Can People Really Change?

One of the fundamental questions about human beings concerns how much they actually can change. The answer to this question, I believe, is extremely important for understanding how to live well.

To some extent, the question about change boils down to a question of how much control we really have over our own lives. One of the classic debates concerning this point is the age-old nature/nurture debate. Basically, some have suggested that the ultimate cause of our behavior is in our “nature;” in other words, our biology. Others long have argued that the ultimate cause is rooted in our “nurture;” that is, our past environment and current situations.

In a previous post about nature vs. nurture, I noted that current research increasingly is agreeing that pitting nature and nurture against each other as causes of behavior really isn’t accurate because they work together interactively. Still, a very important line of research on behavioral genetics suggest that a considerable portion of the variation in broad dispositions among people can be explained by genetics. For example, about 70% of differences among people in intelligence can be attributed to genetics. Even with some of the limitations in this research, the upshot of this research is that nature is much more powerful than I imagine most people would guess.

Thus, when it comes to broad dispositions, such as with intelligence, it seems unlikely that many people will change very much. Some do, but most won’t. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I ran into my old college roommate. What was most striking was that, though I hadn’t seen my friend for about 10 years, he was almost exactly as I remembered him.

This is really an important realization if one wants to live well because it suggests that focusing on acceptance is much more wise than focusing on change. This dynamic often comes into play in various kinds of relationships. When there is conflict, often times one member of a couple wishes that the other person would change. If the research above is correct, however, this wish often would seem to go unrealized. In fact, research on couples counseling that focuses on problem solving and compromise suggests that this focus doesn’t help very much (with couples going through this kind of counseling not much more likely to be happy or avoid divorce). Couples counseling that focuses on acceptance, on the other hand, seems much more likely to promote better relationships. Many long-term married couples that I know testify to this point, saying that accepting each other is probably at the very root of what it means to have a good marriage (in complete contrast to how many young people seem to be approaching marriage today).

Having said all this, however, change is possible in some ways. I just read an article by Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford University, about this very point. Dweck argues that, though broad dispositions don’t change as readily, goals, beliefs, and construals of situations do change over time. For instance, though study skills training tends to result in little benefit, she has found that study skills training plus an element where people learn that intelligence is malleable (like a muscle) do benefit.

This leads me to a dilemma I’ve wrestled with for some time regarding student development. It is abundantly clear in my teaching that some students are better than others. My primary attribution for this is that some students are more intelligent than others, but I’ve often also wanted to believe that students could develop themselves into better students, given the right skill development. Unfortunately, in every attempt I’ve ever made, this hypothesis has not been supported. In fact, research I’ve informally done in my courses shows that the amount of study time, and actually all kinds of study skills, actually don’t predict grades in my courses. Of course, this makes me think of talent, a variable that seems often overlooked as an important variable by many, in my opinion. However, if Dweck is correct, then it’s not just the acquisition of study skills that helps students, but also the belief that such skills can influence their abilities. In this way, it doesn’t matter so much what actually is true about the influence of ability, but rather the extent to which one believes that one can develop this ability.

The belief in the ability to change can be seen clearly in this example about intellectual development, but it goes well beyond this as well to include development of other skills as well (for example, listening skills). I guess Richard Bach was correct when he said, “Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they’re yours.”

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2 Responses to Can People Really Change?

  1. Teri says:

    Maybe the change in students’ abilities/grades/study habits is something that is not as likely to be obvious quickly. I do see lots of students who started school 5, 10, 15 years ago and did terrible. But when they come back, they do well. So some is intelligence, but there seems to be something else going on. Motivation? Less hormones and beer? I’ve had students say that they aren’t very smart because of grades many years ago, but their recent grades and behavior contradicts that.
    Just a thought at midnight

  2. Steve says:

    Desire, drive, motivation and self-esteem are the X-Factors that separate an A student from a C student. These factors are all variable depending on where someone comes from, what their inspiration is and how they view themselves as a student. This extends into life as well as the workplace. This does change throughout someone’s life. The very fortunate and gifted people are able to focus despite the X-Factors and perform at a high level no matter the situation. Others, who are more impacted by life and feel everything are subject to this roller coaster of varaible motivation and desire thus affecting performance. Richard Bach is right on! Except if you are someone who lives one constant denile after another and creates a life that has no base in the reality of who they are. This can’t be changed, rather, the life around this person changes to accomodate the continuous pattern of denile. I do not envy you as a teacher, because everyone is so different. Bless your soul.

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