Personality has long been a debated topic in psychology. It became a discipline of psychology during the 1930’s. Recently there have been several pop-culture references about whether personality is stable or can be changed. The first I came across was a video by Jason Silva called, “Are we who we think we are?” He discusses a theory by the sociologist / philosopher Charles Cooley. Silva comes to the conclusion that our personalities are not fixed, as many believe they are, but instead are more fluid.
The second pop-culture reference I came upon was an episode of the NPR podcast, “Invisibilia.” In an episode from season 2 called, “The Myth of Personality,” the hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel explore whether personality consists of set characteristics or traits, or is more subject to change than our culture typically likes to believe. It is an excellent episode and worth a listen.
During the show they interview Dr. Mischel, the creator of the famed, “marshmallow test.” He presents an idea of personality that transcends the two dominant ideas: that we have a set of character traits that determine behavior; or that the situation is the strongest determinate of behavior. In his theory, he adds a third component, our mind, and the power that lies within. I’ll expound upon this later in this post.
In previous posts I have referenced an excellent TED Talk by Julian Baggini, “Is there a real you?” which offers the possibility you can create yourself at any moment. As I’ve said in previous posts, we tend to operate out of conditioned responses and from ideas of who we think we are, but we are not destined to behave in these preexisting ways.
In the excellent book “Buddha’s Brain”, Rick Hanson presents the neural scientific evidence that there is no central place in the brain where a constant personality exists (p.208-214). The idea, in this area of the book, is to overcome the ego, the sense one has to have his or her way, and to be less attached to ideas of self and what this self needs. That section of the book has the aim of acting in a wiser fashion.
Much of my inspiration for this topic came out of a discussion I had with my colleague Yakira Chu. Recently I’ve been focused on being a kinder and more compassionate person (I've been known for sarcasm). When discussing this with her, she suggested I might be behaving as my representative (her description of being more one’s best self, with the goal of making a good impression). She insinuated this is disingenuous; not one’s true self. But is it?
There are a multitude of personality tests that promise to enlighten one to who he or she is, and why he or she behaves the way he or she does. I use them when I believe they will be beneficial. Some psychologists, however, believe personality tests are no better than astrology (Annie Murphy Hall). This culture likes its information neatly categorized, generally in black and white. Stable personality traits exist or they don’t. Behavior is defined by circumstances or by traits. Things are rarely black and white.
Dr. Mischel was one of the first personality psychologists to discuss the power of the mind in changing behavior. In the Invisibilia interview, he discusses how the scientific community focused on the wrong aspect of the results of his experiment. He points out how some of the children, when taught to use mind tricks, were able to delay their gratification. Dr. Mischel proposed that there were three aspects to personality (40-42:06 minutes). The first two are what has been discussed, personality traits, and environmental / situational factors. The third, which he puts in between, is the human mind. He describes the mind as containing the beliefs, expectations, and other aspects that affect perception. Because perception can be changed, Mischel posits that people are fundamentally flexible. He reports, “What my life has been about is in showing the potential for human beings to not be the victims of their biographies” (42:17-42:26), and, “to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think.” (42:30- 42:40).
It becomes simple, when thought of the following way. There are certain character traits each human has, which are part biology (temperament) and part learned as we grow and are taught how to behave in society. There are environmental influences that can lead one to behaving in a way he generally wouldn’t consider himself to be (for example, in Milgram’s famous obedience study). And then there is the mind, a powerful, but often underutilized mechanism that can change the way one views a situation and thereby affects behavior. As I’ve written previously (The empowering moment, Think Buddha, be a Buddha) every moment is an opportunity to take control of your mind and choose whom you will be. Personality Psychology supports this idea, and with Mischel’s misunderstood contribution, has for quite some time.
People are much more complex than a personality test can show. Everyone has the capacity to, "be a Buddha one minute and a jackass three minutes later." (Warner, p.41). One is not either “nice”, or “mean” permanently. You have the capacity for both, and a choice you may not have been aware of. It takes energy and awareness to realize the choice to be whom you choose. But, as the science of psychology continues to demonstrate, it is possible. You can either continue to be who you are, or you can overcome the aspects of yourself you do not like by changing the way you view yourself and the world. It is a road full of setbacks and difficulties. But the goal is progress, not perfection.
Copyright William Berry, 2016
Baggini, J; 2011; TED Talk; Is there a real you?; Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/julian_baggini_is_there_a_real_you?language=en on July 9th, 2016.
Chu, Y; 2016; personal communication.
Hall, A.M.; 2016; Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture The Real You?; Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/25/483108905/personalit... on July 9th, 2016.
McAdams, D; 1997; Chapter 1: A conceptual history of personality psychology; retrieved from: http://www.sesp.northwestern.edu/docs/publications/1361790886490a40cb3b3... on July 9th, 2016.
Miller, L; Spiegal, A. (hosts); June 24th, 2016; Invisibilia; The myth of personality; retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/482836315/the-personality-myth on July 9th, 2016.
Silva, J; 2016; Are we who we think we are? Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7g3IdyOjMU on July 9th, 2016.
Warner, B; 2016; Don't Be A Jerk; New World Library; Novato, CA.