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If You Think People Don’t Change, You Need to Get Out More

Society and culture

Recently I had the misfortune of seeing the movie Young Adult. It offers some interesting story elements, with very good acting and direction, and it does a great job of realistically depicting a writer’s job (something most movies about writers fail at miserably, despite presumably having been written by writers) but the storyline is appalling, and I can’t recommend the movie at all. The end of the movie actually had me shouting at the television with indignation and disgust … although really, I was shouting at the screenwriter, Diablo Cody.

Ms. Cody wrote one of my favorite movies of all time, Juno, so I don’t mean to suggest that she writes only bad movies. I got some insight into where she was coming from when I read this excerpt from a Huffington Post article about the movie:

“I feel like Facebook is, in a lot of ways, proof that people don’t change,” Cody said. “The fact that we can keep up with the people that we used to know and watch them progress or not progress — which is the case most of the time — it’s interesting and it’s a little sad.”

So in that framework, the movie makes sense. If you believe people don’t change, you might then write a movie about a person who is a mess and doesn’t change. However, writing a movie like that doesn’t make it a workable story–nor does it make it true.

People who think people don’t change need to spend time with more and different people.  Have you ever met a recovered alcoholic? Ever met someone who went back to school later in life and started a new career? Someone who lost a bunch of weight and got the fitness bug? I certainly do.

Facebook certainly isn’t proof that people don’t change: in fact, the primary reason I seek people out on Facebook is to find out how they have changed. What are their relationships like now? What kind of work do they do? What’s important to them? Where do they live? How are they spending their time? Are they happy? What happened later in the story of that person I used to know and have lost touch with?

It’s true, though, that we’re built to resist change. Our habitual behaviors are expressed in our brains as neural connections that strengthen over time, and it takes concerted effort or a stark change of circumstances to build new connections. However, this is worlds away from saying we don’t change. With the right influence or effort, virtually anything about us can change. Unskilled people can become masterful (see “Do You Have Enough Talent to Become Great at It?“); unhealthy people can become healthy (“Finding Exercise You Love: The Taekwondo Example“); and unhappy people can get used to having joy in their lives (see “The Best 40 Percent of Happiness“), for example.

The thing that most upsets me about the idea that people don’t change is that it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a meta-study about willpower done a few years back, a key finding was that individuals who were trying to change their habits generally didn’t succeed unless they believed they could. This makes sense: how much effort will we realistically invest in something that we feel won’t pan out?

Trying to convince people wholesale that change isn’t possible hacks away at the foundation of confidence we need to be able to change, and that foundation is essential even when we fail at first. For example, consider that a smoker who has unsuccessfully tried to quit before has a better chance of quitting now, statistically, than a smoker who has never tried to quit before. In some cases, the mistaken belief that the smoker could quit on the first or second attempt allowed that person to get far enough along to successfully quit on a later attempt.

People accomplish real change every day, but it’s far more likely that change will happen when we understand and believe it’s possible in the first place.


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