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Can People Change? Conflict Lessons from Implicit Personality Theory Research

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

What insights can peoples’ implicit theories of personality provide toward our understanding of conflict resolution processes? More specifically, how do our fundamental beliefs regarding whether personality change is possible influence the tactics that we choose to pursue following interpersonal conflicts? A set of studies by Kammrath and Dweck (2006) addresses these questions by examining the preferred conflict resolution strategies of entity theorists and incremental theorists.

In general, entity theorists believe that personality is stable and fixed while incremental theorists believe that personality is dynamic and can change over time. In Study 1, researchers recruited participants in committed dating relationships to vividly recall a recent conflict episode when something their partner did really upset them. They also completed a questionnaire developed to measure basic entity (e.g. Everyone is a certain kind of person, and there is not much they can do to really change that) and incremental (e.g. All people can change their most basic qualities) personality beliefs. Overall, results revealed that incremental theorists were more likely than entity theorists to pursue strategies that voiced their concerns over their partners’ transgressions. In other words, entity theorists were less likely to express their dissatisfaction with the conflict by confronting their partners openly. In Study 2, researchers corroborated these findings with a diary study of daily conflict interactions. Findings demonstrated that the more upset incremental theorists were over a conflict, the more likely they were to voice their displeasure. By contrast, more negativity experienced by entity theorists was associated with a decrease in expressing their displeasure.

These studies suggest that incremental theorists may be more motivated to voice their conflict concerns in part because of their inherent beliefs that personalities can change. On the other hand, entity theorists may deem such attempts futile—i.e. why bother voicing concerns when people are stuck in their ways? Interestingly, when it comes to implicit notions of personality, it might not be whether someone will change, but whether or not s/he can, that predicts how (and how constructively) an individual responds to conflict.


Christine Webb

Christine Webb is a doctoral student in Psychology at Columbia University. Broadly, her research interests include reconciliation, individual differences, evolution, and motivation. She received her B.A. in Psychology from Emory University, where she studied the social behavior of brown capuchin monkeys for two years. The following year, she worked as… MORE >

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