I’m a huge fan of podcasts. My go-tos are How to Adult, Brain Candy, and Invisibilia. Of the three, Invisibilia is the most serious and technically “professional,” but How to Adult and Brain Candy are perfect as I ride my bike to
Starbucks the office. Kind of like television– sometimes I’m in the mood for New Girl, and sometimes I’m in the mood for Parenthood. Very different, but equally entertaining.
Anyhoo, while listening to Invisibilia‘s episode “The Personality Myth,” I felt completely torn about which side of the line I fall when concluding whether or not people can actually change their personalities and behavioral tendencies. Can they truly, truly change, or just get better at managing certain negative qualities about themselves?
If it’s the latter, can we expect that they’re bound to “mess up” or show signs of their bad parts again, even if they’ve seemingly conquered whatever it is? Does this mean we are the same in our core at the age of 21 as we are at the age of 41? If so, why do so many people who get married young get divorced, claiming that one or both parties completely changed with age? But then there’s the flip side– believing that people really do change. Isn’t this the reason you can pick right back up with a good friend you haven’t seen in 20 years? An introvert isn’t going to magically wake up one morning and become an extrovert, right?
I honestly don’t know exactly what I think yet. I know that I’ve grown and learned so much since I was 16, but all in all, I think I’m pretty much the same. I am more in control of my emotions and behavior, as well as more rational about my perceptions, but those are just ways I’ve improved with maturity. I haven’t necessarily changed in terms of my natural personality. I was outgoing then and I’m outgoing now. I was driven by virtue, and still am. (If someone doesn’t handle things in an ethical or idealistically humble, thoughtful, and selfless way, I get really upset. This includes getting upset with myself when I inevitably fail to do the same because I’m still learning that apparently no one can be perfect. What do ya know?) I had no trouble confronting people or standing up for what I believed in in middle school, and I still don’t. I was obsessed with love since 2nd grade, and still am. I continue to feel the need to be the best at everything I do, haven’t stopped loving songs major-chord pop music, and constantly live in the minds of other people, attempting to figure out how they think and in what ways I can make them happier. Sometimes I talk too much, and sometimes I shut down completely. Sometimes I’m incredibly awkward, and sometimes I can completely work a room. These things have been the case pretty much since I could walk.
When I think about it that way– yeah, people don’t really change. We might learn lessons the hard way, but that just means we have to be extra careful not to make the same mistakes over and over, because obviously we’re prone to them.
The producers of Invisibilia interviewed a man in prison who violently raped a woman. Let’s be honest, any and all rape is “violent,” but I guess this means that the physical scuffle was extremely obvious in the moment. One of the producers stayed in touch with this man for an entire year, and couldn’t come to grips with the fact that someone she felt like she truly came to “know” as a good, reasonable, fabulous person– even behind bars– was capable of such evil. But she also couldn’t get the thought of what he did out of her head. No matter how much the prison guards who’ve known him for the last decade told her he was a changed man, and no matter how inclined she felt to trust him when they talked, she just thought, “but that evil is in there somewhere, waiting to be unleashed again.”
The head prison guard, however, saw things differently. While he has been betrayed many, many times by released prisoners who he deeply believed had changed– even considering some of them friends before they reverted back to committing the same crimes or worse, he still believes that people can truly change. That their behavior or personalities of the past can completely alter with time, effort, and repentance. (Not necessarily the religious kind, but repentance as in genuine sorrow that leads to change.)
In such an extreme case, I think I’m prone to side with the producer. If you have it in you to do such a horrific thing, there’s no way you won’t have to fight that evil your entire life. You might not necessarily commit another evil act, but like an alcoholic– it’ll be an every day decision, not a change in your actual urges. Some may disagree with me, but right now, that’s how I feel, because I’ve done some terrible things, too. I’ve never raped or killed anyone, but I’ve done things I’m not proud of at all. More than once. Even though I’m convinced that I would never do the same thing again, I still take major precautions to protect my heart, because I’ve realized that sometimes even “good” people aren’t capable of completely trusting themselves when faced with certain temptations. (Again, no killing, raping, stealing, etc. involved in my case…but you could take it to that extreme, and I believe this would still apply.)
A study they referenced in the podcast showed that people are extremely inconsistent with their actions, though. We think “once a cheater, always a cheater” and “if she stole that watch, she probably stole her necklace, too.” What they found in the study, however, is that a kid who cheats in math class, may not cheat in any other class– even when given the option. This had nothing to do with subjects and which classes were harder/easier for certain students. I don’t know all the details, but basically they found that people are extremely hard to predict. In fact, the way we behave may have nothing to do with personality at all, and everything to do with environment.
For instance, Milgram’s experiment to test human obedience to an authority figure, very normal people who’d never shown signs of physically hurting another person were all of a sudden electrocuting people to the point of serious injury or death (or, they thought they were inflicting such results, but luckily it was just an experiment, so no one got hurt). A lot of what we’re capable of doing doesn’t have to do with our personalities or even how we’re raised, and much to do with what circumstances we’re facing at the time.
Maybe that’s true sometimes, and not at other times. I mean, that’s what I think. But you can see why this question “Can people change?” draws such inconclusive answers. Is maturing the same thing as changing? Or is it just learning to self-manage, like I said it was? Does someone who shoplift in college have an innate desire to take things that don’t belong to them for their entire life, even if they stopped stealing 20 years ago? If a person cheats on their girlfriend, does that mean they will always struggle with fidelity, no matter who they’re with?
I mean, all these answers are a big “maybe.” Or perhaps, “depends on the person.” I go through life assuming that people can learn from their mistakes and earn my trust, even if its been lost in the past. Still, I’m not sure that means I trust that people can change. I think I just trust that people can become very good at managing their issues. If I didn’t allow people the opportunity to prove their personal development, life would be oh so very negative. Just as I want grace and trust from people I’ve wronged in my past, I need to give that benefit of the doubt to others.
What do you think? I’d love to hear some other perspectives on this topic! And definitely go check out “The Personality Myth” episode of Invisibilia. It’ll certainly get you thinking!