Quick change

People are often attracted to counselling because they want to change their state of mind. They want to become less anxious or depressed, for example, or they want to be calmer and more self-confident. According to research, most people do tend to change their state of mind as a result of psychotherapy, but that’s not all that happens. Personality traits also change, for the better. People tend to become more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally stable as a result of therapy, all in a relatively short time (Roberts et al., 2017).

It has been known for decades that people’s personalities change in some respects over their lifetimes. Studies have shown that people tend to become more confident, agreeable and emotionally stable as they age (Roberts, Walton & Viechtbauer, 2006). Lately, evidence has been growing which suggests that psychological interventions can speed up this process. For example, one recent analysis looked at over 200 psychological studies which measured the degree to which people who were engaged in therapy noticed that their personality traits had changed (Roberts et al., 2017). It was found that therapy clients showed a marked increase in positive personality traits, and that often these changes happened within a month or two. Moreover, these changes didn’t tend to disappear after therapy had finished. Those who were tracked for a year or more after therapy tended to keep the positive changes in their personalities.

According to this analysis, the areas of personality that changed the most were to do with emotional stability and extraversion. These are both well-researched, broad dimensions of personality. Extraversion is associated with positive emotions, and is related to job satisfaction, sociability and spontaneity. Emotional stability can be thought of as the opposite of vulnerability, meaning that people who experience positive change in this dimension feel less anxious and depressed. So, according to the study, therapy clients noticed a range of long-term changes in themselves.

Another interesting aspect of this analysis was related to the types of interventions that were used to produce these changes in personality. It was found that all of the different types of therapy that were involved in the 200 plus studies had a similar level of effect, except for hospitalisation, which resulted in the smallest amount of change. The analysis was also able to show that the effects were largest for those people who were suffering from anxiety and personality disorders. So, according to this analysis, psychotherapy appears to lead to improvement in personality traits, even for people with long-standing issues, regardless of what type of therapy is administered.

To sum up, it seems that psychotherapy can speed up a developmental process that we all tend to go through. Although, in general, we all experience a positive change in our personalities over our lifetimes, therapy can facilitate this change. This is good news, not only for those of us who are currently suffering from a mental illness, but also for the rest of us. If we can use therapy to help make our positive personality changes happen earlier in our lives, we have a much better chance of achieving the kind of life we want for ourselves.


Roberts, B. W., Luo, J., Briley, D. A., Chow, P. I., Su, R., & Hill, P. L. (2017). A systematic review of personality trait change through intervention. Psychological Bulletin, 143, 2, 117-141.

Roberts, B. W., Walton, K.E., & Viechtbauer, W. (2006). Patterns of mean-level change in personality traits across the life course: a meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 1, 1-25.