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Is “You Can’t Change People” True?

Being realistic about changing hearts and minds—theirs and yours.

I changed my mind about something this week, having discovered an inconsistency in my thinking.

I’ve long thought it absurd to say you can’t change people, but I’ve also thought it absurd to say things like “Angry? Why would I be angry? I have no reason to be,” as though emotions are controlled by reason.

I now believe we can change people including their emotions and often by reasoning with them.

Can we change people? It depends what we mean by change. First, can people change? Well, obviously. For example, we get older. Can we change in every respect? Obviously not. We change in some respects and not in others.

Do we know what can and can’t change about ourselves? Not exactly. About changing ourselves, the serenity prayer captures the challenge neatly. We quest for the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can’t change about ourselves. We quest because we don’t want to waste effort trying to change ourselves in ways we can’t change and we don’t want to miss opportunities to change ourselves in ways that we’d like to change.

If it were always obvious what we can and can’t change about ourselves, we wouldn’t need to quest for that wisdom. We’d already always know where to focus our effort on changing ourselves. Changing ourselves is speculative investment. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. We quest for the wisdom by which to invest efficiently.

We do hear it said that people don’t change. Maybe what’s meant is that people can’t change in the ways that they can’t. But that’s empty circular reasoning signifying nothing. The question is what we can change, not whether we can change at all.

About changing, we’re neither omnipotent nor impotent. We’re some-nipotent. We have some power to change ourselves. We’re also some-niscient about what we can change about ourselves. That is, we know some things about what we can change. We make educated guesses. We don’t know everything or nothing.

Second, can we change other people? It depends on what we mean by changing them. How we interact with them changes them. Obviously, you alter other people’s behavior when you help or hurt them physically, mentally or materially.

People aren’t one-trick ponies. They have repertoires of behaviors. How we interact with others can change which behaviors within their repertoires they present. If someone is patient here and impatient there, how we interact with them may change whether they’re patient or impatient with us.

Perhaps what’s meant by “you can’t change people,” is that you shouldn’t try. It’s immoral to try to influence people. We hear the inverse of this argument when people say, “Never care what others think or do to you.” Both are half-true nonsense masquerading as whole truths. We are social creatures, blends of independence and interdependence. We all guess where to be influenced and not influenced, and where to try to influence and not influence each other.

The argument that you can’t change other people is actually self-contradictory, meaning something like “let me persuade you that people are unpersuadable.”

We hear the half-true nonsense in the current anti-PC craze. By accusing people of being PC, we try to persuade people to be less sensitive, less influenced by other people’s opinions, but in declaring PC a universal moral error, we pretend that we could live in a world where no one influences anyone. Usually, we do it as a way of claiming our right to try to influence others without being influenced.

It’s like the current libertarian craze, motivated by “my freedom to say and do what I want, without getting hassled.” If you want your freedom to say and do what you want, expect the same from everyone else. The person who accuses others of being PC has his own PC sensitivities. He’s saying it’s politically incorrect for you to be politically correct. Anti-PC and libertarianism are often rationalizations for dishing it out without having to take it in.

"You can't change people; you can only love them" is the opposite half-true nonsense. It's a recipe for taking it in without ever allowing yourself to dish it out.

To reconcile the self-serving self-contradiction of saying, “let me persuade you that no one can be persuaded,” I would say this: Let me persuade you that we are some-nipotent and some-niscient about our ability to change ourselves and others.

Does persuading others always work? Certainly not, and paradoxically, often it works least when we are intimate with the people we are trying to persuade. Trying to change others at close range can feel oppressive and threatening to them. It can change them but often in the wrong direction. They become more guarded against being persuaded precisely because at close range, persuasion is too powerful. This could explain why we hear “you can’t change people” most often espoused about spouses. What people might mean is “I dare not try to change my partner because it generates conflict.”

We also hear it from people after they leave their partners. They say, “from this relationship I learned that you can’t change people.” I’d say that’s an overcorrection. What you learned is that you were unsuccessful in trying to change your partner in the ways you tried. Taking that as evidence that you can’t change anyone ever is like concluding that all dairy products are hot after burning your tongue on hot cocoa.

It may be therapeutic to declare that all people are unchangeable. It may help us temper our tendency to try to change people. But it’s not accurate. Rather it’s us trying to change ourselves, to get ourselves to stop trying to change people. You can’t, won’t and shouldn’t stop. You will continue to place bets on how to persuade people to be different from how they are.

It’s true that we can’t change people the way we change an electronic device. We can’t upload new software or switch people on and off with a remote control. But that’s because electronic devices are deterministic cause-and-effect machines. We’re very different from determinate machines. People interpret. Interpretation is not cause and effect. For example, we interpret stop signs as reasons to stop. Stop signs don’t actually cause us to stop unless we crash into them.

This is why our bets on how to persuade people can fail or backfire. For example, sometimes we reward someone and rather than interpreting the reward as incentive to try harder, they interpret it as a sign that they can slack off and get complacent. Sometimes we discourage or punish someone, they interpret it not as a reason to give up but to try harder. We don’t have that problem with our electronic devices because as machines they don’t interpret. They’re just reliable cause-and-effect switch banks at least until they break.

Our efforts to change people will include both emotional and rational appeals. Changing people’s minds is also changing people’s hearts, and vice versa. In trying to change someone’s heart or feelings we will make appeals to reason.

We can’t help but think that some people are unreasonable or even stupid to feel the way they do. When their feelings have consequences for us, we will, and even should try to change their feelings, bringing to bear whatever we think might persuade them, including rational arguments not to feel the way they do.

Thoughts do change feelings and feelings do change thoughts, but not in some lockstep deterministic way since we’re not machines that can be switched reliably from one state to another.

I’m still skeptical when people say, “Angry? Why would I be angry? I have no reason to be,” as though anger were deterministically controlled by reason. But I’ve changed my heart and mind about our attempts to reason people out of what they feel. We do reason with feelings and sometimes it works.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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