A great way to quiet any crisis of self is to ask yourself which of the following scenarios you would privilege given the choice: You survive a near-fatal car wreck and awake from a coma several weeks later. After gaining consciousness you lose all of your memories (relationships experiences, everything), but your ethics and taste remain in tact…or upon resurrection you retain all of your memories and bonds with friends and loved ones, but your ethics and taste are drastically altered. Which of the two results in the you-est you? Most philosophers predict the latter, though John Locke might have done so the most compellingly. Locke’s sameness of consciousness states that the fundamental aspects of who we are can be defined by our character. Our muses, imperatives, and predilections are the most reliable measures of personal identity and not the precarious casing and memories that decorate and sometimes inform them.
There’s some debate to be had regarding whether or not the truth of this postulation is indeed a fixed one, and a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology extends the dialect with a welcomed degree of optimism. From the report: “Our study provides evidence that actively making behavioral changes that pull one’s behaviors in alignment with desired traits is a viable strategy for volitionally changing one’s own personality. ”
The researchers began by recruiting 377 undergraduates enrolled at the University of Illinois and Michigan State University over the course of 15 weeks. Each subject was tasked with sketching the most predictive elements of their personalities by way of five broad traits: Extraversion, Agreeableness, emotional stability, conscientiousness, and openness to experiences. After submission, the students were asked which of these traits they would like to change in themselves the most by the end of the study period.
The researchers engineered weekly challenges tailored to the desires of the participants. Introverts were made to subject themselves to the gregarious company of others, the morose were made to commit time every to week doing things they genuinely enjoyed, the reticent were made to divulge more frequently, etc. each retaking the personal exam on a weekly schedule. Every dimension save Openness, (people became even more closed off after their weekly challenges) saw participants improve drastically by the end of the study period. It didn’t matter how difficult the relevant tasks were either, so long as the subjects were consistent in their adherence.
The study, though small, carries inspiring implications. The essential pixels that locate self are by no means immune to augmentation. Not only does this allow a silver lining in the battle with our own imperfections but it urges empathy for the sake of others while they wrangle with theirs. The authors wrote, “Although this appears to be a promising prognosis for those who might seek out programs designed to help them change their traits, our findings emphasize a major caveat: Merely desiring change and formulating plans is not enough; it is necessary to follow through.”
The study titled, Attaining behavioral change goals predicts volitional personality change, was authored by Hudson, N. W., Briley, D. A., Chopik, W. J., & Derringer, J. and can be observed in full in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.