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Do habit-changing smartphone apps really work?

An international research team led by the University of Zurich studied whether the daily use of such apps can lead to desired personality changes

Habit and personality changes through apps? It's possible.
Habit and personality changes through apps? It's possible. (cottonbro/Pexels)

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Can certain personality traits be psychologically influenced in a short-term and targeted manner?

Researchers from the universities of Zurich, St. Gallen, Brandeis, Illinois, and ETH Zurich have now investigated this question using a digital intervention. In their study, around 1,500 participants were provided with a specially developed smartphone app for three months and the researchers then assessed whether and how their personalities had changed.

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The five major personality traits of openness, conscientiousness, sociability (extraversion), considerateness (agreeableness), and emotional vulnerability (neuroticism) were examined. The app included elements of knowledge transfer, behavioral and resource activation, self-reflection, and feedback on progress. All communication with the digital coach and companion (a chatbot) took place virtually. The chatbot supported the participants on a daily basis to help them make the desired changes.

Changes after three months

The majority of participants said that they wanted to reduce their emotional vulnerability, increase their conscientiousness, or increase their extraversion. Those who participated in the intervention for more than three months reported greater success in achieving their change goals than the control group who took part for only two months.

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Close friends and family members also observed changes in those participants who wanted to increase expression of a certain personality trait. However, for those who wanted to reduce expression of a trait, the people close to them noticed little change. This group mainly comprised those participants who wanted to become less emotionally vulnerable, an inner process that is less observable from the outside.

“The participants and their friends alike reported that three months after the end of the intervention, the personality changes brought about by using the app had persisted,” says Mathias Allemand, professor of psychology at UZH. “These surprising results show that we are not just slaves to our personality, but that we can deliberately make changes to routine experience and behavior patterns.”

Important for health promotion and prevention

The findings also indicate that development of the personality structure can happen more quickly than was previously believed. “In addition, change processes accompanied by digital tools can be used in everyday life,” explains first author Mirjam Stieger of Brandeis University in the USA, who did her doctorate at UZH. However, more evidence of the effectiveness of digital interventions is needed. For example, it was unclear whether the changes achieved were permanent or only reflected temporary fluctuations.

The present findings are not only interesting for research, but could also find application in a variety of areas of life. In health promotion and prevention, for example, such apps could boost the resources of individuals, as people’s attitude to their situation and personality traits such as conscientiousness have an influence on health and healthy aging.

Materials provided by University of Zurich.

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