‘High neuroticism scorers will always be vulnerable to negative thoughts and feelings. That they cannot change. However, there are techniques in which they can train themselves that seem to have quite a marked effect on how they deal with this vulnerability, which can make a great deal of difference to their being in the world' (‘Happiness’, 2005: 113).
Timothy Pychyl has a relevant post on the ‘Psychology Today’ blog in which he notes that some leaders in the field of positive psychology have outed themselves as neurotics. (When I did an online test I discovered that I also have a tendency to be somewhat neurotic – but that would probably be only too obvious to readers this blog as well as to everyone else who knows me.) Pychyl suggests that while neurotics can learn to act out of character they can’t change their personalities.
Survey data suggests that personality traits for the vast majority of people tend to remain stable after age 30. End of story? Well, not quite. Such studies also indicate that a small proportion of individuals undergo significant changes in personality (see: Terracciano, Costa and Mc Crae, ‘Personality plasticity after age 30’, 2006).
There is some recent evidence of personality change during treatment for depression both using drugs (Paxil) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The results of one study, led by Tony Tang, suggest that both the drug therapy and CBT outperformed a placebo and had similar effects in changing neuroticism and extraversion scores.
There has also been some research relating to changes in the brain that might be produced by meditation. A study led by Richard Davidson, which examined changes in brain electrical activity following an eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation, found that the program resulted in significantly larger increases in electrical activity in areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation (‘Well-being and affective style’, 2004). A more recent paper by Davidson includes the following remarks:
‘Mindfulness training can be hypothesized to change an individual’s relationship to his or her emotions so that they are not viewed as fundamental constituents of self, but rather as more fleeting phenomena that appear to the self. We would not necessarily expect mindfulness training to alter the neural circuitry of emotional responding in response to a challenge per se, but rather we might expect a change in the connectivity between emotion circuits and those used for the representation of self. We would predict decreased connectivity between emotion processing and self-relevant processing regions’ (‘Commentary: Empirical explorations of mindfulness’, 2010).
I don’t claim to know a great deal about neuroticism or meditation (apart from my own limited experience) but if meditation helps people to be calm and composed, and less likely to panic, or feel threatened, stressed out, frustrated, or bothered in the face of challenges, then I would have thought that would probably be reflected in lower neuroticism according to standard measures used by psychologists.
Finally, as an economist, it seems to me that revealed preferences are worth considering. As I have discussed previously, the self-help industry seems successful according to the usual market tests. When people engage in meditation or other forms of contemplation instead of sleeping longer or indulging in more immediately pleasurable activities, this suggests to me that they may actually obtain some of the benefits that they claim in terms of desired changes in personality traits.
There is an update of this post entitled: How much does personality change over time?