NPR | Invisibilia (http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/)
Invisibilia is Latin for “the invisible things.” We explore the invisible forces that shape human behavior — things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.
“The Personality Myth” was the first podcast I’d ever heard from Invisibilia and after I listened to it, I was hooked! I have, since then, proceeded to subscribe and listen to every podcast episode that Invisibilia produced. The voices of the hosts are extremely soothing and the way the podcast is set up is intriguing. It tells a story in the form of multiple interviews and anecdotes that relate to the overall theme of the episode.
“The Personality Myth” episode explores the thing that makes us…us. Our personalities are seen as innate and stable over time, but this podcast episode explores whether that is really true or not.
Throughout the episode, the hosts give multiple examples of situations where our idea of personality is challenged.
But let’s break this down.
Personality by definition (obviously, I LOVE the dictionary):
- the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character.
“she had a sunny personality that was very engaging”
|synonyms:||character, nature, disposition, temperament, makeup, persona, psyche|
The fundamental question is: are our actions and their outcomes tied directly to our personalities. If someone is able to persevere in difficult situations, is this because of their personality? If someone performs a crime, is this because their personality?
The podcast cites some historical studies done with children that guided the public perception of how your personality persists throughout your life. But actually, other studies found any type of persistent personality trait inconsistent.
Personality, as concluded in the podcast, is not stable and constant over time. Personality, and therefore behavior, is a construct of a person’s environment. You typically only see a certain person in a certain setting over and over again. The situation is stable, but not necessarily the person. That person is constrained in your mind by the role that you’ve put them in and so you believe that they have a certain personality type.
But humans are fundamentally flexible. Put a person in a completely different situation and their actions and reactions could be vastly different. This fact is how we are able to adapt, learn and improve, but these things are all changes. And not everybody likes change.
My mind was absolutely blown by this. It’s a conclusion that I should have seen coming, but it was still shocking to me because I feel like I know (like really know) the people closest to me. After listening to this podcast, I wasn’t so sure anymore and that’s a scary thought. But because I am also fundamentally flexible, I can adapt and change WITH the people around me. We can learn and improve together.
Thinking about it further, I admit even how I portray myself in situations varies greatly depending on the people around me and the circumstances I am in. I am a different person at work than I am at home and that makes sense. So why wouldn’t it be the same when someone is in a toxic environment versus a safe environment? A person could be “bad” when you view them in a certain frame of reference, but be “good” in different one. Try putting this lens on when somebody is baffling you and maybe this will give you better perspective on whether their behavior is due to their personality or their immediate circumstances.
I just finished reading a book that somewhat relates to this idea as well. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is a fascinating read on how introverts are perceived by society and how they perceive themselves. In an early chapter, Cain discusses the rise of the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ and a shift from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. The ‘Extrovert Ideal’ can be seen everywhere from the workplace, where people are chosen because of how they present themselves rather than their actual work, to the entertainment sphere, where celebrities portray larger than life personalities to sell themselves or products. I believe with this shift, our society has made it more acceptable to adapt and essentially lie about parts of yourself in certain situations, which gives even more to support to the idea that personality, as we see it today, is absolutely flexible and subject to situation.
Do you agree that personality is not stable? Have you given a listen to any of the other Invisibilia podcasts? Or read any other interesting books on society?