Personalities are not fixed, and that’s great news

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Children's yoga. The little boy does exercise.A mountaineering friend of mine used to remark that when he’d meet a rock or other obstruction while coming down a mountain, and was faced with choices — go left, or right? — each choice would lead to other, different, choices. In this way, two different decisions early on — although seemingly insignificant — could result in profoundly different outcomes.

Views we hold can be like that as well. A view like “personalities are fixed” leads to very different results compared to a view like “personalities are fluid.”

A new study illustrates how easily views about our personalities can be changed, and how powerful the effect of changing them can be.

David Scott Yeager of the University of Texas at Austin, working with a graduate student from Emory University, Adriana Sum Miu, wondered whether the belief that people’s personalities are malleable would have an impact on bullied teens, perhaps reducing their levels of hopelessness, despair, and depression.

Yeager observed, “When teens are excluded or bullied it can be reasonable to wonder if they are ‘losers’ or ‘not likable,'” and he wondered whether teaching teens that people can change would reduce those thoughts, and if so, could it even prevent overall symptoms of depression?

At the start of a school year, roughly 600 ninth grade children were assigned to an intervention group or to a control group. Neither the children nor the teachers and staff at the three schools involved were aware of the purpose of the exercise, so that their attitudes wouldn’t differentially affect either group.

The intervention group read a passage about how personalities are subject to change, and how being bullied is not the result of a personality defect. It was also emphasized that bullies are not inherently “bad.” There was reinforcement in the form of information about brain plasticity (the idea that our brains, and thus our skills, attitudes, and behaviors can change and evolve). Endorsements from older students were given, and the group members were asked to write an account of how personalities can change.

The control group did similar exercises, focusing not on personality but on athletic ability.

Nine months later, the symptoms of clinical depression, including negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness, and low self-esteem, had risen by 39% in the control group, while there was no increase in the intervention group. This was true even for students who had been bullied.

This change is rather stunning, given that the intervention was very brief, taking place in a normal class period. There was no counseling given, and the exercise used only computer and pen-and-paper activities. I’d estimate that achieving the same outcome, on that scale, through individual guidance and counseling would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The message being taught is very in line with Buddhist teachings on anatta (lack of fixed self). One of the things that Buddhism teaches us is that our mental habits are just that — they are habits, and subject to change, given the right circumstances.

You can read more about the study at the Association for Psychological Science website.

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