Human beings are a complicated bunch.
I, for one, consider myself to be an introverted person.
I dislike big groups, don’t get any energy at all from meeting new people and two of my most favorite things in the world are quiet libraries and silent nature.
My former flatmate in Budapest, on the other hand, saw me as an extrovert.
As he pointed out, when in my comfort zone, I often behave, well, extroverted.
How to explain this? Do I have a split personality? Am I an extrovert who is too shy to be himself all the time?
Or: my higher-level self understands that competitiveness and arguing are things to avoid.
Yet, I sometimes behave otherwise.
How to reconcile these conflicting patterns of behavior?
Who am I ‘really’?
Let’s see if we can solve this puzzle.
It’s intuitive to think that people have different personalities and that those personalities can be solidly defined.
For instance, if Donald Trump would suddenly start to make sense, we would say that wouldn’t make sense. Donald wouldn’t be Donald anymore.
Furthermore, aspects of one’s personality are taken to be stable throughout your life and consistent across situations.
Across time, to ‘stay yourself’, you must, as you get older, develop in the right way. This doesn’t mean that authenticity requires unchangeability — it means that to keep being you, you should change in some way rather than in another.
For example, it would be weird if PhD-Maarten is the same as teenager-Maarten, but some ways of maturing are more ‘me’ than others.
Across situations, when someone is, for instance, bugged by something and doesn’t behave as he usually does, we say he ‘is not himself’. When I’m stressed about an upcoming presentation at a party, my friends will say I ‘wasn’t myself’.
The thought seems to be that there is some inner core that constitutes ‘me’, and that, consequently, when I deviate from that core, I am not ‘myself’.
That sounds unclear.
What does that mean, exactly?
What is the structure of the self?
The thought that ‘being yourself’ entails behavioral consistency is backed by a popular position in the philosophy of the self, so it might be instructive to look at that debate.
According to so-called ‘narrativists’ we story ourselves and we are our stories.
For example, the American psychologist Dan McAdams believes that “We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell”.
Or, according to the well-known British neurologist Oliver Sacks, “Each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’. This narrative is us.”
As a philosopher, I feel professionally obliged to point out that the precise meaning of these claims is very fuzzy.
Nevertheless, perhaps the overall suggestion is familiar enough. In conversation, many folks told me that they indeed do experience their identity as having a plot.
For them, life assumes a story-like shape.
Last year, a girl I met at a summer school confessed that she wanted to change course because her life had “became too much like a Hollywood-movie. My story is so predictable”.
To me, this way of conceptualizing human existence feel inaccurate.
I just can’t get my head around the idea.
I construct a narrative and I am this narrative..? I am the story I tell..? And these stories can become too predictable?
I didn’t even know I had a story, or was constructing one.
I think I missed the memo in which they told us to start making one up.
Or I’m not the only one who missed this memo and the theory that everyone stories themselves is false.
When life does not feel like a story
One of my favorite quotes ever:
“I recognize that I am made up of several persons and that the person that at the moment has the upper hand will inevitably give place to another. But which is the real one? All of them or none?” — W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook
For ‘non-narrativists’ like me, life does not assume a story-like shape.
I don’t think an ‘autobiographical narrative’ plays any significant role in how I experience the world, although I know that my outlook is conditioned by my genetic inheritance and sociocultural place and time.
That said, equaling my ‘self’ to ‘my story’ sounds confused to me.
When I was a teenager I was that kind of person and now, years later, I am like this. There is no need to work such developments into an overarching narrative. Why would there be?
There is no such thing as a chief character at the center of my narrative, there is just Maarten as he was then and Maarten as he is now.
As opposed to the continuity narrativists seem to experience, my life feels as if various selves make up my composite self.
Be that as it may, let’s not pretend to be able to settle that debate here.
The lesson is that humans are different; the point is that the narrative theory of the self is not the only game in town.
Narrativists are keen to make all their experiences fit into a single story. If ‘identity’ indeed requires such a coherent design, it makes sense that we see behavioral inconsistencies as a puzzle to be solved.
However, if the narrative theory of the self is not so clearly correct, the link between ‘being yourself’ and ‘stability in personality traits’ might similarly be less tight.
I’m starting to think that the puzzle we are trying to solve might be partly illusory.
What is this thing called ‘personality’?
“We are each not only one but also many.” — Mary Midgley, Wickedness
We are on a quest to figure out how we should think about being yourself and behaving conflictingly. However, perhaps there is no contradiction here and our search for a unifying solution is misguided.
As it turns out, broad personality traits don’t predict much concrete behavior in specific situations.
Like one of the founders of personality psychology, Gordon Allport, observed in 1937:
“We all know that individuals may be courteous, kind and generous in company or in business relations, and at the same time be rude, cruel and selfish at home.”
The same person acts different across contexts.
If the human self is less like a story and more like a dramatic ensemble made up of many selves, this is less strange than it might seem at first sight.
But this instability doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as human individuality.
People do have tendencies to behave in some way rather than another in situations of certain types. These differences are real and observable.
Thus, personality tells us a great deal about the ways you are liable to behave throughout your life, but, being such a zoomed-out concept, it’s less helpful for explaining your specific behavior.
Hence, when we observe some behavioral inconsistencies on the level of ‘micro-actions’, that isn’t such a big deal.
The importance of cognition
“People can use their wonderful brains to think differently about situations. To reframe them. To reconstruct them. To even reconstruct themselves.” — Stanley Milgram
To sum up: it’s ineffective to use general traits to predict single-act behaviors and, by the same logic, using a specific habit to predict a general class of behaviors doesn’t work either.
Then what does influence single-act behavior?
To find the overarching explanation that we’re seeking, I think we need to look at what goes on in our heads.
It’s all in the mind: your thinking stands between who you are, your personality and whatever situation you are in.
Persons, things, and events do not enter consciousness in an unmediated fashion. Rather, the beliefs, assumptions, and expectations that you’ve gotten from your friends, family, culture form the filter through which you see the world.
The marshmallow experiment: what explains behavior?
When these workings of the mind change, the person changes.
As an example, let’s take the famous ‘marshmallow experiment’: one of the earliest, and most cited, studies done on the importance of willpower.
It was simple enough: kids were sat at a table in front of a marshmallow, and they were told that if they could wait a few minutes before eating it, they would get another marshmallow.
When researchers followed up years later, they found that those who had resisted eating the first marshmallow had greater academic and career achievement.
Their conclusion: if can resist such urges, that means that you have high willpower, which explains why you’ll go on to be more successful.
That inference is wrong.
It turns out that it’s not some inner trait like willpower that accounts for the ability to resist.
Instead, the crucial factors in delaying gratification are 1) how you perceive the marshmallow — as something you desperately need or want or as something you don’t particularly desire or must have right now — and 2) your ability to change this perception.
Arguably, that explains the finding that dissimilarities in social-economic background explain differences in children’s ability to resist. Rich kids don’t perceive the marshmallow — or more extreme: this piece of food — as something that might not be there in the future. Hence, they can wait.
For less fortunate children, on the other hand, such a treat represents a rare opportunity and is interpreted as something that is not usually there and might not be there if they don’t grab it. Hence, they don’t wait.
Our puzzle solved
It turns out that different representations cause dramatic variations in behavior.
The marshmallow experiment doesn’t show how much willpower matters, it shows how people change if they modify the way they frame the situation.
Moreover, whether you have this ability to affect your perception of the situation depends on your cognitive skillset, not on a trait you can’t influence.
Adjust these cognitive strategies and you transform your behavioral tendencies.
And what is someone’s personality if not the sum of someone’s behavioral tendencies?
Could this be the solution to our puzzle?
I am all these behavioral tendencies — to argue when I’m annoyed, drunk or tired and to disavow arguing when I’m in a better mood; to talk a lot when I’m with friends and to be in the background when I’m with people I don’t know — and the pursuit to integrate them all in a bigger self or personality is unnecessary.