Once we reach a certain age, our identities are fixed and stable. I mean, there can’t be that many things that can cause a personality change, surely?
Experts are challenging this train of thought. They now believe that a number of things can cause a personality change. For example, it is possible to alter certain behaviours, emotions and characteristics. In addition, the causes of this change are wide and varied. They range from our environment to organ transplants and even hormones.
Here are five of those things that may cause a personality change, according to science:
1. Organ Transplants
Organ transplants not only save lives, they also change personalities. The heart is the most common type of organ transplant. This is alongside the corneas and kidneys. But the heart does more than simply pump blood. It stores actual memories through combinatorial coding by nerve cells. This is why our senses can recognise certain smells. Our cells remember them.
Gary Schwartz is a parapsychologist and lecturer at Arizona University. He believes he has direct knowledge of at least 70 cases where transplant recipients had experienced some kind of personality change.
In one such case, a woman, Clare Sylvia, received the heart from an 18-year-old motorcyclist. She inherited a craving for chicken nuggets and beer after the surgery. Clare found out that her donor was called Tim and did indeed love beer and nuggets.
One of the strangest and most tragic cases of personality change regarding an organ transplant is that of Sonny Graham. Graham received the heart of a suicide victim, Terry Cottle. Cottle shot himself in the head. Twelve years after receiving Cottle’s heart, Graham killed himself in exactly the same way.
In another strange and bizarre case, an 8-year-old girl had received a heart transplant from a murdered 10-year-old girl. The 8-year-old began to have nightmares about the person who murdered her donor. She was taken to see a therapist. The young girl provided so many clues about the murder that the police were able to arrest and convict the murderer.
The University of Stirling found that experiencing unemployment for long periods led to a significant decrease in three of the Big Five Personality markers. These are – conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness. Not only that, but it gets worse the longer a person spends unemployed. They become less motivated, less curious, less sympathetic and less considerate.
Lead researcher Dr. Christopher Boyce, from the University of Stirling’s Behavioural Science Centre, said: “The results challenge the idea that our personalities are ‘fixed’ and show that the effects of external factors such as unemployment can have large impacts on our basic personality.”
The study showed there was a limited change in the three personality markers for individuals who managed to get back into employment. This has pretty far-reaching consequences for society.
Experts have never looked at unemployment before as a possible cause of personality change. This affects not only the work market but people’s ability for positive growth in the future.
Talking of positive growth, it is not surprising that a spell in prison will cause a change in personality. You only have to look at Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stamford Prison Experiment to see just how quickly individuals took to their various roles. And remember, this was an experiment, not a real prison and all the participants were aware of their pretend roles.
So how does time spent in a real prison change a person? You are locked up, told what to do, you have no privacy or say on what you eat, wear or go. This has to have some impact. Prisoners have to change in order to survive, if not physically then certainly mentally. Craig Haney (a collaborator of Zimbardo): “few people are completely unchanged or unscathed by the (prison) experience”.
Long-term imprisonment studies show that it ‘changes people to the core’. There are key factors that cause personality changes in prisoners. They have to be constantly on guard and show no vulnerability. There can be no show of emotions. Theirs is a life of strict routine with inflexible rules.
The problem is that while they adapt to prison life, they become institutionalised. This is known as ‘prisonisation’. It is also what makes life difficult for inmates when they are eventually released.
Prisoners describe how they became emotionally numb and hardened whilst inside. As for the Big Five personality traits, one would expect agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism to change the most. Prisoners are less trustworthy, more suspicious, and detached from society.