What is the Neuroscience of Personality?

This month I’ve been speaking at a few events, and I started to reflect on the questions that myself and the other speakers were being asked. Managers, leaders, Coaches, essentially people who are responsible for working with others seem to be very keen to understand whether or not we can change.

A big question that comes up is around personality profiling tools. I’ll say upfront that I’m not on any sort of mission to discredit them, there are people out there doing that, and I’m by no means an expert in how each of them claims to work. I am however interested in what underpins some of the premises.

Chatting over what the neural basis for personality is with John Parkinson (head of psychology at Bangor Uni, so a good person’s brain to pick) I realised some things.

  1. Personality traits are widely considered fixed.
  2. (That doesn’t mean they are.)
  3. Genetics are of course important.
  4. (This doesn’t mean they are the whole story.)
  5. The typical methods of creating profiling tools are solid, but not infallible.

The question of what makes a person them is a big and important one. I’m often heard professing that we can change, and I know my enthusiasm for this version of reality is strong and built on several areas of research. However, we like to ensure we are thorough in everything we do so today I’m exploring things from another angle.


What are your genes saying?

So our genes are definitely important and do shape our brains. They could influence things like the number of dopamine receptors we have. Richar Depue, professor of human development and family studies and director of the Laboratory of Neurobiology of Personality and Emotion at Cornell has done some interesting research. They have concluded that dopamine is strongly related to the trait often known as extraversion (but his team prefer to call it “positive emotionality”. Depue is quoted as saying “”This is the first time it has been shown in humans that a central nervous system neurotransmitter is associated strongly with an emotional trait in humans,”

We know that some of us appear to be more motivated by signals of incentive-reward and actively pursue goals. Depue links this to how responsive our brain is to dopamine, which makes complete sense.

According to some much wiser people than I (Bouchard, 1994; Loehlin, 1992; Reimann, Angleitner, & Strelau, 1997) it is suggested that heritability estimates for personality traits are around 50-70%

The question becomes, what can we do with the bit we can change?


What is your experience saying?

Carol Dweck from Stanford University is a great thinker and researcher in this field, even publishing a paper entitled ‘Can personality be changed?’. She shares that having looked at acquired and changeable beliefs that they underlie many patterns of adaptive functioning. This has unique implications for understanding personality development and change.

Dweck’s suggested next stages for researchers are ones that could change the approach organisations take to learning and development for decades to come. We need to understand the core beliefs or belief systems that are “responsible for important, consistent patterns of experience and action. Another key step is to continue to show how these beliefs feed into broader personality “traits” and contribute to their malleability”.



By combining insights from neuroscience with what we know from behaviour change and psychology we have evidence of people changing. The opportunity is to continue pushing the boundaries of how we help people to rewire their brains, change their actions and get different results.

Do get in touch with us if you would like to start a conversation about what neuroscience could do for your place of work.

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