The Personality Myth

The Personality Myth

December 17, 2017
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in Tip

The Personality Myth is one of my favorite Invisibilia episodes, one I’ve listened to over and over again. There are several threads that are artfully intertwined, shifting from theory and science to personal stories.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the marshmallow test? Walter Mischel is the brain behind the test, and one of the people interviewed in the episode. And he’s adamant, that the “popular belief” of that the marshmallow test showed, is far from the point that he finds most important in the study.

SPIEGEL (one of the show hosts): Basically, over the last two decades, the marshmallow test has become a kind of poster child for the idea that there are specific personality traits that we all have inside of us that are stable and consistent and will determine our lives far into the future.

There is only one tiny problem with this interpretation, as Walter Mischel himself will tell you.

MISCHEL: That iconic story is upside down wrong – that your future is in a marshmallow – because it isn’t.

Another thing that keeps reappearing during the show is various ways to phrase the sentiment that “you might find it hard to accept that there aren’t any core traits that are permanent and fixed” – and every time this is voiced, I realize: I don’t. Not at all. I don’t find it hard to accept at all. Do you?

BoldomaticPost_the-many-ways-in-which-peopleFor me, what Walter Mischel points to based on his own research is in perfect sync with my personal experience of me changing. Going from “the most negative person I know, to – if not the most positive – at least a lot more positive than I used to be” is a very real change. Am I the same that I used to be? No. Do I have the same personality that I “used to have”? No. So don’t you try to skirt responsibility by leaning on that old idiom that it’s impossible to teach an old dog a new trick – it’s simply not true. In the words of Mischel himself:

What my life has been about is in showing the potential for human beings to not be the victims of their biographies – not their biological biographies, not their social biographies – and to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think.

In 2015 I ran a series on with Sunday postings of podcasts to my liking. In 2017 I will be re-posting some of those blog posts, mixing them up with new podcast recommendations, such as this one. 

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Doing gentle – 42 – Personality? 

October 30, 2016
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Have you fallen for the ruse that a personality is a fixed set of likes/dislikes/habits and reactions that make up the basis of who you are?

I had. And in someways, I still fall for it. But most of the time, I don’t. I have come to understand that I have a choice. The choice of right now.

personalityYou see. When someone tells me It’s just who I am and expect me to take that as a Truth that cannot be changed, I cringe. However, if instead they would say It’s who I am, right now there’s an opening. Yes, there has been a choice, a choice to be bad-tempered, angry and upset, stingy, of rigid mind or whatever, in a given moment, but there’s also a willingness to see that in a day, or two, or five years, or whenever, there might well be another choice being made.

Whatever the choice, it’s not a permanent one. It’s fluid. Like life. Because life is fluid. It’s in constant flux. There’s never an emotion that lasts forever, because life cannot be lived like that. And hence, there’s never a ”personality trait” that’s a forever thing, unless we chose it over and over again.

And even then. It’s really not. Because however enamored we are in our personality, it can never be something which we are, 100% of the time.

She’s such a happy person.
Yeah. Except when she’s not. When she’s sad. Or scared. Or feeling vulnerable and alone.

He’s always such a grouch.
Yeah. Except when he’s not. When he sees an old favorite movie on TV, remembering happy days in his youth. Or when he wakes up from a lovely dream, carrying the feeling from it into his day.

Personality is not a permanent fixture. Simply because nothing can be permanent, permanence isn’t part of being human. Feelings, emotions and state of mind shift, constantly, and hence, the manner which we meet the world shifts along with it.

What choice are you making right this minute? What character trait are you choosing to meet the world right now?

Welcome to my writings, where the underlying tone centers around being gentle to oneself. On Sundays I share thoughts on how I do gentle, and I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please subscribe to updates so you won’t miss out on future posts in this series.

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