Personality. For decades, psychologists claimed our personalities are fundamentally unchangeable after about the age of 30 but that our behaviours are malleable. I find that distinction troublesome, largely because my mission is to liberate potential and change lives. If our behaviours are adaptive, surely they must also influence our disposition and character. Psychosomatic medicine has long explored the relationship between psychological and behavioral factors on the quality of life. Personalities do change with age, although to varying degrees across a continuum of traits – these are defined as sociability, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness and conscientiousness.
Some traits, like agreeableness, are more static than others. Extraversion and conscientiousness decline with time. As does risk aversion, although more so with women. And those over sixty become less concerned about the expectations of others and also less open to new ideas. Neuroticism decreases through adulthood, then increases in the elderly as they become more anxious about their mortality. Gender is irrelevant for most traits except neuroticism. Despite what some argue, our personalities are not set in stone across our lifetime. And sustainable change does happen when there is a commitment to becoming more self-aware, encouraging critical feedback and soliciting good advice or great coaching.
Objectivity. Our brains are hardwired for self-deception. We like to see things as we wish they were, not as they actually are. We rarely detect signs of bias in ourselves yet our unconscious motives affect the conclusions we draw. The mind only sees what the brain can handle. Hence, we only see the truth when it reflects our reality. We rationalize away our flaws and failures and cherry-pick evidence that supports our narratives and thus confirm our prejudices. We think of ourselves as objective simply because we feel we are objective. When we scrutinize that logic, it seems compelling and sound … at least to us.
Being able to rattle off a list of biases and beliefs that shape our reality is pointless unless we’re willing to acknowledge how they actually do influence our thinking. When a coworker screws up, we think they’re incompetent. When we screw up, it’s because we’re under a lot of pressure. When we reason, we believe we’re being fair-minded in evaluating the facts. The more objective we feel we are, the more we trust our opinions as accurate representations of the world around us. And the less inclined we are to question them. When we think we’re objective, we assume our conclusions are unimpeachable – a standard they often don’t deserve. Learning how to resist the temptation to self-deceive is empowering. It enables us to deal with circumstances as they exist, however unpleasant that may be at times.
Division. I am fascinated by the intolerance and rancour in American politics. While I understand ours, the political mindset of our southerly neighbours continues to boggle me. The curious thing is Americans generally agree on most seemingly divisive issues but continue their adherence to the contradictory values of the two major parties. Three-quarters believe the government should expand health care coverage. Two-thirds say there should be stricter gun laws. Eighty percent think abortion should be legal and 76% support investing more in education. A staggering 96% support infrastructure improvements, 75% say it’s somewhat or very important to promote ethnic diversity and 76% say racism is a big problem.
Yet, despite this agreement on the critical issues of the day, polarization between Republicans and Democrats is at an all-time high. More recently within the latter party, the progressives and moderates have taken sides against Biden’s “building back better” agenda. At times, it appears there’s a three-party system but its genesis has more to do with the current numbers in Congress and brinkmanship. Despite most Americans being in accord on the biggest concerns facing the country, politicians and media commentators have escalated their incessant squabbling to a fever pitch. Prior to the last election, roughly one-third of the supporters of both parties said if theirs lost then violence would be justified. And it happened.
Belief perseverance is the phrase psychologists use when you double down on your point of view under the duress of being challenged – arguments become repetitive, intense and unduly harsh. But disagreements don’t have to be disagreeable if our purpose is to share, learn and make things better. The sad thing about the human condition is this: most believe the purpose of an argument is to win it. What we misunderstand is that we never win an argument – we only entrench others more deeply into their positions. Pontificating or playing politics just adds more fuel to the fire of division. And that is the essence of intolerance.