We are obsessed with defining things with a name. Assigning something with a word is after all an empowering thing to do.
The taxidermists of the eighteenth century began a process to label and categorize the natural world around them into species and sub species. With ever greater precision we have been assigning labels to things since our species first uttered words. Take for instance the stuff of reality; atoms, quarks, gluons, leptons, bosons and Higgs bosons, with each refinement in observable scale we must assign new words. Once a name has been ascribed to an object or occurrence it becomes known as part of our great human knowledge.
This system is all well and good until it comes to defining such things that are not readily assigned a definite category or sub category. Take for example the human mind, emotion and personality type.
Yet barely a week goes past without some online personality or political affiliation test momentarily filling our news feeds. Results are posted and shared alongside comments ‘I knew I was an extrovert’ or ‘I’m 76% anarchist’. This BuzzFeed article is a prime example.
Often we would like to think that such things are determinable and constant traits. Psychology, and particularly the work of Walter Mishel, tells us that far from being fixed, our personality types are liable to change over time and are even dependent upon the context of the situation in which we find ourselves.
Mishel studied the behaviour of children on attendance at summer camps. It was discovered that observable traits of aggression and compassion were very often specific to the particular situation. A girl might be generous in sharing her sweets among adults but unwilling to do the same among her peers. Mishel concluded that defining people with particular and consistent personality trait is incorrect.
A study released this year suggested that far from being fixed, personality traits are able to be changed with conscious thought over a period of time. One could wish to be kinder and through assigned techniques could actually change the results of later tests. While still in a preliminary phase the results seem exciting.
It would do us all well to remember that our personalities are not completely immutable facts dictated by the expression of our genes. We can with effort change into the people we would like to be.