Solomon: Dismantling Consistency

Our lives are fuller if we accept that our personalities are malleable.

by Ioana Solomon | 5/25/17 12:15am

Stanford University researcher Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Experiment” has become a classic child psychology test. A group of 3- to 5-year-old children were given a choice between eating a marshmallow immediately upon receiving it or waiting 15 minutes and being rewarded with a second one. About 30 percent of children succeeded in delaying gratification, and years later, those children were found to be more socially and academically successful. The low-delayers were more likely to have higher body mass indices, addiction problems and an overall lower rate of success.

Mischel conducted his experiment after he authored a book which challenged one of the most basic assumptions about personality, that people had static personalities. At the time, researchers argued about which traits were more important, but they did not tackle the other major assumption about personality: That it is stable over time and across different situations. When Mischel sat down to do his literature review, he realized that he had a problem. None of the studies he examined actually found the consistency he had presumed was inherent to human personality. Some children in these studies cheated in certain classes but were naturally talented in others. Some lied in certain situations but were honest in others.

This myth of a fixed, singular personality may have been debunked in psychology literature, but it is unfortunately just as prevalent in our current conventional mindsets. That is understandable. Believing that human personality is entrenched makes our perceptions, judgments and expectations much more cogent. In the criminal justice system, this framework is especially practical. Believing that criminals are inherently rotten human beings whose moral rectitude is beyond salvation makes it far easier to brush systematic inequities under the rug and blame high recidivism rates on the felons instead of questioning the larger and weightier institutional flaws. It is much easier to pin the entire development of a person on a marshmallow than think of the complexities intrinsic to their evolution. It is also much easier to commit to a long-term relationship with a person while firmly believing that the qualities you love about them will not deviate, instead of dealing with the stressful probability that they might fundamentally change.

Reframing our perspective around personality is key to living fuller, more engaging and more meaningful lives. Our minds are filters between our experiences and our reactions. Our temperament and perceived traits vary in different situations — we are only predictable to those around us because we are constrained by familiar contexts, the roles we occupy and the relationships we have with others.

Many of us believe in destiny, which is a fine mindset, but it is also an easy and comfortable one. It takes far less vulnerability to believe that things were meant to happen a certain way and that we were meant to become who we are than to start a challenging introspection to really decode our own development and adjust our expectations.

In reality, one of the most rudimentary human qualities is our malleability. We are far more flexible than we realize. We also have far more control over our outcomes than we think we do. We change, both intentionally and unpredictably. So do the people in our lives. On one hand, those changes have probably caused a fair number of divorces and mid-life crises. On the other, accepting our innate psychological elasticity can make us stronger, more trusting and more audacious.

At Dartmouth, adjusting our mental framework can take place several ways. Far too many of us chain ourselves into categories that are cruelly inhibitive. We may perceive ourselves to be the “analytical type” or the “creative, artsy type” but are afraid to step outside of those self-imposed boundaries. There is nothing inherent about our personalities that should force what majors we choose or what careers we embark upon. There is also nothing that should stop us from realizing junior or senior year that we are completely different people than who we thought we were and that we want completely different things from life.

Creating a better, more productive, more empathetic environment can happen by following our inner voices regardless of how far along we have come. If we realize junior or senior year that we want to change majors, that should be met with encouragement not skepticism. If we fall into the conventional recruiting path sophomore year, go into a finance or consulting internship and realize we absolutely despised it, we should not come back and feel like we no longer have a choice or that it is too late to change course.

That environment, however, mostly depends on our individual reframing. There will always be points in our lives when we feel stuck, when it will seem too hard, too risky or too late to switch direction. There will also be points where we will surprise ourselves, where we will have undergone monumental internal transformations without even realizing it. What we need to keep in mind is that change is okay, whether that change happens within ourselves or within those close to us. Accepting that fundamental reality means taking more risks, starting relationships with people being aware that they may not be the same 20 years from now and maybe even having more moments where we question ourselves. But that is the key to being more in-tune with ourselves, to trusting that no matter what happens and who we become, everything will be okay.

We can take the comfortable path. We can believe in predestined outcomes, premature and artificial labels or fixed personality traits. Or we can go deeper than that and face life on a far riskier, far less predictable and far more nebulous path. The latter will almost certainly be more ingenuous, more satisfying and far more rewarding.