Sunday, June 07, 2009

"People can't change!"

Someone recently told me that people don't change and while I agreed with the observation at the time, I found myself questioning it, a nagging strand of disbelief in the notion. I've observed changes in myself over time and that leads me to believe that people do change over time. I was finding it difficult to reconcile the two conflicting claims,  until recently, when I heard someone put it a little differently, "People can't change!"

I realized that this was a claim I could not agree with. The clarification proposed was that while there might be minor changes to how one might react to a situation, for the most part, once 'programmed' to what a person is  by the age of (say) 18, one can assume that there would be no significant changes in him/her for the rest of his/her life. Another hypothesis was that let's say there are a million traits that define a person. After a particular age, only about a hundred of them can be changed, the rest are frozen in stone.

My argument against these theories begins with the simple premise that people are conditioned by their experiences. This should be fairly obvious from one's personal experiences and from all literature on child psychology. As the experiences keep adding up, they build inertia, a resistance to any change. As more experiences contribute to defining a particular trait or aspect of the personality, the higher the inertia against it. However, my claim is that no matter how high the resistance, there can be an experience strong enough to overcome it.

The analogy from the basic laws of Physics is that the more weight an object has, the greater the force required to move it. Similarly, the more the experiences that have conditioned a particular trait, the greater is the sum of experiences needed to condition it otherwise. If you still disagree, consider the individual who has felt safe, protected, secure all their life and then had to live through serious trauma like an assault or a terrorist attack. Try and convince yourself that this person will feel safe, protected, secure in the future.

I believe people can (and do) change, but can you bet on if they will change? I’d calculate my odds based on the factors influencing inertia:

  • Magnitude: of the experience(s) that conditioned the trait and of those that seek to undo the conditioning
  • Duration: the conditioning has stood its ground for.
  • Inherent openness to change: Probably the most significant factor is the individual’s general openness to change. An open-minded person is more likely to change for the better over time. This can be further broken down to the following:
    • Ability to appreciate a perspective different from one's own
    • Ability to question oneself and one's actions and realize when one was right, and more importantly, when one was wrong.
    • Variety of experiences that one puts oneself through

Once you have some of this information, it’s a question of what you’re wagering and what odds you’re getting and if the risk is worth it, but I’ll leave that analysis for the next post…


Priyanka Rajkhowa said...

People 'can' definitely change over a period of time. Personally, I think it all boils down to the third parameter you mention aka 'Inherent Openness to Change'.A person, who possesses the ability to comprehend and assimilate knowledge and experiences (one's own and others') and look at issues from perspectives other that one's own,definitely evolves or changes for the better over time...

But, of course, the fact of the matter is what if a person does not possess this inherent quality to start with!! Does that mean, the person is incapable of changing for the better or for the worse over the course of life? What is it that can sow the seeds of this quality in a human being who doesn't possess it already?
That's where the magnitude/impact of experiences a person has in life comes into the picture, I guess...there are definitely life changing events in every human being's life, which broaden one's perspective and make one open to change and evolution of thought and being...

Mayank said...

"People don't change" is more a statistical observation that a scientifically deduced one.

It usually comes out that way when one has given up on a person. And if it has been a fair attempt, one would have given the person enough time to bring about the change - "enough" as per his own limits of patience.

[Building on your analysis of what can bring change]
If the subject is 23, neither can one wait for another 23 years for him to change, nor can he manufacture an event that is drastic and fine tuned enough to affect that change.

Hence, the feeling that people don't change [for all practical purposes :)]