang­ing is ex­tremely re­as­sur­ing. “Per­son­al­ity study is the field of how we deal with things and it’s help­ful to know that it’s far more dy­namic than we might have thought.”

This has wel­come pol­icy-for­ma­tion im­pli­ca­tions, which, hand­ily enough, Poul­ton is help­ing to shape as chief sci­ence ad­viser to the Min­istry of So­cial De­vel­op­ment, and to the Prime Min­is­ter in her role as Min­is­ter for Child Poverty Re­duc­tion.


Poul­ton says the key time for pos­i­tive change re­mains in early child­hood, where in­di­vid­ual tem­per­a­ments can most eas­ily be moulded to im­prove fu­ture well-be­ing. Young chil­dren with a ten­dency to be ag­gres­sive or im­pul­sive can be con­di­tioned over time into more pos­i­tive traits – not least be­cause such change brings im­me­di­ate ben­e­fits. “The world re­wards you when you have those pos­i­tive traits, when you don’t hit peo­ple or act up or shout and you can share and com­mu­ni­cate.” Both Poul­ton and the re­port are not afraid to use the old nana word, “nice”. The re­port says those who start life with a high score for “nice­ness”, mean­ing pos­i­tive and pleas­ing in­ter­per­sonal skills, such as so­cia­bil­ity, did bet­ter younger and earned more.

Life’s dif­fi­cul­ties only com­pound for peo­ple the fur­ther they get to­wards adult­hood with neg­a­tive traits such as anx­i­ety, ag­gres­sion and a sense of alien­ation still in the as­cen­dancy. The study has found that those who had a higher pro­por­tion of these neg­a­tive traits at 18 went on to have poorer work ex­pe­ri­ences. By 26, they had lower-pres­tige jobs, re­ported less sat­is­fac­tion with their work­ing lives and had trou­ble mak­ing ends meet. “Alien­ated and hos­tile ado­les­cents ap­pear trapped in a self­ful­fill­ing and vi­cious cy­cle,” says Poul­ton. “Their per­son­al­ity dis­po­si­tion leads them to work ex­pe­ri­ences that un­der­mine their abil­ity to make a suc­cess­ful and re­ward­ing tran­si­tion to the adult world.”

Poul­ton says the re­cent spate of self­help books on the sub­ject of willpower are gen­er­ally close to the mark in say­ing that long-es­tab­lished habits, man­i­fes­ta­tions of per­son­al­ity traits, can be changed – but not all at once and not quickly. “You have to keep chip­ping, chip­ping, chip­ping away. And there’s the ‘nudge the­ory’ that your en­vi­ron­ment can en­cour­age you to­wards pos­i­tive be­hav­iour and away from what you’re try­ing to change. But it does have to be a bit chal­leng­ing, too, so you build re­silience. And the other im­por­tant thing is that, as your nana also said, ‘If you fall over [or] make a mis­take, get up and try again.’ Mis­takes, go­ing two steps for­ward and one back, are in­evitable. You have to keep chip­ping away.”

Those who start life with a high score for “nice­ness”, mean­ing pos­i­tive and pleas­ing in­ter­per­sonal skills, such as so­cia­bil­ity, did bet­ter younger and earned more.

Richie Poul­ton: “I was still an ado­les­cent at 26. A lot of peo­ple are.”

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