Self-help gurus talk as though personality change can occur as predictably as the story arc of a Hollywood hero. Psychologists fall into this trap as well. Research on student’s views about intelligence implies that if we want to change ourselves, all we have to do is change our beliefs about what is possible. Similarly our culture through the media, the self-help industry and some psychologists promotes the idea that change is an easy, everyday process, if only we could really want it. In fact our culture has become obsessed with technologies of the self, our ability to easily reinvent ourselves, to become, as it where, new people.
This breezy talk about personality change is far-fetched because for most of us change only comes after prolonged effort. But to illustrate how our culture represents personality change, take two examples of movie heroes, one who was miraculously steadfast and one who was miraculously transformed. As you’re reading, think firstly about which best represents the way our culture views personality and secondly about which best represents your view of your own personality.
The modern obsession with the possibility of redeeming psychological transformation can be clearly seen in Schindler’s List. Oskar Schindler – the hero as he becomes – starts out as a greedy man obsessed with profit and his own personal gain, making money using cheap Jewish labour to supply the Nazi regime. By the end of the film Schindler has undergone a miraculous transformation into a man risking his life and livelihood to smuggle Jews to freedom.
This film, which is difficult to watch, inspirational and incredibly moving all at the same time, is also totally unbelievable. And my incredulity is in no way tempered by the fact this film is based on a true story. They say fact is stranger than fiction, and they are right.
What this film does represent is a kind of movie archetype of heroic transformation. An unlikely protagonist comes face to face with a situation which demands some kind of change. He then becomes a hero by virtue of the change he undergoes.
The opposite message about human nature comes from a fantasy movie. Watch Lord of the Rings and find characters whose personalities are set in stone. Aragorn, greatest in its array of heroes, is a man who tries to avoid his appointed task but cannot. Boromir, meanwhile, is also a hero, but one with a fatal character flaw, one which he cannot avoid no matter how hard he tries.
Those who are flawed, like Boromir, are flawed right from the start, while those who are heroes, like Aragorn, battle on through to the bitter end. In Lord of the Rings it is personalities that remain largely unchanged, only the situations they encounter change. Aragorn cannot avoid his destiny, however much he tries. He was born to be King and he shall be King. Boromir, however, is doomed to betray his friends right from the start.
Back to reality
Part of the problem with using extreme situations such as those from movies is that they are difficult to translate into real life. Most of us have not faced, and probably never will face, the moral dilemma of Oskar Schindler. Neither will any of us save Middle Earth from hordes of orcs. In reality life is much more mundane. But just because most of us will never face the extreme situations portrayed in these movies, it doesn’t mean watching them won’t affect the way we think about ourselves.
Watch enough Hollywood films and you’ll start to believe life is all about reaching crises, a brief period of confusion followed by triumphant discovery of new patterns of behaviour. Are human beings really capable of these kinds of transformation in short periods of time? A failure to change is frequently seen as depressing or limiting. To be considered ‘life affirming’ and uplifting movies and TV shows need to show people continually reinventing themselves. We worship the ‘new’, and that includes our new personalities as well.
Psychological research tells us that people’s personalities are actually relatively stable over their lifetimes. What changes as we age is probably not the larger, more obvious aspects of our personality, but the little things we do. The types of things that would normally sneak under the radar of psychology studies. Our experience broadens, or narrows, our lives are struck by dizzying triumph and cavernous misfortune, and we march on, most of us, making tiny changes as we go.
As any management consultant will tell you, people are remarkably resilient to change and ultimately this inflexibility is necessary for our survival. As an evolutionary psychologist would say, it’s adaptive behaviour. If we were too easily influenced to change our beliefs, our attitudes, our whole direction in life, we would never achieve anything. What our culture worship as its greatest achievements in the arts, sciences and politics, were mostly achieved by people who were remarkably stubborn in sticking to their vision.
So while Schindler’s List best represents the culturally promoted view of personality as capable of transformation, Lord of the Rings better represents reality. Which is ironic considering it is a fantasy movie.
Perhaps the only way we can deal with the truth about ourselves is to hide it amongst elves, dwarves and hobbits.