Can You Change Your Personality? Lord of the Rings vs. Schindler’s List

Related image
Self-help gurus talk as though
personality change can occur as predictably as the story arc of a Hollywood
hero. Psychologists fall into this trap as well. Research on student’s views
about intelligence implies that if we want to change ourselves, all we have to
do is change our beliefs about what is possible. Similarly our culture through
the media, the self-help industry and some psychologists promotes the idea that
change is an easy, everyday process, if only we could really want it. In fact
our culture has become obsessed with technologies of the self, our ability to
easily reinvent ourselves, to become, as it where, new people.
This breezy talk about
personality change is far-fetched because for most of us change only comes
after prolonged effort. But to illustrate how our culture represents
personality change, take two examples of movie heroes, one who was miraculously
steadfast and one who was miraculously transformed. As you’re reading, think
firstly about which best represents the way our culture views personality and
secondly about which best represents your view of your own personality.
The modern obsession with the
possibility of redeeming psychological transformation can be clearly seen in
Schindler’s List. Oskar Schindler – the hero as he becomes – starts out as a
greedy man obsessed with profit and his own personal gain, making money using
cheap Jewish labour to supply the Nazi regime. By the end of the film Schindler
has undergone a miraculous transformation into a man risking his life and
livelihood to smuggle Jews to freedom.
This film, which is difficult
to watch, inspirational and incredibly moving all at the same time, is also
totally unbelievable. And my incredulity is in no way tempered by the fact this
film is based on a true story. They say fact is stranger than fiction, and they
are right.
What this film does represent
is a kind of movie archetype of heroic transformation. An unlikely protagonist
comes face to face with a situation which demands some kind of change. He then
becomes a hero by virtue of the change he undergoes.
The opposite message about
human nature comes from a fantasy movie. Watch Lord of the Rings and find
characters whose personalities are set in stone. Aragorn, greatest in its array
of heroes, is a man who tries to avoid his appointed task but cannot. Boromir,
meanwhile, is also a hero, but one with a fatal character flaw, one which he
cannot avoid no matter how hard he tries.
Those who are flawed, like
Boromir, are flawed right from the start, while those who are heroes, like
Aragorn, battle on through to the bitter end. In Lord of the Rings it is
personalities that remain largely unchanged, only the situations they encounter
change. Aragorn cannot avoid his destiny, however much he tries. He was born to
be King and he shall be King. Boromir, however, is doomed to betray his friends
right from the start.
to reality
Part of the problem with using
extreme situations such as those from movies is that they are difficult to
translate into real life. Most of us have not faced, and probably never will
face, the moral dilemma of Oskar Schindler. Neither will any of us save Middle
Earth from hordes of orcs. In reality life is much more mundane. But just
because most of us will never face the extreme situations portrayed in these
movies, it doesn’t mean watching them won’t affect the way we think about
Watch enough Hollywood films
and you’ll start to believe life is all about reaching crises, a brief period
of confusion followed by triumphant discovery of new patterns of behaviour. Are
human beings really capable of these kinds of transformation in short periods
of time? A failure to change is frequently seen as depressing or limiting. To
be considered ‘life affirming’ and uplifting movies and TV shows need to show
people continually reinventing themselves. We worship the ‘new’, and that
includes our new personalities as well.
Psychological research tells
us that people’s personalities are actually relatively stable over their
lifetimes. What changes as we age is probably not the larger, more obvious
aspects of our personality, but the little things we do. The types of things
that would normally sneak under the radar of psychology studies. Our experience
broadens, or narrows, our lives are struck by dizzying triumph and cavernous
misfortune, and we march on, most of us, making tiny changes as we go.
As any management consultant
will tell you, people are remarkably resilient to change and ultimately this
inflexibility is necessary for our survival. As an evolutionary psychologist
would say, it’s adaptive behaviour. If we were too easily influenced to change
our beliefs, our attitudes, our whole direction in life, we would never achieve
anything. What our culture worship as its greatest achievements in the arts,
sciences and politics, were mostly achieved by people who were remarkably
stubborn in sticking to their vision.
So while Schindler’s List best
represents the culturally promoted view of personality as capable of
transformation, Lord of the Rings better represents reality. Which is ironic
considering it is a fantasy movie.
the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.

He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.