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MAUGHAN: Science needs rebranding. 

*      *      *

DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: how fixed is personality?

MAUGHAN: I take comfort in knowing that I am just like everyone else in deluding myself. 

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MAUGHAN: Angela, today we have a fascinating question about how fixed personality is.

DUCKWORTH: Mike, you and I have been talking about personality so much lately.

MAUGHAN: Mostly because I think I need a better one.

DUCKWORTH: No! But you know what? I think a lot of us feel that way.

MAUGHAN: Okay, well, let me read you this question from Joshua Curtis. “Hi, Mike and Angela. I often wonder how fixed personality is. I feel that while my personality has definite patterns, how pronounced those patterns are can vary given the environment that I’m in. This seems to be true both in the short term, for example I have a different personality at work than at home, but also true in the longer term. My personality is definitely different now that I’m in my late 30s compared to when I was in college. This makes me wonder if personality tests should not be used to tell us about fixed traits that we have, but rather as tools for working to become closer to the people we would like to be. Are there things we can do to intentionally change our personalities? Thanks, Joshua Curtis.”

DUCKWORTH: Can I just thank Joshua? Because I feel like we live in a particular cultural moment where self-improvement is a universal hobby. And it is a timeless question. I mean, you know, philosophers and theologians of various types have been pondering character and how malleable it is since forever. So, Joshua, great question.

MAUGHAN: Before we jump totally into Joshua’s question. I think it would help to just define — I mean, what is personality?

DUCKWORTH: Personality is something that psychologists would say — and this is very close to, I think, what most people would say who are not trained psychologists — personality is the pattern of acting, thinking, and feeling that you have that is pretty consistent (and the emphasis is on pretty consistent, not perfectly consistent) pretty consistent across situations and across time. You know, your tendency to be cheerful or grim, your tendency to be talkative or shy, your tendency to be gritty or somebody who gives up easily on things. So, when we talk about personality, the emphasis is on kind of the center of gravity of how we usually behave.

MAUGHAN: Got it. Here’s where I’d love to get back to Josh’s question and almost segment into two parts. One: how do our personalities change? And then, can we do things to intentionally change our personalities? So, I thought it may be interesting — or maybe overly vulnerable, I don’t know — to talk about how I think my personality has changed over time.

DUCKWORTH: I would love that! Oh, this is so un-you, Mike. Be vulnerable. Tell me.

MAUGHAN: This feels uncomfortable, and that’s okay.

DUCKWORTH: Let’s get you out of your comfort zone.

MAUGHAN: And I think maybe before we go into this, do you want to just mention — you’ve shared with me these Big Five personality traits, just in their general sense, because I think that will help me talk through the changes in my personality.

DUCKWORTH: Your little story of young Mike Maughan before he became Mike Maughan of today. Yeah, for you, and for Joshua, and for anybody else who’s curious about their own personality, it would be helpful to say on behalf of psychologists everywhere that there is an agreed upon classification of personality traits. And what I mean by “agreed upon” is that if you go to University of Washington, or you, like, go to Stanford, or Yale, or anywhere, all the psychologists there who teach Intro Psych will teach students that there are five major personality traits. They’re really personality trait families because they, they have a bunch of very specific traits within them, but there are these five families of personality traits that have been identified across the lifespan. So, Josh being in I guess he said his late thirties, like, true for Joshua, but also true for me, who I’m in my mid 50s, and my mom, who’s 89, and even a 15-year-old, etc. So, true across the lifespan, and also true across culture. So, on every civilized continent, you can give people personality inventories and when you look at how they respond, you find these five clusters of personality traits. So, what are they? There’s an acronym that I find useful: OCEAN. O-C-E-A-N. And the five personality families — one is openness, openness to experience or open-mindedness, so that’s the O. C is for conscientiousness — you know, color-coded spice racks, and organized lives, and so forth. Then there’s E for extroversion. There’s A for agreeableness. And the last one’s a little bit of a downer, sorry, but the N is for neuroticism. It’s kind of an anachronistic term, but it’s about being emotionally labile and also having a fair amount of negative emotion, like anger, sadness, anxiety in your everyday experience. So, O-C-E-A-N.

MAUGHAN: Okay. Well, let’s dive into the OCEAN of my personality. That was such a lame —.

DUCKWORTH: Yes, let’s get into the OCEAN. So, tell me, I’m so curious!

MAUGHAN: Well, I tried to think through, because again, you’ve shared this OCEAN idea with me before. So, I tried to go through where maybe I was spiking. And so, as a kid, I would say, openness: I was carefree. I was very creative, very playful, as far as I remember it, but somewhat introverted and could be kind of shy. As a teenager, I think conscientiousness took over, and I was probably overly serious. I was very diligent, and I thought maybe if I did everything right then no one could criticize and then I’d just fit in. As a college student, it was kind of interesting, because I think agreeableness and extroversion took over in me. I loved college, and I was very social and out there all the time. I also did a two-year mission for my church and I think that was the first time I felt like I 100 percent belonged.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, where did you go? I think I should know this.

MAUGHAN: I went to upstate New York to Duanesburg, where Stephen Dubner is from.

DUCKWORTH: I always feel like when people say they go on a “mission” —.

MAUGHAN: It’s some exotic location.

DUCKWORTH: You know, you think of Korea. You think of, like, yeah. So, it’s like — Duanesburg, but people live there too.

MAUGHAN: Yes, you do not pick where you go. They just assign you. And I, in retrospect, was thrilled with the assignment. But I, I think that that was, like, a place where this extroversion, agreeableness, I was kind of at my peak. and coming home from that experience, I think I was lost for a little while. I was very outwardly open, and happy, and extroverted, but inwardly I had some layers that I never let anybody in on. Out of — I don’t know if it was insecurity or self-preservation. This is a dumb example, but I think maybe signifies how my personality changed. I love football. I would go to football games. And in my earlier years, if your team would score a touchdown, you would celebrate and be super happy. There was a period of maybe 10 years where I’d be watching a football game, my team would score the touchdown, and everyone around me is high fiving and chest bumping, and I would just sit there waiting to see if there was a flag. Like, I couldn’t let myself enjoy the moment, and then I would relax when I saw that we really did score, and then it was just kind of, like, steady-state even, rather than, like, engaged. This is where I think I’ve changed most recently, is that my whole life has sort of opened up. Like, I’m really happy again. I laugh more freely. I’m much more comfortable with myself and who I am. And maybe the peaks, and valleys, and spikes, are only observable to me, but I feel like they’ve changed pretty substantially. And maybe that’s not just personality, but my ability to deal with self and the world. But I, I think I’ve seen openness, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness increase significantly and neuroticism probably decrease significantly.

DUCKWORTH: How old are you? I can’t remember.

MAUGHAN: I’m 41.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you said that in a kind of, like, Eeyore way.

MAUGHAN: I actually love my life. But sometimes I think, “Wow, if I had the knowledge and perspective and experience now, and could plug that into a 25-year-old, I would be so much better.”

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh. Don’t we all? So, let me ask you this. You’re 41. You have looked back upon your childhood as a little boy all the way up through your teens, your 20s, and your 30s, and you see a lot of change. A lot of that is positive. There are nuances, but there’s a maturation, if you will, of some of these dimensions of personality that you’re happy with. When you look forward to your 40s and then beyond, like my decade and then, you know, Social Security decade, and the Medicare decade —.

MAUGHAN: When you phrase it that way, how can they not look forward —.

DUCKWORTH: Well, the term in science for, like, the next decades — they literally call it the “old old,” like one old was not enough. They’re like, “There’s the old and there’s the old old.”

MAUGHAN: Science needs rebranding. That’s terrible.

DUCKWORTH: I know! They need a whole marketing department, for sure. But when you look forward to the future, Mike, do you think you’re going to change in the future? Or do you think you’ve kind of reached who Mike Maughan is? Like, what’s your just untutored intuition about how stable your personality is now compared to the past?

MAUGHAN: I would hope to continue improving in increments, but I don’t think there’s going to be a massive shift at this point.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, well, I think that’s pretty consistent with what is sometimes called “the end-of-history illusion.” Doesn’t that sound kind of dire?

MAUGHAN: Well when you say illusion, I feel I’m just tricking myself immediately.

DUCKWORTH: But there’s good news. I think especially given what you said about your aspirations, which I think we all have. We would all want to continue to grow, and to learn, and to become even better people than we are now, but a lot of us have a sense — and I do. You know, if you ask me, like, do you think you’ll be a different person when you’re 59 or 61? I think the intuitive answer that I would give you is like, “No, I’m pretty much me. You know, I could tell you how I was different when I was a cheerleader and I was in high school, but, like, now, I am Angela.” And this is called the end-of-history illusion. And you’re right. The term “illusion” or “bias” is a pretty good tip off that what psychologists are pointing to is a mistake that we’re making cognitively. And here I should accredit the coiners of the phrase. So that’s Jordi Quoidbach and then Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson. They published this article about a decade ago, and what they did was they measured the personalities, using a standard inventory of personality, and also the values and preferences of more than 19,000 adults who ranged in age from 18 to 68. And they very simply asked them to report how much they thought they had changed in the past decade — so similar to my Mike Maughan interrogation, but just in the last 10 years — and/or to predict how much they would change in the following decade. And essentially, what they found in this study was that young people, middle-aged people, older people, everybody believed that they had changed a lot in the past. But then, when you ask them the parallel question about the next decade, universally, people do not forecast changing very much at all. Like, they are like, “Oh, now I’m me.” So, if, at every decade, you’re like, “Oh, I’m done. I have finally become who I am,” but then when you look at the data and there is change in every decade, then people are being pessimistic in their forecasts. We have the false sense that we’re done changing. But if we could, like, vault you into the future and show you yourself ten years from now, you will have changed more than you think you will. 

MAUGHAN: Well, I take comfort in knowing that I am just like everyone else in deluding myself.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I wonder if that is comforting. I guess it is in a way.

MAUGHAN: No, it’s not that comforting. It’s more like, “Okay, I fell into the trap completely.” Let me read you this one thing and I’m curious to get your take on it in context of what we’ve just said. So, I listened to a Talk by a Cambridge University psychologist named Brian Little He basically says that rank order doesn’t change. So, he said if you go back to your, your sixth grade reunion, the rank order of people on these different dimensions stays relatively the same, and the kid who is the class clown — maybe he has a more sophisticated sense of humor than in sixth grade now that he’s 36, but he’s probably still the one cracking the jokes. And so his point was, yeah, we all change over time, but probably where you fit relative to maybe your peers or others stays at least relatively consistent.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, love Brian Little. Super love Brian Little. Don’t agree. I mean, I’d have to debate him on this, and I could, because he’s awesome, and he’s fun to debate with. But rank order does get to be quite stable in about your late middle age.

MAUGHAN: What’s late middle age?

DUCKWORTH: Fifties or so. But if you did this hypothetical example — like, think of your sixth grade class and then imagine doing this, if you had the same 30 kids, like, at the end of high school and imagine doing it then in your, like, twenties, and thirties, and forties, and fifties — at what point would the shuffling, would the rank ordering, be zero? Like, you know, it’s like, “Oh everybody’s just standing in the same places.” It’s never that people don’t shuffle. There’s always rank order change, even in your fifties, and sixties, and beyond. So, that’s where I would disagree with him. But where he has a point is that there’s less shuffling. So, you know, if you go from sixth grade to twelfth grade, and you’re like, “Hey, everybody stand in line from, like, most cheerful to least cheerful,” in this hypothetical example, there’s going to be, like, a reasonable amount of shuffling. And then, there’s, like, less shuffling and still less shuffling. And that’s why the end-of-history illusion is not like people are totally wrong. Like, you do change less as you grow older, but you never change not at all. There’s never a point in, in a lifespan where you have no shuffling. And the tendency that’s been observed across all the data that have been collected is very awesome, it’s good news, because even though our hips and our knees give out, one thing that we can look forward to as we get older is — it’s usually called the maturity principle. So just like you, we become more dependable as we get older. We become more emotionally stable. I always say that to 20-year-olds because I’m like, “Dude, this rollercoaster that you’re on, I’m not, because I’m in my fifties, and you’re in your twenties. Yes, I will have ups and downs, but holy smokes, they are not the ups and downs that I had in my twenties.”

MAUGHAN: And thank goodness.

DUCKWORTH: Thank goodness, I know! I don’t even know how we survive those tumultuous years. So, we get more conscientious, more agreeable, more compassionate, and understanding of other people and their complicated lives. And as I said, there’s, like, a decrease in neuroticism, or you could frame it as an increase in emotional stability. It’s the same thing. And then I think there’s a little bit more, um, debate about open-mindedness, but in many studies open-mindedness or openness to experience also goes up over much of adulthood. So, in adulthood at least — you know, adolescence is a whole other can of worms — but just in adulthood, from say your twenties onward, there’s increases in the mean levels of positive personality traits. We are generally getting better.

MAUGHAN: I love that you called adolescence a “can of worms.” I think it’s almost sometimes a pit of despair. Nothing against those of you in adolescence but —.

DUCKWORTH: You said were very anxious in your — did I get that right? You were, like, diligent, but in a way, like, driven through fear or something?

MAUGHAN: Yeah, I think it was a, a self-protective mechanism.

DUCKWORTH: I mean, not everybody was Mike Maughan as a teenager, but I will just say that the things that we went through in — I don’t know how we survive our teenagers either. Like, wow, those were hard. And in these personality studies, where you track change, like mean-level change, rank order change, but you’re looking at teenagers, there is a — sometimes it’s called the disruption hypothesis. Basically instead of everybody getting better, and happier, and more dependable, and more conscientious, in adolescence, in many studies, there’s actually a dip. So, like, you’re in a way going backwards in maturity, so to speak. It’s hard. And so, when I teach the maturity principle, I’m usually looking out at a sea of faces who are already in their 20s and then I get to just emphasize the positive, because they are —.

MAUGHAN: You’ve survived.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, they’re getting to the good part.

MAUGHAN: Well look, Angela and I would love to hear your thoughts on how fixed personalities are. Do you feel like your personality has shifted over time? And have you ever intentionally tried to change it? So record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone and email it to and maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. Also, if you want to learn more about your own personality, head to And you can take the Big Five inventory and you’ll get an immediate personality profile and your results will be completely anonymous.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: is it possible to change your personality intentionally?

MAUGHAN: To increase agreeableness, she wanted to start sending out supportive texts, think more positively about people who frustrated her, and — this is my favorite — she says, quote, “Regrettably, hugging.”

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about personality change.

MAUGHAN: Angela, I want to go to this other thing that Josh talked about, which is not just how fixed personality is, but can you change it? And I’m curious to get your take on this principle that Richard Wiseman, a psychology professor at University of Hertfordshire, called it the “as if” principle — like behave as if you are the person that you want to be. And so, I want to give you an example that I loved in a book I just read by Martin Short. So, Martin Short, movie star, comedic legend — 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, my gosh, I love Martin Short! Like, he hangs out with Steve Martin, super funny. He’s on “Comedians in Cars” or something. Anyway, go on. Sorry, I got distracted.

MAUGHAN: “Comedians with Cars Getting Coffee,” I think.

DUCKWORTH: “Comedians Getting Coffee in Cars.”

MAUGHAN: I don’t know.

DUCKWORTH: Something. Jerry Seinfeld. Go on, go on, go on.

MAUGHAN: But Martin Short is hilarious and, yes, often with Steve Martin. So, he wrote a book called, I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend. And he actually starts the book with a really interesting anecdote talking about he and his wife, Nancy. They were out to dinner and this is May 1977, he’s early in his career still. He’s working at Second City in Toronto, which is a comedy group. And he’s developing a character named Ed. This is the character — at the time, did not yet have a last name — but the character that we now know famously is Ed Grimley. And so he and his wife are out to eat. They’re having an argument — not a terrible argument, but there’s some serious tension. And his wife says to him, “I don’t want to talk to you anymore. I want to talk to Ed.” And then, he said that she looked past him and she said, “Ed, what’s Marty’s problem?” And Martin Short transforms himself into this alternate person and conversed with her as Ed. And he said, “Ed, whose sweetness has a disarming effect on Nancy. When trouble arises, she calls on Ed to moderate, and when he appears, all things calm down.” Now I’m not saying we should all play a totally separate character, but I wonder if in the state of trying to change our personality — there seems to be some real value in acting as if, or quote-unquote, “playing a part” in order to give yourself permission to change and adapt your personality.

DUCKWORTh: So, I think you’re onto something and definitely that Martin Short is on to something. I used to talk about this a little bit with Tim Beck, arguably, the founder of modern psychotherapy, which is often called cognitive therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy. And we talked about multiple personalities, because I can be a completely different person with my students. I really have the professor hat on. I’m patient, kind, you know, I’m curious about what’s going on with them — like, that’s Professor Angela, or who I try to be. But then, when I’m with my husband, you know, it’s a different Angela. So, when I’m on a Zoom call with students and I get off the Zoom call, the tone of my voice even changes. I’m like, “Okay, so that is due in a week. All right. Are we good? Okay, great question, Francisco.” And then click, leave call, and it’s like, “Hi, lovey!” The register changes. It’s very different. But here’s what Tim Beck said, and I really agree. He thought as a psychologist and as a therapist that all of us have multiple personalities, in a healthy way, because — as he put it to me, he’s like, “If you don’t have multiple personalities, if you’re not able to be, you know, a professor with your students, and a spouse with your husband, and a mom with your kids, and a neighbor with your neighbors” — like, these are very different personality “modes,” he called them. Like, if you can’t switch modes, then you have a real problem. And so, I think that part of personality change is, like, who we become in our 40s as opposed to our 30s, and this kind of gradual change — so personalities on the whole do change, but they tend not to be, like, the difference between Martin and Ed. It’s kind of like a slow change. But it is true that in a millisecond, we can switch our personalities if we switch modes. And I think what I want to say to Joshua or to anybody who’s like, “You know, when I think of all the people that I am, there are people that I like better.” Like, there’s an Angela, Mike, that I don’t think you’ve ever seen and very few people have. It’s a really hot-tempered, impatient — I mean, I have, like, thrown objects in my house, slammed doors, like the door was going to fall off the hinge, sworn like a sailor, but really a very mean sailor. Like, there’s an angry Angela that I never show you, that I never show my students, that unfortunately, I have shown Jason, and I’ve even shown my daughters. I don’t like that Angela. So, part of personality change is saying, you know, there are people in me I like better. Maybe Martin’s wife and Martin himself would say, like, Ed’s a great person. And like, the question then is: how do I let Ed, or cheerful Professor Angela, or whatever it is, come out to play more? And I think a lot of that is the secret to personality change — is to put yourself in situations or to bring out the mode that you like best.

MAUGHAN: Unfortunately, I also have a version of Mike that I don’t like, that I don’t see very often, that very few people, thankfully, have seen.

DUCKWORTH: What do you not like about this Mike I never see?

MAUGHAN: I think it’s the, it’s the same type you just described, right? For me, I would say that is more when I am really stressed and have no time, and so it’s a time pressure and a stressful situation. That’s the Mike I like the least, because normally I try in every way to bring people with me and whatever, and occasionally that’s the: slam the door, “Everybody’s screwing this up, get out of my way, I’m going to make it happen, and I’m going to do it right.”

DUCKWORTH: Well, that’s different from my worst Angela because I have diagnosed myself as getting into these tornadoes of anger only when I feel — it’s not just stress. I have to feel like people don’t appreciate me. So, if I feel like I have heroically done the noble selfless thing and that I am overlooked and unappreciated, that’s what activates super angry Angela. So, this little bit of insight, by the way — because I think we all have a part of ourselves, a mode that we think is dangerous and bad — for me, like, it took me years, but I’ve, tried to put myself in situations where that doesn’t happen. I mean, part of it is if I see that I’m starting to martyr myself, I’m, like, starting to say, “Well, there you go, I sacrificed this and that and the other,” I’m like, “Uh oh, I am setting myself up for angry Angela to come out. And it would honestly be better for everyone if I were a little more selfish now so as to prevent Chernobyl later.

MAUGHAN: I also love the alliteration, angry Angela. Let me share this. I thought it was interesting. This is not from a psychologist. This is a journalist who is a staff writer at The Atlantic. Her name is Olga Khazan, and she is the author of Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World. But she wrote several articles about trying to change her own personality. She just did an experiment with an N of 1. But she wrote this article, “I Gave Myself Three Months to Change My Personality. The Results Were Mixed.” Which I think: what an honest and true statement for anyone trying to change their personality. So, to become more extroverted, she made goals to meet new people. To decrease neuroticism, she said, “I’m going to meditate often and make gratitude lists.” To increase agreeableness, she wanted to start sending out supportive texts, supportive cards, think more positively about people who frustrated her, and — this is my favorite — she says, quote, “Regrettably, hugging.” So, she hugged people.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, I love this curmudgeon.

MAUGHAN: To increase extroversion, she took an improv class to help reduce social anxiety. And then this is my favorite quote: “To cut down on how pissed off I am in general, and because I’m an overachiever, I also signed up for an anger management class.” So, she does all these things to try to change her personality. 

DUCKWORTH: And then, what happens? 

MAUGHAN: Again, in the end, she said the results were mixed. She quotes a late psychologist, Carl Rogers, who just said, “’When I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.’” And so, she said, “I’m going to try all these things. I kind of am who I am, but I was able to change slightly.” When she took a personality test, she had increased in extroversion going from 23rd percentile to 33rd. Her neuroticism had gone from extremely high to very high. But directionally, none of it changed that much.

DUCKWORTH: It’s not that little change, honestly. If you go from 23rd percent to 33rd percent — I mean, just think about that. Like, if you’re taking some standardized test, you’re like, well, and then I did some prep and I went from the 23rd percentile to 33rd percentile. I think you would be like, “That was pretty good.” That’s, like, uh, let’s see in technical terms, huge. What’s interesting is that this N of 1 experiment has been done. So, there have been researchers who essentially help people make plans. They’re like, “Okay, I want to be more extroverted. Okay, what do extroverted people do?” It is a little “as if,” actually. It’s like, if I acted as if I were extroverted, what would it be? And then, you literally just make plans. You’re like, “Okay, if I’m in class, then I will raise my hand. You know, if I see a friend, then I will go over and hug them.” Like, you make all these “if-then” plans. And the research shows that it can lead to some short-term changes in personality — honestly, I think in the research studies, not as big as 23rd percentile to 33rd percentile on average. But I would say that there’s some evidence that you can make plans to act as if you had a different personality. You can, you know, in a way, bring out that personality mode. But also, you know, it’s interesting that she quoted Carl Rogers, because Carl Rogers was one of the great humanist psychologists. Carl Rogers is no longer alive, but he preceded Tim Beck, and he had this approach to therapy that was, like a lot of other humanist psychologists, based on the idea of “unconditional positive regard,” that what we need to do, all of us — those of us who are really struggling, and then those of us who are, like, actually in a pretty good place in life — that all of us need to have this rock-solid foundation of unconditional positive regard to feel like you’re okay, that you’re a good person, that you’re worthwhile. It’s not often talked about these days, but I actually think Carl Rogers was right. And I don’t even see this as a contradiction. I think we can say, like, “You know what? I would like to be a little more cheerful. You know what? I would like to not bring out angry Angela as much. Like, I want to change.” And also, at the same time, without contradiction to say, “I’m okay. Like, I am, in an unconditional way, a human being who has a certain amount of worth and dignity, and I both want to change and also feel accepting of myself.” So, I don’t know if that sounds like a contradiction to you, but I think the healthiest people are exactly that. They feel okay with themselves in an unconditional way. And they also are looking forward and hoping to change for the better.

MAUGHAN: I say all the time to friends or whatever, I think one of the healthiest things in life is learning to hold seemingly contradictory things at the same time.

DUCKWORTH: Mmm, somebody famous said something like that, but I can’t remember — I can’t remember who, like George Orwell. 

MAUGHAN: I’m sure someone famous said it not only earlier but way better than I am. But that’s where I think I’ve come with myself too, in terms of me telling you how my personality changed. Like, hey, I accept myself for who I am and I want to become better. And both of those — they’re at contrast in some sense, at conflict, but, like, also true.

DUCKWORTH: Absolutely. I don’t know if we’ve answered Joshua’s question in any kind of complete way, but I will say this, Mike; the reason why we’ve been talking about personality so much of late is that it is something we all ask ourselves. You know, who am I? And who have I been, and who will I be? And I think that’s the justification for devoting not only this conversation to Joshua’s question about can I change? You know, how malleable is personality? Answer: like, more than you think. But also for having five more conversations, each dedicated to one of the letters in OCEAN. And I really look forward to that, because when I look at my “psychological selfie,” as it were, like when I look at my own personality with any kind of honesty, there’s so much there where I could understand myself better, but also, in important ways, improve.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, and I think as we go into these next conversations, obviously we’ve invited you all to take the Big Five Inventory at But Angela and I will also share some of that anonymized data and share with you our own psychological selfies. And look, here’s what I would say to Joshua. In the process of all this, I’m going to take the challenge myself to say, on each of these OCEAN principles, what’s one thing that I can do to maybe improve in each regard.

DUCKWORTH: Maybe we should do that! Should we challenge ourselves to not only stare at ourselves in the mirror, so to speak, but also, if we want to, to mold ourselves a little bit.

MAUGHAN: I want to. So, yes, I’m in.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I am up for that!

MAUGHAN: Awesome. Well, we hope you’ll join us over the next five episodes as we explore the different aspects of personality.

DUCKWORTH: Mike, I cannot wait.

And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

In the first half of the show, Angela says that the Big Five personality traits apply across the lifespan and across cultures. However, it’s interesting to note that recent research from leading personality psychologists has found that the, quote, “Little Six” better represent the prominent dimensions of child temperament. These factors consist of the original big five personality traits, plus activity, which includes elements like physical energy and motor activity. In addition, certain academics have proposed that the Big Five may not necessarily apply to certain isolated indigenous people. For example, researchers studying the Tsimane, a hunter-gatherer community in the Bolivian lowlands, found that members of the tribe rated themselves as both “reserved” and “talkative” — suggesting that the trait of extroversion may not pertain to them in the way that it’s typically conceived.

Later, Mike and Angela nearly recall the name of Jerry Seinfeld’s popular talk show, which features the comedian chatting with guests over a cup of coffee and driving around in a classic car. The show is aptly named Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Martin Short appears in Season 11, Episode 8, in which he and Seinfeld drive around Los Angeles in a 1982 Mercedes station wagon.

Finally, Mike and Angela have difficulty remembering the origin of a famous quote about the importance of being able to hold seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time. They were likely thinking of a moment from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1936 essay, “The Crack-Up.” Fitzgerald wrote, quote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on nostalgia.

  Greg WARD: Hello, Angela and Mike. This is Greg Ward in Austin, Texas. I really enjoyed episode 190 on the point of nostalgia. One of my favorite experiences is when nostalgia is sparked suddenly by a smell or environment. For instance, the feeling of St. Augustine grass on my bare feet or the smell of an automobile mechanic shop, which instantly takes me back to my childhood visiting my grandpa. He was the town mechanic in a small Texas town. Even a sunny but crisp cool day can for a moment take me back to recess in middle school. These feelings are brief and spontaneous but guaranteed to bring a smile on my face.

Alec HESTER: Hey, Mike and Angela. Thank you for recording my favorite episode of No Stupid Questions to date on nostalgia. I’m someone who has followed nostalgia throughout my life. Growing up, I was enthralled by the wonder of Disney movies and my family’s trips to Disneyland, and that led me to a career working for the Walt Disney Company for ten years. During that time, I also got my degree in sociology, where I sought to understand the healthiest and most fulfilling way to apply nostalgia into my life. Nostalgia has caused many of my peers to long for the past, but in my experience, nostalgia works best as a present moment experience, where you just kind of stop and internalize that lovely feeling right there and appreciate this amazing human ability we have to feel something so wonderful for a second time. Then, you go back out there, you make wonderful new memories that years down the line will be your new nostalgic moments. The philosophy is: notice, appreciate, smile, and move forward. Eventually, I moved on from Disney to a new career in social research. But I’m happy to say, I still get a blast of present moment nostalgia anytime I hear “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

 Steve CASE: Hi, this is Steve from Seattle. Nostalgia has affected my life very much, because I hosted a Twitter chat about nostalgia for a decade. The chat was originally focused on retro tech — things like floppy disks, and tamagotchis, and music players with physical media like the Sony Walkman and Discman. It wasn’t long until we were talking about holiday memories, road trips, and foods that brought us back to simpler days. I ultimately ended the weekly chat after 11 years. Not because nostalgia has become any less interesting, but because our platform, Twitter, now X, was imploding. So now, we’re nostalgic about Twitter. 

That was respectively, Greg Ward, Alec Hester, and Steve Case. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on how fixed personality is. How has your personality changed over time? Have you ever tried to change it? Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: The first episode in Mike and Angela’s series on the Big Five personality traits. Should you be more open to stepping out of your comfort zone?

MAUGHAN: I have never regretted the eggs Benedict.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, really? I have always regretted the eggs Benedict.

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Greg Rippin with help from Jasmin Klinger. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can find us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

MAUGHAN: I have friends who color code their books. It is, but I have one friend who — his wife color coded all the books and his thought was: “It’s really hard to find any of my books.”

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  • Aaron (Tim) Beck, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
  • Olga Khazan, staff writer at The Atlantic. 
  • Brian Little, professor of psychology at the University of Cambridge.
  • Jordi Quoidbach, professor of people management and organisation at ESADE, University Ramon Llull.
  • Carl Rogers, 20th-century psychologist.
  • Martin Short, actor and comedian.
  • Richard Wiseman, professor of the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire.
  • Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.



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