“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”—Desmond Tutu
The stability of your personality peaks in mid-life (then grows increasingly wobbly again)
As we continue to settle into ourselves, you might think that personality would be something that becomes ever more cemented through life. Not so, according to a survey of nearly 4000 New Zealanders aged from 20 to 80 years (including 2409 women). Petar Milojev and Chris Sibley report that the stability of personality increases through youth, peaks in mid-life and then gradually reduces again into old age, presumably in response to the variations in social and biological pressures we experience at the different stages of life.
The researchers asked their participants to complete short personality questionnaires twice, two-years apart. The questionnaires measured the Big Five traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience) and also an honesty-humility factor. The researchers then looked to see how the “rank-order stability” of people’s traits (how their scores ranked compared to other people’s) varied across that two-year gap, and how this stability varied as a function of age.
The participants’ personalities showed “impressive” stability, as you’d expect since personality is meant to be a description of people’s pervasive traits. Extraversion was the most stable trait, and agreeableness the least. However, the key finding was that personality stability varied through the lifespan, increasing from the 20s to the 40s and 50s, and then declining towards old age, up to age 80. This broad pattern was found for all traits, except for agreeableness, which showed gradually reduced stability through life. For conscientiousness, openness to experience, and honesty-humility, trait instability had returned at the oldest age to the levels seen at the youngest age.
For the five traits that showed an inverted U-shape pattern of changing stability through life, Milojev and Sibley found that the specific point of peak stability varied - extraversion and neuroticism showed highest stability in the late 30s, while the other traits (openness, honesty-humility, and conscientiousness) showed peak stability in the late 40s, early 50s. The researchers said these “domain specific” variations in personality stability point to different environmental and social demands influencing different personality traits to varying degrees at slightly different times of life.
"This report further highlights the need to test … the effects of events that might cause the lower stability [of personality] in younger and older adulthood," the researchers said. "In addition our finding of systematically different peaks in stability between different personality dimensions suggest the need to further investigate age-specific changes in environmental and social pressures that are associated with such domain-specific effects."
Today’s brick consisted of a 20 mile speed ride followed by a 5k run which I managed to do at a 6:58 /mi pace. I’m confident enough to say my knee injury is a non-issue now. Afterwards, a friendly guy at the park asked me if I wanted to smoke a joint. I didn’t partake, although I was a bit tempted. Going to pull out my Viridi Anne jacket and Margiela boots for dinner tonight. It’s about damn time it cooled off around here.
At the moment, food is highly prestigious. A vast amount of attention is paid to celebrity chefs, dietary advice, new restaurants and cooking shows. We have, it seems, become collectively obsessed with what we eat.
But the question of what we need from food, other than just physical sustenance, is rarely taken up. The issue sounds a bit weird. And yet food is evidently not just ‘fuel’. It offers help with certain of our psychological needs. It has, if you like, therapeutic potential.
That’s because every kind of food not only has nutritional value (the sort you’ll see on the label), it also carries with it what one might term a psychological value. The value emerges from its character. Every food hints at a personality, an orientation, a way of apprehending the world, who it would be if it was magically turned into a person. You could ascribe to it a gender, an outlook, a spirit, even a political dimension.
Take the lemon. Nutritionally-speaking, it has 29 calories per 100g, 2.8g dietary fibre, 2.5g of sugar and so on. But psychologically-speaking, it has also ‘ingredients’. It is a fruit that ‘speaks’ (quietly but eloquently) of such things as: the south, the sun, the upstanding and the hopeful, the morning and the simple. It suggests calls to action, it wants us to brace ourselves to take on what matters and focus on what we know we have to do. It is against sentimentality: it is brutally honest, but kind. Or take the hazelnut. Again, full of nutritional value, but at the same time a receptacle of such things as: autumnal briskness, maturity, soberness, self-sufficiency and an almost childlike neatness (like a 10-year-old who keeps his drawers tidy…).
Foods contain edible philosophies of life, to which we may be seeking to get close by doing that most direct and understandable of things: eating. We are ingesting physically, but also trying to take into our souls the psychological nutrients we intuit. We want food to bolster certain sides of our natures and compensate for certain weaknesses of spirit. That’s what makes eating more than just fuelling up and restoring the body, it’s also about rebalancing our misshapen souls.
We want the foods we eat to help us become a little more as they are; we want to take on the avocado’s confident serenity, the figs’ ease with sensuality, the scallops dignified privacy, the asparagus’s resolute commitment to individuality. We invest in a steak out of a new commitment to vigour and courage, we turn to honey to lend weight to a desire to be more satisfied with simplicity. We might drink a whole glass of cold milk to put a wall between the present and a sexually dissolute past few days.
Let’s sum up what food does for us at a psychological level:
1. Food rebalances us
All of us are a little unbalanced in some way. We’re too intellectual or too emotional, too masculine or too feminine, too calm or too excitable. The food we love is frequently something that compensates us for a lack: it counterbalances us. When we’re moved by a food, it may be because it contains a concentrated dose of qualities we need more of in our lives. Perhaps it’s full of the serenity we admire, but don’t have enough of (bircher muesli). Perhaps it’s got the tenderness we long for, but that our jobs and relationships are currently lacking (peaches). The food we call ‘tasty’ gives vital clues as to what is missing in our psyches not just our stomachs. It’s in the power of food to help us be more rounded versions of ourselves.
2. Food reconnects us with important but currently elusive parts of ourselves
We are complex, layered beings. Not every part of us that matters is close to the surface at any time. We have too much history and so much going on, we lose sight of it. So one’s more playful side may get buried. Or the capacity to be awestruck and quietly, but deeply, moved by simple things may get neglected (but not destroyed) in the normal demands of daily life.
The intense evocative powers of certain foods makes them powerful conduits for helpful memories and associations. The right food can provide access to neglected psychological regions. It might be that one needs to eat fish and chips brought from a street stand to be linked, internally, to one’s eight-year-old self and to recover some of the freshness and thrill of existence one had at that point. Or we might need a particular kind of ham to take us back to an energy we knew in the South of Spain at the age of 28.
Thanks to food, one can reconnect with crucial – but easily forgotten – epochs of one’s own intimate history.
3. Food can help us to change our lives
Foods are bearers of philosophies (be kinder, remember sweetness, learn courage…).
When we are trying to change our lives (and we should quite often), food can play a role. Certainly we need to surround ourselves with other things, books which pull us in the right directions, friends, work, holiday destinations… But food has something to contribute to this effort at inner reformation as well.
It isn’t simply a case of ‘going on a diet’, as if the only thing one ever needed to change about one’s life was how heavy one was. We might ask food to help us on a mission to lead a less cluttered life, or to connect more with others, or to be more engaged with one’s own country… How we eat backs up ambitions for how we’d like to be.
4. Food can compensate for the decline of religion
One of the benign functions of religion has been to provide ritual; to make us set a date to meet up with important ideas and experiences and – fascinatingly – these religious rituals often centre around foods carefully chosen because they symbolise certain of the virtues the religions want to highlight.
For example, Zen Buddhists were encouraged to remember the value of friendship over a cup of elaborately brewed and very slowly consumed tea. In the early years of Christianity, the faithful would gather to remember the Saviour over that noble yet vulnerable creature, the lamb. The Jews use unleavened bread and bitter horseradish to embed the courage the believers displayed on the flight from Egypt.
The precise things religions want to tell us about how to lead our lives (with the help of food) may not necessarily be compelling at this moment. But the background idea; of using food to encourage you to think and feel in certain ways at certain points, remains highly useful.
We need to find our own equivalents of these religiously-choreographed foods, the tea, lamb or horseradish. That is, we should locate values we find supremely important, and then connect them up with particular foods with which they have most sympathy – and then, lastly, regularly ingest them in a ritual way.
For example, because in the long winters of Northern Europe, Korea and America it is so easy to lose sight of pagan virtues (the sun, the body, expansiveness, freedom, sensuality), an ideal modern secular ritual might call for regular celebrations centred around three foods in particular: the lemon, the papaya, and the olive – each of these guardians of values heavily under threat in downtown Frankfurt or Seoul at 4pm on a February afternoon.
5. Cooking as a route to individuation
In our own lives, it always starts with someone else giving us the food they think we’d like. They often get it wrong. For long periods, we’re eating stuff that doesn’t make us happy, that just keeps us going in the barest way.
Part of becoming an ‘individual’, as opposed to merely existing, is learning how to arrange bits of the outer world around us in sympathy with our own internal worlds. Learning how to cook has a big role to play in this, for it betokens a commitment to aligning what goes in our bodies with our true beliefs and hopes.
No longer are we merely fed by the world, and passively ingest whatever it serves up, we learn to define what we need and ensure we know ourselves how to secure it.
6. Food is an act of communication
Not all of us are very good with words. We want to get ourselves across, but stumble.
We’d like to express gratitude to someone, or show them more complex parts of ourselves. We’d like them to know about our imagination, our dexterity, or our commitment to dignified simplicity.
But what it can be hard to express with words, one can get across via food at the table. Our penne with fresh basil may be an essay on the love we feel for someone, the grilled mushrooms may be a way to say, in the deepest sense, welcome home, the roast chicken may be a plea for greater harmony in the family, the mango sorbet served with squares of black chocolate externalises a vision of utopia. Like music, food is extraordinarily direct. It can say the important things without having to go through the bore of language.
“The greatest battle is not physical, but psychological. The demons telling us to give up when we push ourselves to the limit can never be silenced for good. They must always answered by the quiet the steady dignity that simply refuses to give in. Courage. We all suffer. Keep going.”—
“The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”—Homer, The Iliad
“At 19, I read a sentence that re-terraformed my head: “The level of matter in the universe has been constant since the Big Bang.”
In all the aeons we have lost nothing, we have gained nothing - not a speck, not a grain, not a breath. The universe is simply a sealed, twisting kaleidoscope that has reordered itself a trillion trillion trillion times over.
Each baby, then, is a unique collision - a cocktail, a remix - of all that has come before: made from molecules of Napoleon and stardust and comets and whale tooth; colloidal mercury and Cleopatra’s breath: and with the same darkness that is between the stars between, and inside, our own atoms.
When you know this, you suddenly see the crowded top deck of the bus, in the rain, as a miracle: this collection of people is by way of a starburst constellation. Families are bright, irregular-shaped nebulae. Finding a person you love is like galaxies colliding. We are all peculiar, unrepeatable, perambulating micro-universes - we have never been before and we will never be again. Oh God, the sheer exuberant, unlikely face of our existences. The honour of being alive. They will never be able to make you again. Don’t you dare waste a second of it thinking something better will happen when it ends. Don’t you dare.”—Caitlin Moran
It may not surprise you to learn that healthy, well-fed people in affluent countries are often unhappy and anxious. But it did startle Zbigniew Lipowski when he came to a full realization of this fact. He had emigrated to North America from Dublin, in 1955, and, in the mid-nineteen-sixties, was put in charge of the psychiatry practices at two Montreal hospitals, Royal Victoria and Montreal Neurological. Why, he thought, as he worked there, would so many people living in such good conditions have so much anxiety?
Lipowski was born in Poland and, in 1944, took part in the Warsaw Uprising, a mass revolt against the German Army that left more than two hundred thousand civilians dead. Lipowski, masquerading as a French refugee returning to France, was one of the fortunate few who escaped. “Those two months were the most significant experience of my life,” he would later recall. “The odor of burning flesh was with us day and night. We were bombed and shelled daily, food was very scarce, and water had to be obtained at night from a well some distance away. I was so hungry as to almost hallucinate food.”
North America, however, greeted him with constant abundance and leisure. As he pondered the contrast, Lipowski thought of Buridan’s ass: an apocryphal donkey that finds itself standing between two equally appealing stacks of hay. Unable to decide which to consume, it starves to death. The donkey got its name from Jean Buridan, the nominalist fourteenth-century philosopher and Catholic priest who wrote extensively about free will. Buridan posited that free will could sometimes lead to inaction: an inability to choose due to excess uncertainty and, potentially, excess choice. Buridan’s ass, in turn, became the mascot for that general principle (though no equines of any kind actually appear in Buridan’s writing). For Lipowski, this scenario helped to explain the type of anxiety that he was witnessing around him. He called it an approach-approach conflict: faced with enticing options, you find yourself unable to commit to any of them quickly. And even when you do choose, you remain anxious about the opportunities that you may have lost: maybe that other stack of hay tasted sweeter.
Lipowski summarized his theory in a paper published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, in 1970. “I maintain that it is specifically the overabundance of attractive alternatives, aided and abetted by an affluent and increasingly complex society,” he wrote, “that leads to conflict, frustration, unrelieved appetitive tension, more approach tendencies and more conflict—a veritable vicious cycle.” That cycle, in turn, likely had “far-reaching and probably harmful effects on the mental and physical health of affected individuals.” Lipowski concluded that the overabundance of good scenarios was the main source of the anxiety around him. It was here, in the land of plenty, he wrote, “that the fate of Buridan’s ass haunts us.”
While Lipowski’s work received some immediate wide attention, it soon fell into relative obscurity. Thirty years later, the Columbia University psychologist Sheena Iyengar revived the idea of conflict created by an overabundance of choice—a concept that the Swarthmore University psychologist Barry Schwartz would then popularize and rename as the paradox of choice—though, unlike Lipowski, she focussed largely on the concept of cognitive demands. When shoppers had to choose between jams or chocolates, she found, they were more likely to make a selection when faced with six choices than when presented with twenty-four or thirty. They were also more satisfied with their ultimate selection. Too much choice, Iyengar concluded, would reduce motivation. Why exactly that would be the case, however, remained unexplored. One possibility, she hypothesized in her conclusion, was that an abundance of options may “simultaneously attract and repel choice-makers,” an emotion-based explanation not unlike the one that Lipowski had considered. Still, the potential of an underlying emotional tug-of-war remained more speculation than fact.
Around the time that Iyengar and Schwartz were writing, Amitai Shenhav, now a psychologist at Princeton University, began to examine the literature on anxiety—one of the core emotions that people feel when they’re pulled in two directions. As he read, he realized that the nature of the experiences being studied was generally negative by design. “When people study anxious emotional states, they usually use negative stimuli,” he told me. “Like electric shocks: something that makes you anxious because you want to avoid it.” When experimenters looked at choice, on the other hand, they focussed more on the cognitive demands and the results of decisions, not the experience of anxiety as the choice was being made. So, inspired in part by his reading of Lipowski, Shenhav decided to investigate whether making choices from among appealing options could, in itself, provoke anxiety—and whether that anxiety was caused by the sort of emotional back-and-forth that Lipowski had speculated about. “If you think about it, that’s a much more prevalent scenario, when we have to choose between things we experience simultaneously,” he said. “I’ve had intuitions about this my entire life—from decisions like where to go to grad school to where we’re going to go for dinner tonight.”
In a series of imaging studies, Shenhav and Randy Buckner, a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard, observed students making various choices. One to three days before the actual study began, Shenhav and Buckner had all of the participants evaluate more than three hundred different products, ranging from iPods and digital cameras to water bottles and T-shirts. When the experiment started, participants were put inside an fMRI scanner, shown pictures of the objects, and then asked to indicate which ones they preferred: Would they, for example, like to choose a digital camera or a camcorder? (The participants were told that, at the end of the study, they would randomly receive their object of choice from one of the trials.) Each choice was between either two similarly ranked items—both relatively low-value or both relatively high-value—or two items that were on opposite ends of the spectrum. After they had finished making all of their choices, the participants were asked to rate each decision on a series of five-point scales: How emotionally positive did it make them feel? How anxious did it make them feel? And how certain were they that they had chosen the way they had wanted to? The participants were also offered the surprise opportunity to change their choice: If they had it to do over, would they go the other way?
Unsurprisingly, when people were asked to decide between something like an iPod and a bag of pretzels, they didn’t feel particularly anxious: the choice was clear and life was good. When both choices were low in value, the emotions were similarly clear-cut. No one was particularly happy, but neither were they anxious. But when multiple highly positive options were available—a digital camera and a camcorder, say—anxiety skyrocketed, just as Lipowski had predicted. The choices between those objects that they valued most highly were both the most positive and the most anxiety-filled. The more choices they had—the study was repeated with up to six items per choice—the more anxious they felt. “When you have more good choices, you don’t feel better,” Shenhav says. “You just feel more anxious.”
The neural data that Shenhav and Buckner collected told the same thing. There was a very clear dissociation between the positivity-related and the anxiety-related regions of the brain involved in each choice. In other words, one distinct activation pattern tracked closely with positivity—the value of the good options themselves—while another tracked with the anxiety of making each choice. The activity in the anxiety-related regions, in fact, predicted how likely it was that a person would want to reverse her initial choice. The more difficult the choice was to begin with, the higher the chance of reversal. “It might actually be tracking the conflict after the choice is made,” Shenhav speculates.
Perhaps, then, what we’re really seeing is how the old fear of missing out plays out in the brain. We’re surrounded by great choices to make, great places to be, great things to do—and that’s wonderful. But when we’re made to commit to one, just think of everything that gets away. Shenhav himself refers to it as the “neural correlates of First World problems.” We know that someone else is eating that delicious ice cream that we passed up—or filling that job that we turned down.
Lipowski himself, however, didn’t feel as if the relatively minor scale of the problems that wealthy people face in any way cheapened the emotions felt by his patients. What changes as we move from the scarcity of wartime Warsaw to the abundance of the First World isn’t the nature of the anxiety, it’s just the nature and significance of the choice itself. In one case, it seems heart-wrenching; in the other, trivial. Our brains, though, don’t make those kinds of value judgments: to them, a difficult choice is a difficult choice. And difficult choices mean anxiety.