Personality/Temperament, Situation and Mind

SPIEGEL: On the board, Mischel drew three circles. The first represented personality – your traits, your temperament. Then he drew a second circle.

MISCHEL: Here are the situations, OK?

SPIEGEL: But in between the two, Mischel drew a third circle. This, he said, poking the board, is your mind – that wonderful, curious thing that houses all kinds of invisible stuff.

MISCHEL: Like your expectations, your stable expectations about what happens if you do certain things. It has entered your way of construing or seeing or framing or depicting different situations. So when I’m in a large group, do I feel terrified because it’s a scary situation? Or when I’m in a large group, do I see it as a challenge because here’s an opportunity to really reach a lot of people?

SPIEGEL: All this stuff in your mind – these beliefs, assumptions, expectations that you’ve gotten from your friends, your family, your culture – those things, Mischel explained, are the filter through which you see the world. Your mind stands between who you are, your personality and whatever situation you’re in and profoundly influences how your brain interprets the world around it. Those beliefs, expectations, assumptions – they direct what your mind pays attention to quite literally – even what it physically sees in a situation and how it feels about what it sees.

And so when the stuff inside the mind changes, people change. They begin to interpret their situations differently or themselves differently, and so situations act on them differently.

MISCHEL: People can use their wonderful brains to think differently about situations, to reframe them, to reconstrue them, to even reconstrue themselves.

SPIEGEL: This is why Mischel sees people as fundamentally flexible. He tells me that is the single most important thing that he has stood for in his whole professional life.

MISCHEL: What my life has been about is in showing the potential for human beings to not be the victims of their biographies – not their biological biographies, not their social biographies – and to show, in great detail, the many ways in which people can change what they become and how they think.

The Personality Myth, Invisibilia