We feel that we know those near and dear us. This helps us to maintain the constant image of the world which helps us to function. But how off the mark are we with our understanding?

Don’t worry, we are not suggesting that your friends and family are full of deceit and are tricking you. Rather, this post questions what we think of as “personality” and “traits” of a person.

Humans by default want to see other humans in terms of one trait or a cluster of related traits. But that is not how the world is. And may be accepting that complexity will help us to appreciate the beauty of it.

For example, when you say that your friend is honest, you mean that he or she has always been honest with you. This helps you create a constant sort of image of that person and helps you to relate to him or her. But if you think about it, honest is a very thin description of a person, and there is much more to them. Then why does our brain work like that?

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If you had to assess each person from minute to minute and not think of them in constant terms, your head would spin because of the amount of information you had to process. So this is why, it is easy for us to think of people in terms of constant, interrelated traits.

If this is so great, why bother changing? 

Because this same habit or strength, when used without caution, can lead us to stereotype the people we know. It can make us blame them for something that was actually bought about by the environment. It can make us look at them at only one-tenth of the person that they are. 

Walter Mischel, a well-known psychologist, says that the human mind has a “reducing value” that helps to create and maintain a constant view of the world.

Another psychologist, Malcolm Gladwell, points out that character is then, not some entirely inborn trait, but rather a consequence of what the environment brings about and how much we control the environment. If you think your friend gives good dinner parties, that’s because he has only always given good dinner parties. Neither he nor you have seen him interact with any other environment.

The sum total of all of this then, is that let’s not jump to conclusion about our friends and our family. That friend who always comes late? It could be because they live in a bad neighbourhood that is not easy to navigate or they struggle with some issues at home. Yes, you may expect them to ‘battle’ the environment, but that is easier said than done.

In a historic study called the Stanford Prison experiment conducted by Philip Zombardo, people were randomly attributed roles of prisoners and jailers. In a few days, the most liberal of people started to act as abusive jailers. Therefore, environment can have a huge effect. This is what makes a riot happen, but this is also what transforms the electricfying energy at a music festival.

Environment decides a lot of our behaviour, and even that which is in-born could be misrepresentated as we look at the world with our one-track vision.

Therefore, take a look at your friend again. He or she is more than the ‘plain and simple engineering grad’ that you give them the credit for. Giving people the freedom to be more than the label that you put on them before, could liven and freshen relationships, reduce fights, and make life a happy, fulfilling discovery of people.