I can’t stop thinking about this quote from Jim Carrey (of all people). Our personality isn’t our person. We aren’t our profession and we aren’t our team. We’re not our ethnicity, diagnosis, family, or hobbies. We’re an embodiment of ideas and thoughts and dreams, and each day we’re different.
“I realized that I could lose myself in a character. I could live in a character. It was a choice. And when I finished with that, I took a month to remember who I was. ‘What do I believe? What are my politics? What do I like and dislike?’ It took me a while, and I was depressed going back into my concerns and my politics. But there was a shift that had already happened. And the shift was, ‘Wait a second. If I can put Jim Carrey aside for four months, who is Jim Carrey? Who the hell is that?’ … I know now he does not really exist. He’s ideas. … Jim Carrey was an idea my parents gave me. Irish-Scottish-French was an idea I was given. Canadian was an idea that I was given. I had a hockey team and a religion and all of these things that cobble together into this kind of Frankenstein monster, this representation. It’s like an avatar. These are all the things I am. You are not an actor, or a lawyer. No one is a lawyer. There are lawyers, law is practiced, but no one is a lawyer. There is no one, in fact, there.” — Jim Carrey
There is No Me
There’s plenty of discussion about what traits are important and who we should strive to be. Debates about the significance of personality tests, and if companies should hire based on these profiles. All of this fits into what I have always believed about personality. That our personality is a clear and consistent definition of our identity.
Carrey’s quote keeps ringing through my head, and reminding me of an episode of Invisibilia I heard ages ago, questioning the notion that personality is static. Like most people, I believe I am someone. Someone somewhat consistent. I believe that if you ask 100 different people that know me about me, there will be many common answers. Optimistic, energetic, friendly, loud, funny, and whatever other attributes.
When someone is an optimist at 20, they will be an optimist at 25, 37, 42, etc. And if someone is kind, s/he will be kind across most situations, in which kindness is a reasonable and accepted way of being. That’s what I’ve always thought, anyway.
This belief has come into question. When Walter Mischel reviewed the literature on personality, he didn’t find much support for the idea that personality is stable. “I expected to find that the assumptions would be justified,” he says, “and then I started reading study after study that found that actually the data didn’t support it.”
Researchers seemed to be ignoring the data that piled up, dismissing the fact that study after study was finding no consistency in personality. Mischel ended up writing a book called Personality and Assessment in 1968 that challenged some of the most basic ideas we have about the role personality plays in our lives. He said that the idea that our personality traits are consistent is pretty much a mirage.
This is hard to wrap my head around. I need to stake a claim on my identity, and that of my friends, family, and coworkers. But if what I believe is not true, I need to adjust my beliefs rather than try to shape the data to tell the story I recognize.
The Marshmallow Test
You know the marshmallow test? It’s one of those behavioural tests most of us have heard of. It’s also one of the tests where the results are almost always misconstrued.
Mischel conducted the experiment, first in 1960. He would give a small child a marshmallow, or some other treat, telling her or him that they could eat it now, or, if they could wait for a few minutes, they’d get two marshmallows. Then he left the room. Given that the children in the study were four to six years old, the marshmallow was often devoured. How many pre-schoolers do you know with will-power beyond your own?
But sometimes Mischel told the child ahead of time that she could just pretend that the marshmallow was not really there. Then “the same child waits 15 minutes,” he says now. “It’s a very small change that’s been made in how the child is representing the object — is it real or is it a picture? And by changing the representation, you dramatically change her behaviour.” The vast majority of children in Mischel’s study were able to delay gratification when they reframed their interpretations of the situation in front of them.
This is huge. This is the point.
The point of the marshmallow test was to show how flexible people are, how easily their behaviour could change. But that’s not how the study has been reported and popularized. We drew black and white conclusions that have had staying power, twisting Mischel’s study to teach the exact opposite of what the findings proved. This happens time and again with studies, driving scientists mad. Hence the term mad scientist, of course.
We decided that those traits in the preschoolers were fixed — that their self-control at age four determined their success throughout life. They’re happier, have better relationships, do better at school and at work. These kids that can delay gratification have won the personality lottery, and the others are lost forever. The marshmallow test became the poster child for the idea that there are specific personality traits that are stable and consistent. And this drives Walter Mischel crazy.
“That iconic story is upside-down wrong,” Mischel says. “That your future is in a marshmallow. Because it isn’t.” Thanks goodness. Willpower is teachable. It’s not something set in stone. The kids who eat the marshmallow before the researcher gets back aren’t doomed for life in the self-regulation category.
How We Got Personality Wrong
How did we get it so wrong? How did so many reporters and media outlets and scientists draw conclusions in opposition to the results? Psychologists have come up with all sorts of theories. One is that the consistency we see in people’s personalities is an illusion that we create. No matter how people behave, we shoehorn them into the idea we already have of them.
Even though these experiments were done almost 60 years ago, we’re still struggling with the notion that human personality and behavior isn’t a constant. Maybe because we so deeply want to believe in identity. Identity we can trust to stay more or less the same, regardless of situation or outcome.
Back to Jim Carrey, who is oddly insightful for someone whose most iconic role was to perform physical comedy in a green mask. Carrey’s perspective is too nihilistic for me, too dark, but many of his insights resonate with me.
“Everything I am doing creatively right now seems to point to the awareness of a lack of self,” says Carrey. “I guess just getting to the place where you have everything everybody has ever desired and realizing you are still unhappy. And that you can still be unhappy is a shock when you have accomplished everything you ever dreamt of and more and then you realize, “My gosh, it’s not about this.” And I wish for everyone to be able to accomplish those things so they can see that.”
This isn’t a new theory. It’s been touted by actors and entertainers, business leaders and spiritual leaders, prophets and even Gods. We aren’t made happy by attaining. Yet we still keep setting goals of acquisition. Of titles and possessions, people and notoriety, power and fame. We’re seeking out a feeling from a thing, not engaging in meaningful goal setting. Most of those leaders have something else in common — they advise sitting in discomfort when it arises, not trying to constantly navigate away from it. Feel our feelings, and other uncomfortable $%&*.
“Understanding suffering is the way to salvation because once you understand it, you have compassion, and the next thing you know, you are free,” says Carrey. There are other more notable people who have said the same thing, but I’m trying to stay on theme here.
Data Informed Stories
Getting caught believing something just because we always have is dangerous. It’s the ideological equivalent of doing something the way it’s always been done because it’s the way it’s always been done.
When doing research and compiling data to build a business strategy, it’s easy to pick the metrics that prove our point rather than prove the point. Data can tell any story you want it to, if you choose the right variables. The trick is to use data to construct a story, not pick and choose facts that tell the story we’ve always been telling.