top of page

The Myth of Fixed Personality: How Context Changes Who You Are

The Myth of Fixed Personality: Why Context Changes Who You Are

As humans, we often believe that our personalities are fixed and unchanging, but research shows that personality is far more malleable than you might think. In fact, personalities can change based on the context in which we find ourselves, and the changing contexts of workplaces, including interacting with different people, teams, and situations can have a significant impact on how our personality manifests. So, what does this mean for your personality, and how does context and the situation in which you find yourself change who you are?

A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that personality can change in response to job demands. The study followed a group of employees over a four-year period and found that employees who had jobs with higher levels of stress and demands experienced an increase in their levels of conscientiousness. This suggests that when individuals are faced with a challenging work environment, they may develop greater focus and attention to detail.

Another study, published the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that when people spend time in social places like workplaces, they tend to be more open-minded, extraverted, agreeable, conscientious and less anxious compared to when they spend time at home.

Other studies have found that simply being exposed to other people who are stressed (stress is a facet of neuroticism) can induce physiological changes that induce stress. One such study found that people experience an increase in cortisol levels (a physiological marker of stress) by seeing a stranger express stress, while another study found that simply smelling the sweat of an anxious person can increase our stress levels, which is both gross and stressful.

In addition to job demands, workplace culture can also impact how our personalities manifest. multiple studies have demonstrated that employees who work in a culture that values teamwork and collaboration experience an increase in their own levels of agreeableness over time. This suggests that when individuals work in an environment that encourages cooperation and mutual support, they may become more agreeable and cooperative themselves.

On the other hand, a workplace culture that values competition and individual achievement may have a different impact on personality. Multiple studies have demonstrated that employees who work in a highly competitive environment see an increase levels of narcissism over time. This suggests that when individuals are constantly striving to outperform their peers, they may become more focused on themselves and their own achievements.

And, a recent Scientific American article reports on a study that found personality can change quickly in response to different situations. The study involved 90 university students and examined how their personality traits, such as extraversion and neuroticism, varied over the course of a day. The researchers found that the students' personality traits fluctuated depending on the time of day and the activities they were engaged in, suggesting that personality is more fluid than previously thought.

So, what does all of this mean? First, it suggests that personality is not as fixed as we might think. Second, it highlights that by understanding how personality can change in response to different contexts, we can create work environments that foster positive personality development and lead to better performance and satisfaction.

While it’s true that personality can change depending on context, it's important to distinguish between short-term fluctuations in personality that occur in response to specific situations or contexts, and more stable patterns of personality that persist over time.

Personality self-assessments are designed to capture these more stable patterns of personality, which are known as traits. While it's true that individuals may exhibit different traits or levels of traits depending on the context they are in, these change to personality states are typically relatively small and do not impact overall trait levels found through self-assessment. As such, test-retest reliability - which measures the consistency of an individual's scores on a personality assessment over time - is still considered to be a key indicator of traditional personality assessment validity. However, context-influenced changes in personality aren't easily measured with traditional assessments; they require approaches that are more dynamic and responsive to contextual changes, like language-based personality analysis.

While personality may change in response to context, there are often underlying traits or tendencies that remain consistent across situations. For example, an individual who is typically introverted may still exhibit introverted tendencies in a social setting, even if they are temporarily more extraverted than usual.

While it's important to recognize that personality can be context-dependent, this does not necessarily invalidate the validity of personality assessments. Rather, it highlights the importance of considering situational factors when interpreting traditional personality assessment results, the necessity of using more responsive approaches when measuring contextual personality, and understanding that personality is a multi-faceted, and malleable construct.

To learn more about measuring contextual and situational personality, contact us for a demonstration.


Trusted by industry leaders:

Subscribe to the blog

bottom of page