“I really liked it—every week, you had a goal to pursue,” agrees Schilter. “You always have your smartphone, so there was less of a barrier.”
Still, she notes her adherence to the app’s instructions wasn’t always perfect. Some weeks Schilter fulfilled the task assigned to her, and some weeks she didn’t. For instance, she completed tasks like saying no if someone asked her for something that she didn’t really want to do, and writing down a list of things she wants to achieve or experience in the next five years. But she wasn’t able to complete a task about not letting anyone cut in front of her in line—because nobody tried to. (This was before Covid-19, when strangers got closer to one another.) Yet she says using the app did cause her to reflect on the times it had occurred in the past.
Allemand says that one way the app helps is by reminding people of the discrepancy between what they’re doing and what they want to achieve. If the user isn’t moving closer toward their goal—whether measured through self-assessments or completion of the weekly tasks—an icon on their dashboard will flash yellow (for no change) or red (if the change is in the opposite direction.) Just like receiving counseling, apps can supportively hold people accountable by keeping them on task and engaged.
Eventually, Schilter’s app notified her that she’d achieved her goal of being less agreeable: It gave her a green light on her dashboard and an encouraging message, along with a reminder to keep practicing the skill. “I am now better at standing up for my opinion or saying when I do not like something,” Schilter says. “Also, it feels more OK to be less agreeable in some situations.”
The friends who’d offered to be Schilter observers filled out three online surveys about her personality—one a week before she tried the app (as a pretest), one a week after the 10-week trial period (as a post-test), and another 12 weeks after that. After the study, they scored her as being better able to stand up for what she thought.
While some experts still hold the idea that personality is fixed, these days “the majority of experts believe that personality traits change across the life course,” says Brent Roberts, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a coauthor on the study.
“People’s personality changes through maturation,” agrees Rodica Damian, an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Houston, who was not involved in the study. “For instance, as we age, most people become more conscientious and agreeable, and less neurotic, to help cope with life.”
However, experts stress that someone has to want to change their personality because they are dissatisfied with certain situations or aspects of their lives. And ultimately, the change comes from the person. “It’s not the app that changes people. People change themselves,” Allemand says. “An app is a means to an end.”
As a study participant, Schilter feels the same way. “You have to want to change. You have to want to reflect on yourself. You need some time every day. It’s not much, but it’s still minutes of your daily life,” she says.
Damian says she was impressed by the study. “It’s very much evidence-based,” she says. “It has the potential to provide a more accessible intervention that can contribute to quick, personalized change” compared to other therapeutic approaches. That said, she points out, because the follow-up period was 12 weeks, “we don’t know yet how long-lasting the change is beyond that period.”
Stieger and Allemand hope to explore this question by looking at a subset of participants who will provide data after one year via a questionnaire. Additionally, the research team also collected data from the users’ smartphones—so-called digital footprints—including the number of phone calls and text messages they send and receive, and the number of nearby devices detected via Bluetooth. The researchers plan to examine whether metrics like sending a higher number of phone calls or texts are indicative of someone becoming more extraverted.