Do people ever really change?
May 22, 2008
Gordon Livingston writes in his book, Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, "Most of the heartbreak that life contains is a result of ignoring the reality that past behavior is the most reliable predictor of future behavior." p. 8.
People attribute to people in the mental health professions like Psychiatry, Psychology, Clinical Social Work, the ability to predict the future behavior of people they have evaluated and assessed. Studies have shown, though, that a mental health professional's ability to predict future behavior is no better than the average layperson.
Now, I believe that people can change or I wouldn't be in the profession I am, psychotherapy. I would even state it more strongly and say I know people can change because I have seen it happen thousands of times after 40 years of practice. However, in general, I also agree with Dr. Livingston's observation that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior and naive people miss this principle all the time.
I was meeting with a divorced woman yesterday who told me that her new boyfriend whom she believes she has fallen in love with has many of the same negative, dysfunctional behaviors as her ex-husband like loosing his temper and "spanking" his kids. She further tells me that he is very secretive about his finances and "stingy like my ex but I think he can change." I asked her gently what makes her think that? What would contribute to his changing? What is the basis of her prediction? "I just know he could." was her response.
I said, "Go slow. Don't get too involved until you have ample time to test your hypothesis that he can, will, change." I pointed out that early on in relationships when people are trying to impress other people they are on their best behavior and it looks like they are open to suggestions and influence and change, and then after two years or so the honeymoon wears off and people tend to resume their pre-love state level of functioning. That's why more second marriages fail than first marriages.
The most ironic situation I have witnessed over and over again is the person who met their partner while he/she was having an affair on their spouse. The affair led to a divorce and now the infidel is married to the lover who then discovers that their spouse is having an affair on them. I don't say it, of course, but I am thinking, "Well, yeah............What makes you surprised?"
Now, I am not saying that this is always true, because people really do change, but in general I think Dr. Livingston has it right when he points out that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
If you were curious about whether a person could or is/has really changed what might you look for that would tell you that the change is real?
Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living. Is the person living an examined life? Are they willing to non defensively examine, reflect on, and take responsibility for their old behaviors? Have they examined alternative ways of behaving, alternative life styles? Have they taken steps to implement new behaviors and new ways of living? Have they shared their desires to change and their steps in implementing change with other people who are supportive, encouraging, and witnesses to the change desired and being made? Have they made amends to the people they harmed, including themselves, by the old dysfunctional behavior?
In substance abuse counseling, we say that a person in recovery has to change their people, places, and things if they are serious about their recovery and want to diminish the likelihood of relapse. Human beings are social creatures, and creatures of habit, and our behavior occurs in a context. The context is often times more important in making change than individual will power. It is the situations that we place ourselves in, it is the relationships that we develop and sustain, that are more predictive of human behavior than personality traits.
As grandma said, "Birds of a feather flock together." and as the old AA slogan goes, "If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got." One of the AA definitions of addiction is "doing the same old thing, hoping for a different result."
I have often heard people who engage in dysfunctional behavior complain when there is a negative consequence, "Why do these things always happen to me!"
My response? "Great question. Can I ask you some questions so we can explore that?"