Personality isn’t fixed — we just let ourselves get predictable
People tend to default to the roles imposed by social environments. Putting yourself in new environments, around new people, and taking on new roles are the quickest ways to access different facets of your personality, for better or worse. Fully take on the roles you assume, and you’ll change from the outside in.
To break from a common understanding of personality as innate and unchangeable, it helps to consider the etymology. The word “personality” comes from the Latin word persona: a mask worn by an actor in a theater, or a character acted onstage. In real life, too, we wear different masks and play different roles. As William Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.”
Think about this for a minute: Are you always the same person? Do you really feel like the same person in all situations and circumstances? Of course not. In some situations, you may be quiet, awkward, or shy. In others, you’re on top of the world. The “you” that shows up is very different depending on the situation.
If your house was being robbed, you’d be different than if you were sitting on an airplane or at work or at a rock concert. Around certain people, such as old high school friends, you may reflect a younger and less mature version of yourself. Sometimes you act more introverted and sometimes more extroverted.
But here’s what’s interesting: As people age, they tend to stop engaging in new situations, experiences, and environments. In other words, people’s personalities become increasingly consistent simply because they stop putting themselves into new contexts. Indeed, the philosopher and psychologist William James believed that a person’s personality basically became fully formed and fixed by age 30, because thereafter a person’s life often becomes highly routine and predictable.
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By the time a person reaches their thirties, they stop having as many “first” experiences. In their childhood, teens, and even twenties, there are a lot of experiences: First kiss. First time driving. First job. First big failure. First time moving to a new city.
But at some point, we “settle down.” We stop engaging in new roles and new situations that bring out new and different sides of us. Because people’s lives become highly routine, both in their social roles and their environments, you begin to see very predictable behaviors and attitudes. This is one of the core reasons that personality is viewed as stable and predictable over time. It’s not that your personality itself becomes stable but rather that your routine environments and social roles lock you into habitual patterns.
According to the Stanford psychologist Lee Ross, “We see consistency in everyday life because of the power of the situation.” Ross explains that ultimately, it’s the situation and not the person that determines what we think of as personality. “People are predictable, that’s true. But they’re predictable because we see them in situations where their behavior is constrained by that situation and the roles they’re occupying and the relationships they have with us.”
Research has shown that as people age, they become increasingly less open to having new experiences. They stop surrounding themselves with new types of people, engaging in new roles and environments, and taking on new challenges. They stop experiencing new emotions. When people get stuck into routines, they become old far too fast.
The more psychologically rigid a person is, the more they see themselves as the same person in every situation they are in. This narrow approach elides the truth, which is that in different situations, not only should you be a different person, you can’t help being a different person.
From a Western perspective, this may not make a lot of sense. Westerners tend to view the world from what is called an “atomistic” viewpoint, which assumes that something (or someone) can be understood regardless of context. This involves isolating and abstracting things from their context and attempting to explain them for their “innate” traits. It’s why we view personality as fixed and unchanging, and it’s also why we love our personality tests.
A more accurate and scientific perspective would be to view your personality relationally — as determined by your relationship to the people and ideas that surround you.