Can People Really Change?

Research shows change is possible with motivation and therapy support

Upset young adults flatmates sitting indoors and talking

Halfpoint Images / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

There are many reasons why we may wish to change ourselves or the people in our lives. 

For instance, if you’ve made mistakes, you may regret them and promise yourself that you’ll change and do better next time. Or, if you feel like there’s something wrong with you, you may have tried to change but may not have succeeded yet, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder.”

Damarus notes that you may also want to change someone you love, such as a child or partner. Their words or actions may have hurt you or upset you, and you may desperately want them to change, for your benefit or their own. Sometimes, you might find it difficult to love them unless they change.

You may even want to change others in your life, such as your colleagues, teachers, neighbors, or other people you interact with. Their behavior may confuse or frustrate you, and you may hope that they change their ways.

This article explores whether people can change as well as some forms of therapy that can be helpful in motivating change.

Can People Change?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “A leopard can’t change its spots,” which basically means that people are born a certain way and they can’t change. 

However, research suggests that change may in fact be possible. 

For instance, a 2016 study found that people who wanted to change certain aspects of their personality were able to do so and that they experienced increased well-being if the change aligned with their goals.

A 2017 review that analyzed the results of 207 studies found that people could change their personalities and experience improvements in mental health conditions with the support of therapy and interventions.

That said, it’s important to understand that change is not easy. Therefore, it is a possibility but not guaranteed, especially if someone is not open to change.

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Sometimes people are not emotionally ready to change. When given a choice, a lot of people will choose a bad situation that’s familiar over an improvement that’s unfamiliar and scary. It’s so much easier to be in a situation where you know the rules, even if it’s really hard in other ways.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Damarus also goes on to say that trying to force someone to change is manipulation.

If the person you’re trying to change is someone other than yourself, as much as you may want them to change, there is often only so much you can do. For instance, you can offer them encouragement and support, or even be a role model to them and set a positive example. However, you cannot control their actions, and eventually, it is up to them. 

Press Play for Advice On Influencing Someone's Behavior

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares that while you can't make anyone else change their behaviors or habits, you can certainly influence positive change in your loved ones. Click below to listen now.

Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

Types of Therapy

It is possible for people to change their personality traits, habits, behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes, often with the help of therapeutic interventions. Below, Daramus outlines some forms of therapy that can be helpful.

Acceptance Commitment Therapy

Acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) is a type of therapy that focuses on first accepting negative behavior, personality traits, or situations. Thereafter, it promotes commitment to positive thoughts and behavior patterns, to help motivate change.

For instance, take a person who is trying to lose weight. If this person is dieting out of self-loathing, they may engage in behaviors that are ultimately harmful to their physical and mental health.

ACT can help them recognize these unhealthy behaviors and promote healthier ones that are sustainable and safe.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is about understanding stages of change. You meet someone where they are and ask questions that get them thinking. You ask very different questions of someone who doesn’t want to change than you do of someone who’s already trying.

This form of therapy is designed to engage people and help them build the motivation to change. It can be especially helpful if the person has mixed feelings about whether they want to change and are not especially confident that they have the ability to change.

A Word From Verywell

If you are angry, hurt, or frustrated by someone’s words or actions, you may wish for them to change. You may even want to change yourself if you don’t like things about yourself

Change can be difficult, but research shows us that change is possible. If you are hoping to change some aspects of yourself that maybe don't align with your values, consider reaching out to a therapist.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hudson NW, Fraley RC. Changing for the better? Longitudinal associations between volitional personality change and psychological wellbeing. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2016;42(5):603-615. doi:10.1177/0146167216637840

  2. Roberts BW, Luo J, Briley DA, Chow PI, Su R, Hill PL. A systematic review of personality trait change through intervention. Psychol Bull. 2017;143(2):117-141. doi:10.1037/bul0000088

  3. Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers. Understanding motivational interviewing.

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.