Progress contexts as a basis for performance, well-being and growth

When I was trained as a psychologist in the 1980s, the dominant way of thinking about intelligence and personality tended towards what we now call a fixed mindset. Broadly speaking, we were taught that both intelligence and personality can hardly be developed after a certain age (say, 18). Personality was broadly defined as the set of stable behavioral tendencies of individuals. Individual differences in personality were thought to be relatively unchangeable and also meaningful for how we should organize our lives (think of career choices, for example). The word 'stable' meant two things. First, personality traits were thought to be stable across situations. In other words, we behave in approximately the same way in different types of situations because of our personality traits. Second, personality traits were thought to be stable over time. This meant that personality traits do not (or cannot) change much over the course of a person's life.

The fundamental attribution error

The fact that personality is stable across situations was already questioned in the early 1970s by the psychologist Walter Mischel. He conducted research showing that the context in which we function has a strong influence on how we behave (Mischel, 1968). There is now a name in psychology for systematically (but unconsciously) overestimating the importance of personal characteristics and at the same time underestimating the importance of situations on our behavior: the fundamental attribution error. This term, introduced in 1977 by psychologist Lee Ross, describes how we are, wrongly, too inclined to think about people's behavior in terms of traits and predispositions.

His colleague Richard Nisbett later discovered that Westerners are, on average, somewhat more susceptible to the fundamental attribution error than non-Westerners (Nisbett, 2015). He thinks this has to do with the great influence that the philosopher Aristotle has had on the development of Western culture. Aristotle had a strongly dispositional view (disposition means innate property) of the behavior of not only people but also objects. For example, Aristotle thought that a stone sinks in water because of a property of the stone, while other objects that do not sink would not have that property. Aristotle was wrong.

Human behavior varies greatly

The fundamental attribution error has many consequences that we are hardly aware of. When we see someone exhibiting dishonest behavior, we are inclined to look for the cause within the person (“What a dishonest guy!”). We think we would never do something like that ourselves. But, as Nisbett explains, human behavior varies widely in different situations. The influence of characteristics within ourselves is much less significant than we think. What we don't realize enough is that if someone behaves honestly in one situation, he may not do so in another. We, too, would probably be willing to behave dishonestly if circumstances prompted us to do so.

Why we don't notice variation in behavior

This also explains why people are often inclined to attribute excellent performance mainly to talent (in the sense of natural ability). The fact that an excellent performer has invested many years in developing his or her skill is not what we see and mention first. No, the explanation must be natural ability. This is an example of how we tend to look for explanations within the person, not in the person's interaction with their situation.

And this is unjustified. One reason we underestimate the variability of human behavior across situations is that we don't usually experience people in very different situations. We often see them in one type of situation, for example, in the performance of their profession or at the same birthday party every year. That one situation always evokes more or less the same behavior in them. We do not experience them in other situations where they may behave differently. That is why we wrongly think that they always behave more or less the same.

If we become more aware of the fundamental attribution error, we may be able to correct for it. This can help us think more gently about people who exhibit behaviors that we disapprove of. We realize that behavior not only says something about the person but also, to an important extent, about the person's situation. We then realize that we ourselves might behave the same way if we were in their situation.

The perceived stability of personality

There is now also more reason to doubt the idea that personality traits are stable over time. Previous research suggested moderate to strong stability of individual differences in personality (Mischel, 1968). In a new study by Harris et al. (2016), personality ratings of children aged 14, conducted in 1947, were compared with personality ratings and self-ratings of these same people at age 77. A moderate correlation was found between personality assessments by others and self-assessments of people in old age. But hardly any correlation was found between the personalities of the individuals at the age of 14 and at the age of 77. So their personalities did indeed change.

We can change

The alleged stability of personality over time was cited by many when I was studying as an indication that personality cannot or can hardly be developed. I've never found that argument very convincing. The fact that a characteristic does not change significantly in a large sample does not prove that change is impossible. Most of the people in the sample may not have tried to change their own personalities, or those who did may not have used the right approach. In other words, immutability is not proof of immutability. But now, even immutability can no longer be used as an argument for immutability. In this sample, personality turned out to be quite changeable. And yet we have no reason to assume that the people in the sample have systematically tried to change their personalities more than other people.

Self-directed personality change

An article by Hennecke et al. (2014) suggests that self-directed personality change is possible. In the article, they explain why personality can change and how this can be done. Based on a literature review, these authors developed a three-component framework for self-directed personality development. The framework shows three conditions for self-directed personality development (see the figure below).

  • Precondition 1 refers to motivation: you must feel the desire or need to change.
  • Precondition 2 refers to mindset: you must believe that change is possible.
  • Precondition 3 refers to the self-regulation skills necessary for forming new habits.

The authors explain that all three conditions must be met for personality change to take hold. In the remainder of the article, the authors explain why they think this type of goal-oriented personality development involves real personality change and not just superficial behavior change.

Harnessing the power of situations

Another benefit of realizing that we tend to overestimate the role of traits and predispositions is that this makes it easier to believe in the changeability of behavior. We can recognize and use the power of situations. An important way to change our own behavior and that of others is to change our situations. In a different kind of situation, it is easier for us as people to behave differently.

If you can follow what I'm saying this far, you can probably imagine that some contexts have a favorable influence on our behavior and others an unfavorable influence. If we are born in an extremely poor area, it is significantly less likely that we will be stimulated by our environment to learn and develop. If we grow up surrounded by crime as children, we are more likely to end up in crime ourselves. If we grow up in a rich country and in a family with highly educated parents, there is a good chance that we will also become highly educated ourselves. As humans, we are not only subject to the influence that environments have on us. We also influence the environment in which we live and work. As humans, we obviously do not have unlimited influence on the context in which we grow up and function, but we do have some influence. In democratic and rich countries, we have more influence on our context than in a poor country like Malawi or in a dictatorship like North Korea. So how should we best use our ability to influence our context?

What do your progress contexts look like?

To start, we could analyze which contexts work well for us. In what context do we best function well and make progress in the things that are important to us? Let's call these kinds of contexts progress contexts. What do your progress contexts look like?

Writing exercise: Sit behind your computer and answer the following questions in about 20 minutes:

  1. When do you perform best?
  2. When do you learn best?
  3. When do you relax best?
  4. In what contexts do you feel most comfortable with your family and friends?
  5. Which people belong to your progress contexts?
  6. Which tasks are part of your progress context?
  7. Which places belong to your progress contexts?
  8. How can you visit those people, tasks, and places more often?
  9. How can you adapt your own work and living spaces so that they become more similar to your progress contexts?
  10. Who can help you transform your work and living environments into progress contexts?

Once you gain insight into what your progress contexts look like, you can think about how you can find yourself in these types of contexts more often. Based on self-determination theory (see Chapter 6), I predict that your progress contexts are contexts that support your basic psychological needs. In other words, in progress contexts, you can make your own choices, you feel competent, and you feel connected. This allows you to do things that you find interesting and important. If this is the case, the chances that you will do good work, feel good, learn a lot, and be able to persevere increase.

To remember

  1. The fundamental attribution error means that we systematically underestimate the influence of situations, structures, and systems on our behavior and systematically overestimate the influence of personal characteristics and predispositions on our behavior.
  2. This error also explains why people are often inclined to attribute excellent performance mainly to talent (in the sense of natural ability).
  3. An important way to change your own behavior and that of others is to change our situations and/or expose ourselves to other situations.
  4. Progress contexts are those contexts in which we function best and progress in the things that are important to us.
  5. Your progress contexts support your basic psychological needs.
  6. Being in progress contexts more often improves your performance.
  7. To get into your progress contexts more often, it helps to know what they look like to you, how to look for them more often, and how to design them yourself.

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Anonymous said…
I think that having a fixed personality is a contemporary concept. One can read in the ancient sources advice on how to change personality traits, for example, Epictetus:

"If you do not wish to be prone to anger, do not feed the habit; give it nothing which may tend its increase. At first, keep quiet and count the days when you were not angry: "I used to be angry every day, then every other day: next every two, next every three days!" and if you succeed in passing thirty days, sacrifice to the Gods in thanksgiving. Because habit first grows weak, then completely disappears. "Today I haven't been saddened (neither tomorrow, nor during the next two or three months); but I was on edge when something happened that awakened sorrow.""