Can People Really Change?

This week I had the pleasure of attending Walter Mischel’s discussion of his latest book, The Marshmallow Test. That “test” – a famous experiment in which five-year-olds are told they can have one treat now, or wait and have two treats – was an adorable high point of the Research & Statistics course I had in grad school. Youtube is full of videos replicating this data, and everyone should watch all of them, because they are amazing.

The thing that really drew me to Mischel, however, was his earlier research into personality theory. Beginning in the 1930s, many psychologists believed that the “Big Five” characteristics of personality were consistent across time and circumstance. An introvert would behave the same way at jury duty as he would during his son’s graduation. A person who lacked conscientiousness when speaking to a telemarketer would be found similarly lacking on a first date. Mischel’s finding contradicted this nonsense, instead indicating that context is important.

Context is important. I find this idea so freeing. It goes to that change is more than possible, but probable. “Change your environment, change your life” has so much more hope in it than “Wherever you go, there you are.” It is true that most of us do not have the means to change extremely important variables that deeply affect our lives, and yet, there is always a part of our circumstance that we do have control over. Paying attention to both parts is vitally important. (“…And the wisdom to know the difference” – noticing that part’s important, too.)

Mischel spoke to the importance of situationism as he politely and obliquely complained about the media’s zealousness around treating his will-power/”marshmallow” research as destiny-describing. The idea that five-year-olds who choose to eat one treat rather than delay even more gratification by having two treats later will necessarily become forty-five-year-olds incapable of controlling themselves is a silly and useless idea. We are all capable of taking more notice of our surroundings and our choices, and even those of us who sometimes choose to eat a whole thing of Cherry Garcia are also capable of some pretty great things… including, sometimes, choosing to eat a whole thing of Cherry Garcia.