Can People Change?

The problem of what the self is, and the desire to ask ourselves who we are, raises many new questions, among which is the question of whether this self, if it exists, can change. Are we the same people that we were ten years ago? Is the old friend we meet after many years apart still the same as the person we remember?

What Does It Mean to Change?
The question of change asks whether the self is a permanent and unchanging inner core, or something that has the ability to change in response to significant events or accumulated experiences, or even to be changed through our own efforts. Although most of us would probably be able to provide examples of ways that we have changed since childhood, determining whether these changes affected our essential personalities or were merely superficial or behavioural is not easy.

The Ability to Change
Physical change is unavoidable. The body must age, and it must regenerate its cells, so that the bodies we inhabit today contain very few of the cells that we were born with, and almost all of these cells will have been replaced again a decade from now. The simple experience of life causes changes in the connections between the neurons that carry our thoughts and memories, while disease and trauma can result in dramatic changes in personality when they affect the brain. If the self exists in this tissue, it too must be changeable, but a self that consists of more than physical matter could still remain the same, regardless of this turnover of cells. The question is similar to the Ship of Theseus problem. How many parts of a ship can you replace before it ceases to be the same vessel?

If we do have an inner core, soul or essence that is unaffected by physical change, it might also remain the same despite psychological or spiritual changes. However, belief in a self that exists beyond the physical does not necessarily mean that it must be unchangeable. Indeed, in some philosophies, change is an important goal, with souls expected to progress and improve during their lives in order to gain entry to an afterlife, or to achieve nirvana.

Evidence of Change
A certain amount of change appears to be natural, and even predictable. One extensive psychological study of more than 132,000 people found that people experienced particular changes in five character traits over time, and that despite the expectation that change occurs more easily in childhood, it can continue much later in life. People typically increased in conscientiousness in their 20s and agreeableness in their 30s. Openness declined a little with age. Extroversion declined in women, but remained steady in men, and neuroticism declined in women while increasing in men.

Life Changing Events
Although personalities may change gradually, simply as a result of living and ageing, major life events often seem to induce significant change. The events can be positive, like the birth of a child or a change of career, or negative, like the loss of a loved one or the breakdown of a relationship, and their effects can similarly be both good and bad. Even the worst event can make us revaluate our lives and learn to value what is truly important, while the best can result in stress or anxiety alongside joy. It is clear that these types of events can have a significant impact on our behaviour or lifestyle, but it is less easy to determine whether they truly change our inner being.

Promoting Change
The idea that people can not only change, but that they can also be purposely changed, is central to many institutions and programs that are devoted to helping people to make changes to their lives and selves. The idea that people can be reformed through prison, that they can find ways to understand and improve themselves during therapy or with self-help books, and that they can recover from crises, mental health problems and addiction with the right kind of treatment is widespread. These efforts to generate change often focus on specific behaviours, and require self-awareness, a desire to change, and a plan of action involving small, manageable steps, usually with some kind of support from an expert, a friend or a structured program. With time and repetition, these kinds of efforts can clearly help people change habits and behaviours, but this is very different from changing an entire personality or outlook, from turning a shy person into an extrovert, or a pessimist into an optimist. The question of whether it is truly possible to change, or to make oneself change, remains unanswered.

Changing the Self
The changes we perceive over time or following dramatic events do not necessarily require changes to the inner self. People's overall personalities may remain recognizable, and the changes associated with age might affect our roles and behaviours more than our inner selves. Changes are often simply amplifications of our existing personalities, so that pessimistic people become more pessimistic, and optimistic people more optimistic, as life appears to live up to their respective expectations, and as we seek out companions and experiences that fit our personalities. If we want to make significant changes to the way we think and feel, then we must not only have a changeable inner self, but also the desire to make ourselves change in a particular way.

If the self can change, then we could be anyone we wanted to be, but we would also be at risk of being involuntarily changed by our experiences, not necessarily in positive ways. We might also feel that we have lost our sense of identity, since it is no longer permanent. Even if the self is fixed, it doesn't mean that people can't change. We would still be able to alter our behaviour or perspectives, but we would also have to learn to appreciate the unchangeable facets of our selves and personalities, eliminating the desire to change them.

Jenni Dickenson
January 2014

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