The Plasticity of Personality: Can We Switch Our Stripes?

By Diane Cole

September/October 2021

Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change By Christian Jarrett. Simon & Schuster. 304 pages. 978-1-501-17469-8

I began reading cognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett’s engaging and instructive new book, Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change, just as the country was emerging from the pandemic-imposed cocoon that had kept most of us isolated indoors for more than a year. It seemed particularly timely because, as I began dipping back into socializing in person, I noticed not just how much the year of living remotely had affected my friends’ moods, but in some cases how it had brought out unfamiliar aspects of their personalities, especially increased anxiety and depression.

At the same time, I was struck by how other friends had become more empathetic, more caring. Even amid so much illness and loss and worry, they’d managed to develop or discover new strengths and strategies within to help themselves and those around them.

According to Jarrett, in all these instances, different aspects of our personality had been challenged, disrupted, and changed, just as our lives had been. Such shifts might not have been expected, but they were normal—and with psychotherapeutic tools and support, the positive changes could be strengthened and the not-so-welcome ones could be made, well, more welcoming.

Jarrett begins by defining personality as “a relatively stable…

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