First, I need to say that I have been having a lot of trouble with my modem and that is one of the reasons it’s taken me this long to write a post. In addition, my week has been extremely busy and has not allowed for much writing. When I post this, it will be after dealing with many frustrations with both computer and time!
As previously mentioned, I want to write something about Santa’s recent comment that referred to the show “Mad Men” as asking the question “Can People Change,” and whether I think literature has often posed that question too. I’ve been mulling over the general acceptance of the Five Immutable Personality Traits that Santa directed us to because that stance is mentioned in the article. I suppose a little review is appropriate here.
Even though none of us has made note of this well-known list, the traits have usually been identified by the acronym OCEAN, or some other arrangements of the letters. OCEAN stands for:
O – Openness to experience
C – Conscientiousness
E – Extraversion
A – Agreeableness
N – Neuroticism
You can read about how these traits became identified as immutable here. I would like to make clear that since the original composing of this list many studies have disagreed with whether they are immutable and, after further study, most psychologists agree that change often occurs within these categories due to many factors. These factors include age (generally accepted as after the age of 30), environment, health, marriage, and work. (I would add having children.) There is also a variability in the constancy of personality traits wherein certain traits stay consistent and others change. Therefore, the article Santa referenced was really being too perfunctory when it mentioned the immutable traits. The article states: “You can change your reaction to things, you can change your behavior to the people around you, you can become different enough that you seem different, but underneath it all, you are still you.” Actually, the situation is much more complicated than that. Nevertheless, considering the scope of the article, we can use both positions: the one that considers change as it is represented by superficial modifications in behavior, and change as it is represented by more permanent and substantial permutations of one’s personality.
I say this because the article takes into account the aging of the cast as the show continued through ten years as well as the aging of the viewers over that time span. As we all know, as the years flow by, we begin to look older. Apparently, “Mad Men” is one of the few shows in which the aging of its stars has been incorporated into the show. Rather than trying to pretend that those years have not really passed, as most shows, including “Doc Martin,” most often do, the creators of “MM” decided to have the cast age along with its audience.
How have we changed? Who knows how many ways life has impacted us over the past ten years? (In my case, I only started watching “DM” in the past two years, but I can still say that a lot has happened in those two years.) Do life experiences change us? My answer would be a resounding “Yes.” Sheryl Sandberg recently wrote in her essay about losing her husband only one month ago, she has learned a lot about loss and what to say to others, about some practical things, and that resilience can be learned, that connections to others change, and she has learned gratitude. If she can learn all those things in one month, just think what we’ve learned in two years, or ten! The writer of the article notes, she has changed throughout the time during which she’s been watching “Mad Men,” yet she believes she is the same person. She acknowledges that there is no clear yes or no answer to the question “can people change?”
In my humble opinion, I am not the same person as I was when I was in college, or since I had children and grandchildren, or since my parents have grown old and my father has died, or since some close friends have died. Those experiences have changed me in more than superficial ways. Perhaps my college friends I haven’t seen in decades would say I haven’t changed (except to have aged), but I know I have. Some events have softened me and others have made me tougher; I’ve learned a lot about myself and realized what is most important to me in life. The question is not whether people can change, rather how much can people change and what sorts of circumstances lead to those changes? If we look at the OCEAN traits, where can we find significant areas of change?
Openness: sometimes called intellect. Although someone may be open on some areas to new experiences, they may be less open on others. Again, in my opinion and based on personal observation, once someone is introduced to a new activity or lives through a momentous event, he/she can become more open. A trip, meeting a person of another culture, having an accident — many events can open one up beyond one’s usual approach.
Conscientiousness: High scores on conscientiousness indicate a preference for planned rather than spontaneous behavior. I think the operative word here is preference. We may want things to be planned, but life teaches us that plans usually have to be changed. We plan to have the baby after we graduate, but the baby comes early; we plan for the movers to deliver our furniture on a particular day, but they come much later; we plan to surprise someone with a special ticket to a concert, but they get sick the day before. If we’re rigid, we’ll be stuck over and over. Eventually we learn that we can’t control the world.
Extraversion: The trait is marked by pronounced engagement with the external world. Even though I think this is one of the traits that is toughest to change, traumatic and/or extraordinary events can change one’s approach to the world in either direction. We know people withdraw under certain circumstances. I think, under the right conditions, people can also be drawn out and become more willing to participate.
Agreeableness: Agreeable individuals value getting along with others. On a large scale we know that strongly prejudiced people can have conversion events in which they become aware that their biases were based on false premises. There are also breakthrough moments when a person may realize that he/she cares enough about another to want to be more agreeable. Conversely, there can be major events that cause one to lose faith in others. (Bernie Maddoff may have caused a few of these changes.)
Neuroticism: Those who score high in neuroticism are emotionally reactive and vulnerable to stress. They are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. This may take a lifetime to change, but with regular and steady good outcomes, can change.
I haven’t applied these to “DM” because I am certain you can all do that as well as I can.
When it comes to literature, I can state unequivocally that most, if not all, great works of literature emphasize characters changing in some form. When I think back on the earliest novels, such as Pamela by Samuel Richardson, or Don Quixote by Cervantes, the characters are on missions to make changes in themselves or in the world. Indeed Chaucer’s and Boccaccio’s tales were meant to be stories of warning, political commentary, and philosophical messages that would bring about change through shining a light on the authorities of the time. Presumably, those authorities would recognize the absurdity in some of their rules and laws and have some sort of insight into themselves. In terms of personality traits, many characters want to change to improve their chances to capture the hearts of someone they love. Don Quixote loves Dulcinea although he realizes he’s dreaming about her loving him back. Pamela is first the victim of her employer’s lust and then the victim of his guilt and desire to win her love despite their different social status.
The novel that perhaps has the most to say about someone changing is Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Why does Kafka have his protagonist become a large beetle? It has a lot to do with personality changes, both those of Gregor Samsa and those of his family. And he is quite convincing that people can change!
Across cultures, across time, and across genres, change in how people behave, how they approach the world, and how they manage their fates has always been a prominent theme.
Finally, I think it’s important to remember that all of these personality traits are on a continuum, just as the Meyers-Briggs Personality Test demonstrated. Our personality traits fluctuate along the continuum and are not fixed.
I hope I’ve addressed what Santa was asking. I look forward to hearing what everyone has to say about this topic. Also, I hope to have a chance to write several more posts in the near future. My internet connection should be repaired by tomorrow afternoon, fingers crossed, and I’ll be better able to post more in less time. Thank you for sticking with me!
Originally posted 2015-06-07 11:04:56.