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Can a Smartphone App Change Your Personality?
At last, an app that changes your personality! Finally become the person you’ve dreamed of, in just three months! – Oh really? Forgive me for being skeptical.
Researchers at the University of Zurich have piloted a smartphone app whose daily use for three months they say can change your personality. In their study, most users set goals to become less emotionally vulnerable, more conscientious or more extroverted. The greatest successes from the app involved those who wanted more of a trait, rather than those who wanted less of one. The changes appeared to be persistent, consistent and confirmed by those close to the app users. One of the researchers commented: “These surprising results show that we are not just slaves to our personality, but that we can deliberately make changes to routine experience and behavior patterns.”
The smartphone app asked the user to formulate a key goal and reinforced that goal in many ways, including sending reminders of weekly tasks, showing the user’s progress toward the goal and offering a chatbot with which the user could discuss their activities and actions. In addition, the app collected data like the number of phone calls and texts sent and received. As well, people who knew the user gave the researchers ratings for what they observed in the user before and after the three-month research period.
Don’t rush over to your favorite app store, however, because the tool, called PEACH (PErsonality coACH) isn’t commercially available at this time. And in my opinion, the claim that the app changes personality deserves serious skepticism.
Let’s back up and reflect on what it is to have a certain personality. For someone who is introverted, that might mean such things as: enjoys spending time alone; dislikes small talk; feels drained by long parties or social events; and prefers to think before speaking. In a society like ours that disfavors introverted tendencies, these feelings and preferences might or might not show up in how the person appears to someone else. Many introverts learn to disguise their personality to become more socially acceptable. Therefore the key factor in identifying whether someone is introverted is not what they do – how energetically they interact, how many people they speak with during a day or how many times they smile – so much as how they feel about what they do.
If an app increased various outward signs of extroversion, which it seems quite plausible to me that an app could, I wouldn’t count it as making someone more extroverted unless the person also felt more energized being around other people, felt less interest in spending time alone, found small talk with strangers meaningful and enjoyable and so on. Yet descriptions of the app and its results didn’t mention inner changes, only changes in behavior. Perhaps someone who receives frequent reinforcement for interacting pleasantly and energetically with others would think “Wow, I’m more capable of socializing than I thought I was” and keep on with the new behaviors, but I’m not convinced that that amounts to a change in personality.
Note also that from what I read about the app and the research about it, users chose goals that proposed to change their behavior in socially desirable directions. By deciding to become less emotionally vulnerable, more conscientious or more extroverted, they’re aiming to become more praiseworthy, more appealing to family and coworkers and probably more promotable at work. If the app managed to boost their social acceptability, wouldn’t they feel pleased regardless of whether their behavior changes synced with who they’d previously felt themselves to be?
Let’s now conjure up someone who decided to become more introverted – which regrettably is the less socially desirable tendency. Perhaps this gregarious person had agreed to housesit for a friend who owns a cottage on an isolated, nearly unpopulated island. In preparation for this adventure, she uses the app for three months to try to turn herself into someone who would feel content staying almost totally alone. The app might assign her longer and longer periods of being out of touch and absorbed in solitary hobbies.
But would acclimating to those circumstances make her feel significantly less lonely and forlorn about it, happier alone and less liable to socialize like mad after her housesitting? My imagination and common sense simply will not go there.
This type of app probably can indeed change some behaviors, but that doesn’t mean it has changed someone’s personality. A person’s attitudes, values, motivators, self-concept, stressors and feelings – all vital components of what we call personality – most likely remain intact.