Do you remember the Marshmallow Experiment? In the 1970’s, Walter Mischel conducted an experiment at Stanford in delayed gratification. Children were given one marshmallow then told if they could wait 15 minutes to eat it, they would get a second marshmallow. The original thought behind the results of this study were that children who could delay gratification at a young age would grow up to be more successful. And in fact, follow-up studies to the experiment proved children who waited to eat their marshmallow were more competent, achieved higher SAT scores, and were ultimately able to avoid more negative temptations later in life.
Which begs the question? Are the behaviors and traits of our personality – set in stone? Will our personality remain consistent over time? And what if you have a personality disorder like NPD, BPD, or Sociopathy?
According to Mischel’s recent findings, our personalities might not be so solid after all. Consistency might be an illusion. Our personalities are radically influenced by the situations and environments we find ourselves in. That situations determine how we behave, and not a person’s character.
So then, WHY do people’s personalities appear to be consistent over time? People are generally embedded in stable situations. They are predictable within the constraints of that situation – within their roles. While we like to believe we are living in a stable world, the world is actually chaotic and unstable.
A while back, I was in a relationship with someone who suffered from a personality disorder. His personality (the behaviors and traits that made up who he was) were not consistent over time. As a result, I found interacting with him on a day-to-day basis challenging. I felt unsettled, fearful, worried – and ultimately on the verge of madness.
I was torn. On the one hand, there was a part of him that seemed kind, gentle, loving and truthful – but then there was this other part that was unstable, angry, inconsistent, manipulative, and cruel.
I wanted to help him – to heal him. It took me a long time to realize I wasn’t qualified to heal anyone – especially when they didn’t want to be healed. Especially within the dynamics of a romantic relationship. I chose to walk away.
In the aftermath, I learned a lot about how personality disorders and mental illness can effect our relationships with others. I don’t know that you can cure a personality disorder, manage maybe…but not cure. The same is true of mental illness.
And yet, the neuroplasticity of the brain fascinates me. Third wave therapies which use techniques like meditation, yoga, cognitive behaviorial therapy, and the like – have produced incredible results – and shown that it is in fact possible to rewire our brains.
I’m not certain what the future will hold, but I’m optimistic we’re heading in the right direction.
To learn more about Personality and the experiments mentioned above, listen to this episode of Invisibilia.