Who Am I?

Exploring your identity.

Conflict as a Precursor to Change

People don’t change: True or False?

Your best friend just told you that although he is losing patience with his girlfriend who complains about her job all the time yet doesn’t take any steps to do anything about it, he is confident that if he just gives her time, she will change. Is this likely? Will she change? We can’t know, but we can estimate the likelihood of someone changing, based on the results of research studies conducted with large groups of individuals. One such study happens to be my own, and was published this month in Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research.

The article, “The Role of Conflict in Continuity and Change: Life Events Associated with Identity Development in Racially and Ethnically Diverse Women” was based on an archival data set at Harvard of interviews with women in the 1970s and 1980s. So the results I found certainly will not apply to everyone, but they do reveal patterns of behavior that may very well characterize others.

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First of all, I found that when asked about the events in their lives that had influenced their identities and understanding of themselves, these women reported a variety of life events, such as those having to do with relationships (e.g., marital problems), career (e.g., hurdles to advancement), and education (e.g., going back to school). Interestingly, when I compared the responses of European-American, African-American, Mexican-American and Puerto Rican women, they showed more similarities than differences. Just as revealing was that no matter the types of events these women reported as having affected them, they overwhelmingly reported that their identities pretty much stayed the same.

When they did report changing, it was in response to events that created high levels of conflict for them. High levels of conflict likely disrupt our sense of equilibrium, and subsequently require us to respond with Piagetian-like accommodation.

Imagine being an overworked, underpaid, and disrespected attorney. We may very well reach a point of having experienced so much more conflict than satisfaction with our work that we decide to take the plunge, fulfill our true passion, and open a bakery. Such a change is consistent with what we learned about in my August 2011 post, i.e., that acknowledgement of external and internal conflict is necessary in order to reach the Identity Achievement status. I’ll return to that "7 Clues to Identity Achievement" series in my December 2011 post.

For now though, we return to the role of conflict in identity. As I pointed out in my article, the pattern of results (regarding change in identity being a function of conflict) mirror the narratives in literature and film that we find so satisfying, in which the protagonist evolves as a result of all the events and sources of conflict encountered during the story.

What about your best friend’s girlfriend? It isn’t likely she will change, given the high rates of continuity found in identity. But she may very well -- especially if she is highly conflicted about her work. If so, let’s hope she does.

So to answer "People Don't Change: True or False?" question: it’s false. People do change; they just don’t change very often. This is certainly understandable, as it can be anxiety provoking to re-examine all that by which we have defined ourselves. But sometimes, it’s worth it.

To learn more about change in identity, please see the article at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15283488.2011.613588



Kristine Anthis, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Southern Connecticut State University.


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