People with elevated personality disorder traits have a greater desire to alter their personality than people with lower levels of these pathological traits, according to new research published in the journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment.
The findings suggest that people can recognize the presence and impact of pathological personality traits. But the findings also indicate that antagonistic characteristics may be particularly difficult to target during psychotherapeutic treatment because people view such traits as having benefits.
Clinical theory suggests that pathological personality traits tend to be ego-syntonic, meaning people view the traits as consistent with their self-image. But some work has indicated that people have an understanding that these traits are abnormal and impair their functioning.
“It was long thought that personality disorders were ego-syntonic and associated with a general lack of insight. And, yet, some of our (and other labs’) recent studies have shown these assumptions and observations may not necessarily hold,” explained study authors Chelsea E. Sleep and Joshua D. Miller, a graduate psychologist at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center and professor at the University of Georgia, respectively.
“For instance, individuals’ self-reports of personality disorder symptoms and pathological personality traits (e.g., disinhibition, antagonism) converge reasonably well with informant reports (i.e., reports provided by close others like romantic partners, best friends, family members), even for disorders like psychopathy and narcissism, that have traditionally been thought to be characterized by a lack of insight.”
“In addition, individuals with personality disorder symptoms or elevated pathological traits report that they a) don’t necessarily like these traits, b) understand that they cause them impairment, and c) desire lower levels of these traits. Given these findings, we conducted this study to both replicate some of our previous work and expand it by exploring perceived barriers to change.”
The new study is based on data provided by 497 adults from the United States. About half of the sample met criteria for the presence of a personality disorder as measured via the Iowa Personality Disorder Screen.
The participants rated the extent to which five pathological trait domains described their own personality. The five domains included: negative affect (characterized by neuroticism and insecurity), detachment (characterized by social withdrawal and the inability to feel pleasure), antagonism (characterized by manipulativeness, deceitfulness, and grandiosity), disinhibition (characterized by irresponsibility and impulsivity), and psychoticism (characterized by eccentricity and perceptual dysregulation.)
They reported whether these personality domains had caused problems for them at work/school, in social relationships, and with their physical health. The participants were then asked to rate their perceptions of benefits for each domain and indicated whether they were interested in changing that aspect of themselves. Finally, they were surveyed about their motivation to change their personality and their perceptions of barriers to change.
The researchers found that most participants were uninterested in changing their personality. However, those with elevated personality disorder traits were more interested in change than those with lower levels. The pathological personality trait domains were generally perceived as impairing rather than beneficial, and individuals desired the most amount of change for detachment and negative affectivity.
The findings suggest that “the average person has more insight into their traits and personality impairment than previously thought,” Sleep and Miller told PsyPost. “It is of particular interest, though, that some traits like antagonism and psychoticism are associated with both perceived impairment and benefits (e.g., antagonism: standing up for oneself; psychoticism: thinking creatively), which may lead to ambivalence about wanting to change.”
Approximately 23% of the participants reported that they wanted to increase their level of antagonism. As one participant explained, this aspect of their personality “has at times damaged personal relationships,” but “I work in a highly competitive environment where being aggressive/thinking highly of yourself is integral to getting ahead and pushing the envelope. Being willing to agitate or grandstand often results in promotions or new accounts obtained.” About 21% of the participants endorsed wanting higher levels of psychoticism.
In contrast, only 8% of participants reported that they wanted to increase their level of negative affectivity and only 10% reported that they wanted to increase their level of detachment. “Some traits are seen as almost entirely impairing,” the researchers said.
“We also found that there are a number of themes associated with difficulty in changing these traits including previous failures to do so, a lack of understanding about how to go about pursuing change, lack of motivation, or the sense that change will be too difficult,” Sleep and Miller told PsyPost. “These concerns are entirely reasonably though as psychologists are still trying to understand how to change personality and even in contexts where we know some personality change is possible, like therapy (e.g., Roberts et al. 2017), the exact mechanisms remain unclear.”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“Understanding personality change is a relatively new area of study,” Sleep and Miller said. “Additional work is needed to examine how volitional personality change can occur, both in terms of basic personality traits as well as more pathological personality traits or disorders. Given that personality – general and pathological – is associated with an array of important life domains (e.g., occupational and romantic success; physical and psychological health), we believe this line of inquiry has substantial value.”
“In future work, it will be important to move beyond using convenience samples and study samples with higher levels of personality pathology and to use an array of different modalities beyond self-reports (e.g., interviews, qualitative interviews, and data collection, etc.)”
The study, “Understanding Individuals’ Desire for Change, Perceptions of Impairment, Benefits, and Barriers of Change for Pathological Personality Traits“, was authored by Chelsea E. Sleep, Donald R. Lynam, and Joshua D. Miller.