Can People Change?

This is an age old question, with many examples of conventional wisdom on both sides of the debate. Can people change? Or are facets of their personality fixed forever?

On one hand, cautionary tales abound. If your spouse cheats on you, they will do so again in the future. Addicts will use again. A convicted criminal will re-offend. A liar will continue to lie. Because people don’t change.

Conversely, stories of redemption are some of the most powerful stories of all. Everyone deserves a second chance, as the saying goes. Someone who learns from a mistake and takes steps to correct it is a hero.

How you view this issue may influence how you view the criminal justice system. Is it about punishment for doing wrong, or a chance to redeem yourself as a member of society? Does someone who serves out a prison sentence deserve the benefit of the doubt? In addition, does it matter what the offense was?

If you think it is possible for a person to change, how can any improvement be shown? In other words, at what point do we accept that a lesson has been learned, or that someone is truly remorseful?

Furthermore, what about change for the worse? Someone who has previously been kind and generous and thoughtful can do something selfish or mean. At what point does it become a change in personality? Is a nice person always nice, even if they do some things that are definitely not nice?

Usually, change is the one fixture in our lives. As we age, our body goes through physical changes: we get grey hairs, wrinkles around the eyes, gain some weight. But does our personality go through similar changes? Or do we have some traits that remain constant?

Related questions: What is time? What is necessary to change your mind? How have we changed? How have you changed?


4 thoughts on “Can People Change?”

  1. Without a doubt, people can change. That said, intentional, big changes usually require a lot of work and continual sacrifice. Non-intentional change, at least as I’ve seen it happen in me, has come about because of who I’ve surrounded myself with or because of some major life-changing event. I’ll provide some examples:

    1. I currently weigh 50 pounds less than I did a handful of years ago. Getting to the place I am now has taken quite a bit of sacrifice, a considerable change in my attitude toward food. I restrict my diet considerably three days per week; I’ve learned to accept the discomfort of hunger. I don’t go out to eat often. And there are few processed foods in my home. It took intentional habit-formation, accountability (to my spouse and my journal), and a strong desire to eat more naturally for me to lose the weight. And now, it takes continued vigilance, which I must maintain for the rest of my life.

    2. I am now a lefty-Democrat who used to be a conservative Republican. My personal ideology changed for several reasons: gravitation toward systemic- rather than charity-based work as a solution to poverty; changes in federal student aid that had me questioning whether I could continue going to college; and then the U.S. started a war I could not support. While each of these reasons could have created some incremental change in who I was, having a supportive community of justice-seekers around me buttressed the changes I was personally going through. (By the way, I’m not disparaging Republicans. But that’s another topic.)

    3. The Myers-Briggs test, once pegged me as a strong Thinker. But a private, dramatic event flipped a switch inside me, and I almost immediately became a Feeler. The mindset has stuck with me for well over a decade.

    4. Also, once I became a Feeler, my motivation for working on social change issues also shifted. For years, anger was my primary motivation for justice work. However, once the Feeler switch activated, I became much more hope-driven. (While this was a good thing, I remember being afraid that my future in social change work may have been coming to an end, as I needed to figure out and navigate a whole new change-ideology and my relation to strategies and tactics in my work-life.)

  2. Of course people can change, and we do all the time. As we get older and have more — and more varied — experiences, those shape us and we become new people (or at least a newer model of the same person).

    I suspect that these two conflicting narratives, that people don’t change or that change is inevitable, are really just our internal hopes and fears that are baked in to our culture.

    We aspire to improve ourselves. That’s why people make resolutions at New Year’s, to lose weight, to quit smoking, to eat healthy food. We want to be better than we currently are. Hope springs eternal.

    But secretly, we fear that change is not possible. We are afraid that we are doomed to gain back any weight we lose.

    In addition, we are afraid that we will be taken advantage of if we show trust in others. And so we tell ourselves that others can’t change, either.

    But these are all just stories we tell ourselves. The truth, as usual, is much more complicated and more nuanced than we admit. People do good and bad things, but they aren’t fundamentally good or bad people. Any perceived “change” in that regard is pure illusion.

    For example, you might consider yourself an honest person. When interacting with others, you try to be truthful in all circumstances. Honesty is a defining characteristic of who you are.

    But this trait, honesty, is just just something you use to describe yourself. There is no honesty meter that tracks every statement you utter or conversation you have. You can’t “change” to a dishonest person, because you were never truly an honest person to begin with. You are just a person.

  3. Yes, people can change, but an individual can only change themselves. We might be able to present convincing evidence that helps change a person’s mind, but that person must decide to make the change. We can’t do it for them.

  4. Change. We do it all the time.
    Adapt to circumstances and attempt to make the best of situations.
    Now chances are that you will think differently about the future from one day to another.
    On the broader prospective that everyone brought up, yes, change happens in every aspect of society and our lives.
    But without change I don’t think we could function well as humans on a daily basis.

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