J. P. Gerber, Ph.D.

The Shape of Traits


What Halloween Can Tell You About Personality Change

Trick-or-treating, perceptions, and the Diet of Worms.

Posted Oct 29, 2018

I live relatively close to the Halloween capital of the world, and I was thinking yesterday that Halloween is a good example of what it takes to change our personality

Sometimes, the costumes children wear are ambiguous. Is that a tin man or is it Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still? Is that Pikachu or a chicken? Is it Peter Pan or Link? If you think it’s a kid in a friendly costume, you will probably smile. If you think it’s a kid in a dangerous costume, you might be more cautious. Our perception of reality always guides our behavior. This is why psychologists care so much about ambiguous situations (that is, situations that are interpreted differently by individuals). If there are stable (across time) differences in perception, we tend to call that ‘personality.’ Like, if I always see a costume and think it’s friendly, I would likely be considered easy-going. If I always interpret a costume as dangerous, I might be considered a little more neurotic.

But here’s the rub: Many times in our life we forget that we can see things two ways. In the costume example, we know that there are often two things people could be. At other times, we forget that there can be two viewpoints. I’m reminded of the other Halloween event, Reformation Day. After posting his theses and challenging the church, Martin Luther was called to account for his actions at the Diet of Worms and, apocryphally, he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” And I think that’s closer to what personality is really like. We don’t think we can see the world two ways. We think can do no other because we see the world one way. We are convinced it’s always a chicken, or always Peter Pan. We all stand in our actions, acting as if we only have one choice, when really we could always take other perspectives.

What I think personality psychology does particularly well is point out how those views of the world can shape our behavior. It shows that we all live within our own viewpoints, making sane choices, because we only see the world our way. In my last two posts, I tried to point out how this is the case for hypersensitivity and for burnout.

But what are the implications of this insight? It is that, if you want to change your personality, you need to change your perceptions, not just your actions. If we decide to just change our actions (for example, to be friendlier), there may be times we put ourselves in danger. Instead, we need to re-train how we see the world. We need to learn how others distinguish Link from Peter Pan, and then I can act appropriately in both worlds.

How do we retrain our eyes? We do it by speaking to others, and by reading research on how others view the world. How could I learn from them? 

Acknowledging the self-centeredness of our perception, and then slowly working through the process of verifying our perceptions—these are the things of life and empathy.

So, when I’m walking down the street this week, accompanying my young trick-or-treaters, I’ll say hi to my neighbors. How do they view the world differently to me, and how might I learn from them?