Personality: a helpful word that lets me talk about my 'me-ness' and your 'you-ness'.
It's usually understood as a set of consistent characteristics that are fundamental to an individual and those that they have contact with.
Walter Mischel transformed this idea. In 1968 he wrote a book which challenged the way we looked at personality and our lives. He's also the man behind one of the most well-known psychological experiments: the marshmallow test. Designed to explore whether we can choose to delay our instant gratification in search of a bigger, better reward. As anyone who's met a youngster will know - this isn't always something that comes naturallly:
But our futures are not to be found in a marshmallow. Sadly, the results of this test have taken on an unintended cultural meaning - they're often attributed to discussions about destiny and the idea that personality is fixed. The intended purpose of Mischel's test was to demonstrate how incredibly adaptive people are. Some children who couldn’t even wait 30 seconds before eating the marshmallow were able to control their impulses on future attempts when given a simple suggestion to imagine that it wasn’t there. The were able to control their instinctive response by reframing their interpretation of the situation in front of them.
Mischel has always asserted that he views people as fundamentally flexible. People can change what they become and how they think.
Another way of looking at personality is the idea of having traits or temperaments. These might be different according to the situations were are in, and those in turn might be different to what is happening in your mind. I like to think about all of these factors as pieces of glass in a camera lens - your mind being the primary filter through which you perceive the world. It (the mind) houses things like expectations - your way of construing or depicting certain situations, in the past, future or present. When things inside the mind change, we begin to interpret situations differently. We reframe them, reconstruct them and, consequently, reconstruct ourselves. Running with the camera analogy - we can look through a different lens and take fundamentally different pictures.
But what if you've never switched lenses? There has been a lot of commentary in recent years about mental models. Will Storr's book 'The Unpersuadables' is a great read, and full of prime examples of our deep need to believe in consistency in ourselves and those around us.
Even if we want it to be, what if this consistency doesn't exist?
Some psychologists have argued that consistency in personality is an illusion. That we simply don’t see behaviours which don’t conform with our perception of a person’s personality.
Lee Ross is a professor of social psychology at Stanford University. Lee argues that we only see consistency in everyday life because of the power of the situation. The real thing that determines your behaviour isn’t the thing that sits inside you, but the stuff around you. Context and the situation are ultimately key, and we only need look to the results of Milgram's experiments to see how powerful and scary this can be.
In other words, we see consistency in others because the circumstances that influence their behaviour remain consistent. Most of us are asked to be the same kind of person at work or at home most of the time. People are only predictable because we usually see them in situations where they are constrained by the situations/scenarios that are placed upon them.
We've created an illusion of continuity about important factors that we associate with our identity. The reality is: they all change. The structure of our brain, the shape of our bodies, even our DNA has been shown to change over the seasons, just like the weather!
When I first started looking-into all of this, it unsettled me. It reminded me of what I often felt after my A-level philosophy classes, when we used to enter into deep debates about whether the table we were sitting at was really there. Is my idea of my personality in any way 'real'?
Ultimately I went back to Mischel's original concepts - it's not hard to reframe his thinking as an empowering, liberating thought - everyone on this planet has the capacity to change how they think and influence what they become. This is true on a physical level, on a neurological level, on a psychological level, and even at a genetic level.
And that's a pretty awesome idea.