A few years ago, Sibill Schilter, a student at the University of Zurich, has learned that her school is recruiting people to test whether a smartphone app can help someone change their personality traits. These are the patterns of thoughts, emotions and behaviors of people, and they are generally classified as the “big five”: openness, awareness, extroversion, kindness and neuroticism.
Curious to know more about herself, Schilter signed up. Maybe, she thought, she was a little too much pleasant. “I’m the person who always wants to please everyone a little bit, and I can better say no when I don’t want something,” says Schilter.
For decades, psychologists have debated whether these traits are fixed or changeable. The study Schilter participated in was designed to test whether daily use of an app for three months would be enough to create visible and lasting personality changes. Each participant chose a trait they wanted to increase or decrease. For example, a goal might be to become more outgoing, which the researchers defined as being more social, have more energy for action, be less silent, or take the lead more often.
the app, called Peach (PErsonality coACH), works as a journal, dashboard, and text messaging channel in one. On the dashboard, users can see an overview of their goal, a timeline that shows their progress and task for the week. For example, someone who wants to be more conscientious may be tasked with doing homework for an hour after returning from school. The app sends the user two push notifications every day to remind them, and if the user progresses, it will appear on the dashboard.
Users can also interact with a kind of digital coach, a chatbot also called “Peach”, about their daily activities. The chatbot can ask what task someone is working on or how stressed they are. Users can also choose to complete a daily diary, completing a self-assessment of these top five personality traits. (For example: “How would you describe yourself today – shy or outgoing?”)
In a study published in February in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the researchers concluded that the app works. The study was conducted with 1,523 volunteers. Compared to the control group, users who received the smartphone intervention showed more changes in self-reported personality traits towards their goals. Overall, friends, family members or intimate partners who volunteered to observe the participants also noticed the personality changes, the changes reported by themselves and the observers persisting for three months after completion. of the study. Notably, the changes reported by observers were only significant among those who wanted to improve a trait, but not for those who want to downplay one, which suggests that it may be easier for others to observe when a person improves on a trait than to get rid of it.
Mirjam Stieger, lead author of the study, describes the ‘high dose’ nature of the intervention – where users interacted with the app and chatbot multiple times a day – as the key to personality changes . “It’s repetition that helps,” says Stieger, a postdoctoral fellow in the Lifespan Developmental Psychology Laboratory at Brandeis University.
Mathias Allemand, the project’s principal investigator, agrees, adding that other interventions people can try, such as seeing a therapist or attending meditation sessions, are generally less intensive, occurring every week or two. . He adds that the app’s accessibility, convenience, and variable nature – like the ability to have different conversations with the chatbot every day – made it appealing to attendees. “You have the smartphone and [chatbot] coach in your pocket, ”says German, professor of psychology at the University of Zurich.