Do People Change?

The self-improvement industry rests on the proposition that with concerted effort you can become a better version of yourself and enact real change in your life. The cynic responds, “Oh come on, people don’t change! Go to your high school reunion — nobody’s changed.”

Both views are right. In some ways, a person will never change. Assholes at age 12 are usually assholes at age 30. Personality and core behavioral traits are largely heritable.

But in other important respects, people can absolutely change. Steven Pinker has suggested that if genes can explain 50% of complex human behavior, there’s another 50% attributable to a person’s “unique environment.” One’s environment is always changing — especially if you are young. Youth are more plastic, both biologically and in terms of their ever-evolving circumstances and adventures. Hence I never box in a person under age 30.

If I had to pick a side, I am on the side that people can and do change over a lifetime. This doesn’t always mean, in the face of dissatisfaction, I want to wait for it to happen — any entrepreneur will tell you, “Hire the right person on day 1, don’t try to change a person to fit the job.” True. But there are other times when investing in someone’s life as they evolve, grow, mature, age, can be enormously fulfilling. For example, it’s fascinating to see someone endure adverse conditions and as a result become more resilient, or sympathetic, or hardened, etc. There are also countless extraordinary examples of people who have turned their life around when it seemed they were stuck in the depths of misery (drug addiction, for example). This reason alone should force us all to be open to the possibility of someone changing in big or small ways.

We’ve heard a lot from Obama about America striving to become “a more perfect union.” I also think that within each person lies a capacity to better himself. This struggle to remake ourselves, to adapt to changing conditions, to develop new interests, to soften our edges and strengthen our cores, is a beautiful and uniquely human thing.

Bottom Line: Believing “people don’t change” simplifies the world but ultimately can sell short the experience of living even a basic life. The collision of one’s natural impulses with the dynamic, chaotic, unpredictable world of events can produce, in a lifetime, meaningful emotional, physical, and intellectual change.

14 comments on “Do People Change?
  • Also realizing that you can change and increase your capacity can spur movement in a positive direction. One way to speed this up, the process of “connecting the dots” is through mentoring.

  • Biology accounts for 80% or more of human behavior. Environment doesn’t play a huge part in who people are. Twin studies have shown that even when separated from birth, being raised in two completely different environments, the twins would have nearly identical life experiences at the same times in their lives being apart. Seeing people change their lives around after being on drugs is not environmental, it’s biological as the drugs are changing chemical balances in the body. But try to teach someone to not be scared of public speaking… it won’t happen.

  • I love the bottom line part. If you believe people can’t change, then all you are doing is settling. You’re settling for where you are in life, for where you live, how much money you make etc. etc. It’s definitely a simple way to live life, but as far as I’m concerned its taking the easy way out.

    The way I look at it is, you start as a shell, and the experiences you have, the people you meet and the places you visit allow you to continuously change to become the person you are today.

  • Whether or not one believes people can change, IMO has a lot to do with whether they’ve experienced real change in themselves. As a recovering alcoholic, I did not want to change until forced to in order to save my life. It was simple, suicide or change. And to recover, change meant accepting my weakness, admitting defeat and accepting help in finding a spiritual solution (although I didn’t know that was what I was searching for at the time, I just did what was suggested because I was desperate).

    But in order to keep what I’ve found (a new way of looking at myself and my place in this world), I have to give it away by helping others as I was helped. I see people change everyday, people that were living under a bridge, considered hopeless, and shunned by everyone are now successful members of society. It happens over time if they’re willing to experience some ego deflation and search for humility. We find we can choose humility as a character trait and “We saw we needn’t always be bludgeoned and beaten into humility.”

    The way of life I’ve learned in recovery transcends every aspect of my life, work, relationships, spirituality,… everything. And it all started by being desperate enough to work a program which resulted in a spiritual awakening and a new way of thinking.

    I can show others how I got to where I’m at, I can share my experience, strength, and hope, but they have to do the leg work. Attraction not promotion. You can’t give the gift of desperation to someone else. I know if I could, I wouldn’t have to watch people kill themselves rather then to accept help.

    The bottom line for me, anyone can change but “I” can’t change anyone. I can carry the message, not the person.

  • Excellent post Ben.

    I believe that everyone has the ability to change it they want to. People have the innate ability to adapt, change and evolve. The key element in any personal transformation is the “WILL” to change.

  • The mistake *not* to make is to think, just because people change, that you can *cause* them to change. You hint at this idea in regard to hiring, but it is also a common problem in love or other relationships. People can change themselves, or they can change as a consequence of extended exposure to circumstances, but there is very little one can do to elicit change directly. Providing opportunities, example, or incentive for someone to change can have an influence, but in general if these activities create pressure or even the impression of pressure they will backfire.

    Occasionally something like an intervention will work. I think this is because it is both dramatic and broad-based (i.e., it’s not just one person doing it, it’s everyone who is important to the intervenee). But even that is just the first step in the actual change.

  • I’ve found that people often change, but rarely is the change self-directed. Usually it’s just a reaction to environment. I try to be more proactive in changing habits/traits of mine that I don’t like and I find progress extremely difficult and hard to measure except over longer periods of time. I like to try though. Every forward, right?

  • I have often played with this question myself. Obviously it is a difficult question to answer. The only way seemingly to prove that one cannot change is to stop trying. I guess that is why we are always told to enjoy the process because we never know what we will find at the finish line.

  • Guys, thanks for the comments. I agree with those who say that change must come from within — you can’t *make* someone change, but you can certainly light a fire under the person.

  • Theories that question the infirmity of permanence have their roots in momentary frustration. It could spring from temporary ineptitude that is often mistaken for inherent incapability to induce change or perceived rigidity of the seemingly unchanging – clearly a judgmental upshot. No sooner one recognizes its fleeting tenure, the resignation shall give way to hope and resurgent creativity shall spur transition of thought. So long as we respond to stimuli, endure the tumult of thoughts and emotions and witness every passing day that is so unlike, none of us have the ability to disown change. We are simply powerless to obstruct change. Even America has an Obama!

  • @ “There are also countless extraordinary examples of people who have turned their life around when it seemed they were stuck in the depths of misery (drug addiction, for example).”

    Anyone who’s ever been clinically depressed, as I have, knows something about “the depths of misery”.

    It is certainly a matter of brain chemistry, although I don’t think that the materialism of ‘better living through chemistry’ is necessarily the answer for the sufferer.

    I share Andrew Weil’s belief that thoughts, emotions, and attitudes are key to how we grow mentally and spiritually, and that “depression is often rooted in habitual thoughts”.

    I hope he will forgive me for barely paraphrasing his words.

    As Weil so lucidly declares, psychiatry today is stuck in the materialistic thinking that mental problems result from disordered brain chemistry. It makes as much sense to me as it does to him that disordered thinking can actually cause disordered brain biochemistry.

    He says that Buddhist psychology “counsels us to seek balance in our emotional life instead of going for the highs and complaining about the lows that always follow.”

    He advises that Buddhism’s basic prescription for the daily practice of meditation is the best way to get at the root of depression and change our thinking. He cautions that this is a long-term commitment and does not produce fast results.

    I would suggest that the same philosophy applies to life in general and to any effort to improve ourselves.

  • Ben Franklin was a big believer in people’s ability change themselves (improve).

    Put me in that camp as well. Just a few months back I read “America’s Unjust Drug War” by Michael Huemer. Before that point, the position I held on drugs was that they were harmful to me and I didn’t want to be around them, but more importantly they were harmful to society and I never really questioned that. Lock ’em all up.

    After reading his carefully thought out article, I’ve let go of that position. I still have unanswered questions, but I’m now willing to consider a world in which drugs are legal. This thought would have never crossed my mind six months ago.

    Not only on drugs, but his argument has changed the way I look at other aspects of life too. So many thanks to Mr. Huemer. He solidified my belief in personal change.

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