Are personalities permanent? Can your personality type change?
Sherrie Haynie, Sr. Director of Professional Services at The Myers-Briggs Company
5 min. read
People can and do change. The fact that you see people change in your professional and personal life has prompted some to question the entire premise of personality type.
If people evolve over time, is there such thing as a consistent personality type over a person's lifespan?
The answer may be a little confusing.
Yes, people's personalities do change, but personality type doesn't. This may sound like a contradiction, but let me explain.
The definitions of "personality" are broad, ranging from "the sum total of the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics" to "the organized pattern of behavioral characteristics of the individual."
These expansive definitions clearly contain aspects of people who do change with time. "Personality type," on the other hand, has a more specific definition, and according to the Myers-Briggs framework, it's based on whether a person naturally prefers:
- Introversion/Extraversion (I/E)
- Sensing/Intuition (S/N)
- Thinking/Feeling (T/F)
- Judging/Perceiving (J/P)
One's MBTI personality type is a combination of these four preferences, which, according to the theory, remain stable over time.
To understand how people can change while their underlying personality preferences remain stable, let’s consider two major circumstances under which people often show notable evidence of change: adapting to new realities at work and seeking new career challenges.
Learning and adapting based on experience
If you prefer Thinking (T) instead of Feeling (F), you tend to make decisions based on your analysis of the logical consequences and strive to remove yourself mentally from the decision to examine the pros and cons. Personal values, empathy and the impact of those decisions on people — which are primary considerations for someone with a Feeling preference — are secondary considerations.
However, this doesn’t mean that you're incapable of taking values and empathy into account. Nor does it mean that you can’t learn empathy as a skill increase your capacity in that area.
Take, for instance, a chief operations officer who’s made a decision to switch from a trusted and long-time supply partner to a new vendor. If they have a preference for Thinking, they likely made that decision based on analysis of the best numbers at hand.
However, imagine that the COO had also learned from experience or from leadership training that such drastic changes can have a less obvious, but no less real, effect on morale, retention, etc.
Employees might resent having to change the way they do things and may have personal relationships with the previous vendor, and this blowback can have a negative effect on the company. If the officer accounts for this in how they manage the situation, perhaps taking a much more personal approach to assuage employees' emotions, they've demonstrated change.
Even though accounting for such things may not be their natural first impulse, that leader may have developed the ability to step outside their own personality type and adjust to the needs of the situation (what we call ‘flexing their preferences’).
Have they changed?
Absolutely, and in this case, for the better.
But what exactly has changed?
The fact that they've learned to think and behave differently doesn't mean the tendency to conform to their familiar and more natural Thinking preference isn't still there or that it wouldn't be an easier and more comfortable route for them. It simply means that the person has grown in their perspective and adaptability. They’ve learned to use their non-dominant preference for Feeling.
Looking for new challenges
People often change out of necessity and experience. But they can also change out of a desire to grow beyond who they have always been.
We often see this with careers, where sometimes the familiar way of doing things just isn't challenging anymore. Consider, for instance, someone who’s made a living in creative design their entire adult life and then decides to learn software coding.
Have they fundamentally changed? Is their personality type actually different?
The personality preferences at their core haven’t changed.
But if their career has allowed them to fully develop and use their natural tendencies toward empathy and a desire for harmony, at a certain point in life, they may feel a need to work on the underdeveloped side of their personality by learning to approach problems in an analytical manner with logic and cause-and-effect-based reasoning.
Personality changes, behaviors can change, but personality type remains stable.
Defining personality and personality type
If "personality" is, as defined by Dictionary.com, "the sum total of the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of an individual" or "the organized pattern of behavioral characteristics of the individual," then it’s clear that personality isn't permanent.
The kinds of behavioral change we discussed in the previous scenarios are healthy. And they’re necessary for a person's development. Without that sort of personal development, you'd begin to stagnate.
Personality type, as understood by the Myers-Briggs framework and by Carl Jung's theory, is a different story.
It is not the total embodiment of personality but rather a set of natural predispositions that, in fact, do not change, even in the face of significant change with regard to our skills, abilities, desires and interests over the course of our lives.
When you assemble the combination of our experiences and choices along with our natural personality preferences, you get a fuller view of "personality."
Identifying our natural personality preferences doesn't stop us from growing.
Rather, it empowers us with the self-awareness needed to evolve in positive ways. After all, how can you consciously change unless you truly understand yourself and what your starting point is?
Want to learn more?
- Psychology of change (ebook)
- Embracing change using Myers-Briggs type (product)
- Psychology of change (podcast episode)