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Can a Smartphone App Change Your Personality?

Young Man Using Smartphone At Home With Plants

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Keys Takeaways

  • A new study found that daily use of a smartphone app can modify personality traits.
  • The researchers were surprised by how quickly participants were able to change their personality traits into their desired direction.
  • Research into digital personality change interventions is still in its infancy, so more studies are needed.


Most of us have something about us that we’re not 100% in love with—an impulsive streak, perhaps, or a short temper. What if those personality traits could be modified with daily use of a smartphone app? That was the focus of a new study from an international research team led by the University of Zurich, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Personality traits predict several important aspects of life such as success at work, health, and even longevity,” says first author Mirjam Stieger, PhD, of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. “So we wanted to examine the degree of plasticity of personality traits and test whether people can actively shape their personality traits with the help of a digital intervention within a relatively short period of time (i.e., three months)."

The researchers also wanted to test whether friends and family members were able to detect these personality changes and whether study participants could maintain any personality changes after the end of the intervention.

Aaron Weiner, PhD, ABPP, MAC

Apps are great ways to build new habits and learn new skills, particularly those that have been studied and shown to be effective by research.

— Aaron Weiner, PhD, ABPP, MAC

About The Study

Around 1,500 participants were provided with a specially developed smartphone app called PEACH (PErsonality coACH) for three months. After this period, the researchers assessed whether—and if so, how—their personalities had changed.

Five major personality traits were examined: openness, conscientiousness, sociability (extraversion), considerateness (agreeableness), and emotional vulnerability (neuroticism).  

The app included elements of knowledge transfer, behavioral and resource activation, self-reflection, and feedback on progress. A virtual companion (chatbot) communicated with the participants daily and provided support to help them make the changes they desired.

Most participants said that they wanted to reduce their emotional vulnerability, increase their conscientiousness, or increase their extraversion. 

Mirjam Stieger, PhD

[A] surprising finding was that most participants were able to maintain their personality trait changes until three months after the end of the intervention.

— Mirjam Stieger, PhD

Participants were split randomly into two treatment groups: an intervention group and a waitlist control group. Participants in the waitlist control group selected and indicated their change goals before a one-month waiting period, then they received the same three-month intervention as the intervention group.

The researchers found that participants in the waitlist control group did not change their personality traits during the one-month waiting period, but participants who received the intervention reported changes in the desired direction. 

Stieger says the researchers were surprised by their findings—notably, how quickly participants were able to change their personality traits, but also that most participants were able to change into their desired direction.

“We also found that friends and family members were able to detect personality changes, but these observer ratings were less pronounced than the self-reports,” she adds. “Another surprising finding was that most participants were able to maintain their personality trait changes until three months after the end of the intervention.”

Changes that were noticed by friends and family members were mostly in participants who wanted to increase expression of a certain personality trait. On the other hand, the people close to those who wanted to reduce expression of a personality trait noticed little change.

But it’s important to note that the group who wanted to reduce expression of a personality trait mostly wanted to become less emotionally vulnerable—a primarily inner process that’s not always easy to observe from the outside.

Karen Peters, MS, LMHC

Change is not easy, and [it] can at times be painful as we develop deeper insight into our behavior, the function(s) of our behavior, and the consequences of our behavior.

— Karen Peters, MS, LMHC

How Can You Change Your Personality? 

If you want to change one or more of your personality traits, licensed clinical psychologist and addiction counselor Aaron Weiner, PhD, ABPP, MAC, says it boils down to two main things: consistency and structure.

“We're very much creatures of routine; unless you repeat something new over and over again, as well as potentially have external reminders or an accountability partner to help you, you'll just slide back to your old ways eventually,” Weiner says. “Repetition is the key, and making sure you have support in place to help you hold your course as you make changes.”

Licensed mental health counselor Karen Peters, MS, LMHC, believes that personality traits are generally fixed, but that behavioral expressions of traits are able to be changed at any time, if the person desires and chooses to make that change. “Change is not easy, and [it] can at times be painful as we develop deeper insight into our behavior, the function(s) of our behavior, and the consequences of our behavior,” she says.

Mirjam Stieger, PhD

Digital personality change interventions could be implemented in various settings due to their low-threshold character and technical scalability. However, more studies are needed to, for example, better understand what mechanisms and intervention components are responsible for personality changes.

— Mirjam Stieger, PhD

Peters expresses some concern that looking to change your personality traits and what makes you unique as a person may be a misguided path. "With so many changes over the past couple of decades, particularly tied to the rise in technology, instant information, and instant gratification, there has also been a rise in anxiety," she says.

"I do believe that the quest for more in general—more belongings, more points, more greatness, more beauty, etc.—has caused many people to lose sight of their personal worth," Peters adds. "A more beneficial path is to focus on who we are, how we feel, and how we can live a more meaningful and fulfilled life. This most definitely includes improving behavioral functioning at times, but personality change seems a bit more than most people need."

Weiner has a different view. "I don't believe we're fundamentally any one thing or another: we're all capable of learning, change, and growth," he says. "Choosing to be more conscientious or to be less neurotic isn't fundamentally changing someone's nature, nor would it change your core values, interests, or morals. Healthy and thoughtful self-improvement is a normal part of development over the lifespan, and choosing to work on yourself is a sign of maturity."

An App May Be Only One Part of the Process

Weiner believes it makes sense that apps could be used to promote personality change. “Many people think that people don't change, but this actually isn't true!” he says. “Although personality is more fluid earlier in life, our personality continues to develop into adulthood, as we tend to become more conscientious, agreeable, and less neurotic. Apps are great ways to build new habits and learn new skills, particularly those that have been studied and shown to be effective by research.”

Peters warns that while there are apps to support just about anything, it’s important to remember that they are there for support, and not as a substitute for an individual’s own research, reflection, insight, and change.

“The use of an app itself is not going to influence change—change is influenced by internal motivation,” she says. “Apps are a helpful way to support the effort with tips, information, tracking, reinforcement, sense of accountability, etc. The new study demonstrates this point by determining that change outcomes were aligned with the individual’s desire to change.”

Karen Peters, MS, LMHC

Apps are a helpful way to support the effort with tips, information, tracking, reinforcement, sense of accountability, etc. The new study demonstrates this point by determining that change outcomes were aligned with the individual’s desire to change.

— Karen Peters, MS, LMHC

For someone who wants to change a personality trait, Peters suggests journaling about the trait to explore it and its associated behaviors and consequences. “I would ask them to explore why they had not previously been successful at changing the behavior; there may be a secondary gain to the maladaptive behavior,” she explains. “Then I would help them further explore this information within the context of their other traits, environment, relationships, etc. as we develop a change plan.”

What This Means For You

It's not clear whether the changes achieved by the study participants using digital intervention were permanent or temporary, and this field of research is still in its infancy. "Digital personality change interventions could be implemented in various settings due to their low-threshold character and technical scalability," Stieger says. "However, more studies are needed to, for example, better understand what mechanisms and intervention components are responsible for personality changes."

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  1. Stieger M, Fluckiger C, Ruegger D, Kowatsch T, Roberts BW, Allemand M. Changing personality traits with the help of a digital personality change intervention. PNAS. 2021. doi:10.1073/pnas.2017548118