A Leopard CAN Change Its Spots – The Illusion of Static Personality

Positive change is a powerful thing. It is the buzzword for social movements, the symbol of cultural progress, and (supposedly) the focus of governments around the world.
 
However, when considering change on a personal level, many of us seem to have some sort of mental barrier, treating our personalities as rigid and static. Very few of us believe that we are perfect and embrace our every personality trait, and those that do are clearly deluded. Yet when these ‘imperfections’ lead to arguments, we tend to defend, deflect, and focus on others’ shortcomings. In fact, the word ‘change’ in relation to the self is thought of by many as a negative thing; a threat to the inner ‘me’.
 
Society and culture convince us that our personalities are static, from simple proverbs (“A leopard can’t change its spots”, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”) to corporations, which purposefully use advertising strategies to create messages that are congruent with targeted individuals’ motivational orientations. In fact, a recent study has shown that aligning an advertising message with a person’s personality profile – (e.g. Extraversion: “a phone designed for strong, active, outgoing people like you.” Openness/Intellect: “you’ll have access to information like never before, so your mind stays active and inspired” resulted in a significantly more effective ad, despite the product being exactly the same.
 
So why have we been taught to believe that we don’t change? In the 1980s, scientific forays into personality stability research, particularly by Paul Costa and Robert McRae, told the world that major personality traits are remarkably stable, especially after the age of 30, and these highly media-friendly findings were widely reported and internalised in the Western world.
 
However, recent studies have shown that this is not necessarily the case – personality does change over time, in unique and individual ways, and even in later life. Unfortunately, these studies received much less media coverage, and once the idea of static personality enters society, it is difficult to remove – to this day we consistently underestimate how much we will change in the future (the “end of history” illusion), and this is to a large extent because of what we as a society were told in the 1980s. Costa and McRae popularised the most widely used scientific classification of personality, the Big Five OCEAN traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), and it has become the basis for numerous personality tests. But personality tests in their structure implicitly encourage a static conception of the self – you are asked to rate to what extent ‘I am always prepared’, ‘I am the life of the party’, ‘I am much more anxious than most people’. Personality traits are less stable than we think they are, and more stable than they should be, because of the considerable effort it takes to change cognitions that may have been coursing through the mind for years upon years, but it in no way means that they aren’t malleable. If society were told that personality traits were dynamic, and people were encouraged to be aware of their cognitions and practice blocking and replacing the unwanted ones, then they would become dynamic. Cognitive change is merely a skill that we are poor at using.
 
Most of us don’t realise just how powerful the lump of fat between our ears really is. We as humans have the ability to reorganise our brain pathways and synapses (neuroplasticity) in response to not only brain injury, but behaviour, environment, and thoughts; and it may surprise you to know that this plasticity continues well into adulthood and old age. Brisk walking for two hours a week has been shown to increase neural volume in the hippocampus in the elderly compared to controls, and even more impressively, meditation clearly positively alters plasticity, particularly in brain processes underlying attention and emotion, and in multiple areas of the pre-frontal cortex, the brain region responsible for decision-making, introspection, and metacognition (thinking about thinking).
 
On this basis, I strongly believe that we can examine and change our cognitions towards a positive reorganisation and improvement of our ‘personalities’ – thought processes are just networks of neurons that fire together, and these can be altered just like any other neural process. ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’, and so the longer you have a particular cognition (perhaps a general perception of the world, perhaps a specific habitual response to a situation), the more ingrained it becomes, but it can always be changed.
 
To assess our ability to change, we need to examine whether the way we think about ourselves is static or dynamic. As soon as someone thinks or says, ‘I am lazy’, and believe that is just the way they are, an innate trait that they have little power to alter, they actually turn it into a reality because their own cognitions prevent themselves from ever giving them a chance to make that change happen. The moment we close ourselves off to change, the moment we stop believing it is possible, is the first moment that it becomes true. And of course, as soon as these people believe in this ‘truth’, their staticity validates this assumption, as their cognitions prevent change from becoming a reality.
 
That is not to say that people with static conceptions of personality attributes cannot change, and it is clearly apparent that even the most stubborn of people do exhibit changes over time. However, having the static self-thought, ‘I am short-tempered but I want to change’ or, ‘I’m lazy so I’m going to do things to work around that’ internalises the attribute and subconsciously self-affirms lazy or short-tempered actions, as they are essentially framed as an albeit unwanted core part of you. Compare this to the dynamic cognition, ‘my recent actions have led to the perception that I am lazy, but I will change those actions, or, ‘I have lost my temper quickly in recent arguments, so I will try to be aware of that so it doesn’t happen again’, which, rather than anchoring an individual to a particular way of acting, actively promote a conscious war against unwanted character traits, leading to positive and tangible personal development.
 
The key word in the above cognition is aware. The first step to changing our cognitions is awareness – conscious awareness of when these cognitions are happening, so that we can begin to proactively stifle and replace them. This is at first a very forced and mechanical process, but eventually, with practice, the new thoughts become habit, and become as natural as the old cognitions once were.
 
This idea is not new; 350 years before Christ, Aristotle described virtues of character merely as dispositions to act in certain ways in response to situations, which are difficult at first but become habit with practice and repetition. Virtuous character (positive personality change) was said to require thinking about what one does in a specific way, and is a habit that can be acquired as the result of our own choices. In psychological research too, it is a universally accepted phenomenon that increased exposure increases liking towards any object or concept (the mere-exposure effect) – this is why people who have travelled to many different places tend to be more open to new ideas and less resistant to personal change, as they have had more exposure to a dynamic and transient conception of morality and cognition.
 
As a final illustration, just as one may always associate a certain place with a certain song as they usually both occur together at the same time, one may automatically associate a certain social situation with a cognitive or emotional response, and find it incredibly hard to inhibit that response, let alone imagine naturally responding another way in the future. But if you went back to that place frequently, never played that song again and replaced it with another, with time the association would change, just as it would if you continually inhibited the initially automatic cognition and, at first with considerable conscious effort, replaced it with another. So believe me, although it may seem impossible to change the way you think, it’s really not as difficult as you might believe – it just takes time, effort, and willpower.
 
What we don’t realise is that we all have a completely individual way of seeing the world, united only by language. We construct our own world-view from day one, starting with our basic building block cognitions, making different associations, finding different ways of learning, and preferentially responding to different stimuli. This leads us to think about the world in unique ways, and these early differentiations in cognitive development could easily be misattributed to innate nature, because they occur before we develop reflective self-awareness. While it is true there are considerable genetic influences on personality we think that people are completely different by nature. But these only account for roughly a quarter to a half of the variance in personality traits. Our character is therefore primarily a product of dynamic systems of gene-environment interplay; past and future experiences have and will slowly and subtly change us over time, such that in 5 years, one might look back at his or her current self and be disgusted with certain characteristics they used to but no longer have. Even though you might have emotional tendencies to be, for example, short-tempered, awareness of the cognitions that the emotions produce can enable you to control the behavioural outcomes, and most importantly, learn about yourself. This change will be far greater and far more positive if we embrace a dynamic conception of ourselves, and consciously try to improve the things we’re not so proud about.
 
The prevailing view in society is right in a way. Our personalities are largely static – but only until there is a belief we can change our characteristics, a desire to develop, awareness of our current and desired cognitions, and determination to follow through. I urge you all to forget ‘I am’, and start thinking about who ‘I could be’, because the only limits we are bound by are the ones we impose ourselves. Perhaps using the word ‘change’ in relation to the self doesn’t quite send the right message, because we are not changing the core of who we are, we are developing, evolving, flourishing towards a happier life, which is surely a goal we all share.
 
I will leave you with an appropriate psychology joke.
 
How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?
 
One, but the light bulb has to want to change.
 
This is the first of three parts examining the self and change. Next time, I will be looking at how the self is constructed from those around us, and how our self-conception is related to free will, morality, and to a growing culture of over-diagnosis.

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