A: What the Civil Rights movement, personality psychology, and The Santa Clause movie have in common
The other day I had the great privilege of hearing Civil Rights activist Diane Nash speak at the Chicago History Museum. (I also had the equally great privilege of sitting among my thoughtful colleagues after the talk and discussing our reactions.) Of the many wise things Ms. Nash said, I want to highlight one that stuck out to me in the current context of my life, though it was far from what she defined as the most important component of social movements. One audience member asked how to create unity in a movement, and Ms. Nash said unity comes from movement and action; it does not precede those things. In other words, don’t wait around for other people to join your cause before you take action. People join a movement when they BELIEVE change is possible, precisely because you have shown them it is through your action. This statement is simultaneously obvious and profound, and, in practice, a lot harder to achieve than it sounds. At times, we are all beset by hopelessness - in the face of societal problems, personal problems, you name it - and it is a tall order to be asked to believe change is possible; to visualize and sacrifice for something you believe will happen but have no physical proof will come to pass. I suppose this is called faith.
The reason this concept resonates so strongly with me right now is because of the personality psychology research paper I’m working on. Part of the paper asks whether mental health services can lead to positive, long-term personality change. We didn’t find good evidence that they do, though previous studies have presented contradictory findings. But in the process of trying to explain our particular findings, I stumbled on a theory of self-regulated personality development in adulthood that posits certain requirements for personality change and may help explain why this change is so difficult. The theory states that a person must view the act of changing personality trait-related behaviors (i.e., showing up to work on time is related to the trait of conscientiousness) as desirable or necessary, and, on top of that, feasible. Only then can an individual change his or her behaviors, and it is only after these self-regulated behavior changes become habitual that personality trait change occurs. (For those who are curious, this is the paper that published the theory: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/per.1945)
The key word is feasible. According to this theory, a person has to BELIEVE that they can and will change their behavior in order to bring this change into being. You cannot wait for proof that you are changing; you have to believe that change is feasible, and only then will you see this change. This framework reminds me of one of my favorite childhood films, The Santa Clause. In the film, a young boy full of Christmas spirit, Charlie, ends up at the North Pole with his bah-humbug dad, Scott Calvin. Little Elf Judy says to Charlie, “Seeing isn’t believing. Believing is seeing.” To me, this explains why Charlie can see the beauty of the North Pole; he believes in Santa Claus, in elves, and in Christmas magic, and when he visits the North Pole, that’s what he sees. But Scott Calvin, who sees the same physical reality Charlie does, cannot believe that what he sees is real, and is therefore confused and grumpy when first arriving at the North Pole. Now, I’m not telling you to believe in Santa Claus, and I’m not telling you that non-believers (in social change, personality change, the North Pole, etc.) will not become believers upon seeing evidence to the contrary. But I am telling you that first letting yourself believe (in change, in human kindness, in anything) will make the process of seeing (a change in your life, evidence of human kindness around you, anything else) much easier. If you believe and, in the end, do not see what you visualized, yes, you will feel disappointed. But the consequence of not believing, in an understandable attempt to protect yourself, is even more dire. The world is so much more than just the physical reality around us, and a life without belief is a life half-lived.