For those who can’t afford therapy, digital tools might soon be available. In a recent study of 1,500 participants, Mirjam Stieger, a postdoctoral researcher at Brandeis University, found that the most popular goals for personality change were to decrease neuroticism, increase conscientiousness, or to increase extroversion.
Dr. Stieger and her colleagues developed an app that reminded people to perform small tasks to help tweak their personalities, like “talk to a stranger when you go grocery shopping.” Then, the app asked them if they actually did that behavior. Dr. Stieger found that the study participants’ personalities did, in fact, change, compared to a control group who didn’t use the app. And at a three-month follow-up, the changes had stuck.
Here’s what a post-pandemic dispositional makeover might look like: Someone who was chronically late in the Before Times might work on being more conscientious, or timely. One way to show your friends how much you missed them is to start respecting their time.
Or if you’re someone who typically reacted with suspicion and anger when an acquaintance canceled plans, you could try to be more agreeable, or forgiving of minor social slights. Even making those plans in the first place might help you become more extroverted or open to new experiences. And for neurotic nerve bundles like me, Dr. Stieger suggested relaxing for, say, 10 minutes every night. It sounds crazy, but I suppose it might work.
Despite its chipper connotation, agreeableness involves greater empathy and concern for others. The pandemic has laid bare the frightening inequality of American life, and it has caused some people — such as single parents and essential workers — to carry a crushing weight. By becoming more agreeable, we could try to remember the uniqueness of each person’s experience, and become gentler toward one another. Though the pandemic will end, its scars may take a while to heal. Treating people with patience and, yes, agreeableness, will help in that healing.
Through painful isolation, this past year has, perversely, revealed the value of friendships and social ties. For those who want to renew connections that have atrophied, solidify friendships that have migrated to Zoom, or otherwise live differently, it’s very possible to do so. Remember that your personality is more like a sand dune than a stone.
Olga Khazan is a staff writer for The Atlantic and the author of “Weird,” from which this essay is adapted.
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