In thinking about the psychology of change, one possible approach is look at stories of psychological change. Any specific story may be premised on a thrilling but unrealistic process of change. On the other hand, if we find story after story that presents a particular set of circumstances conducive to change, it may signal that the stories are capturing something fundamental about at least one kind of change, or at the very least, they capture something about the way we believe change occurs.
As a psychologist, many of the movies that move me the most are ones wherein there is fundamental character change. Conversely, movies or shows whose protagonist(s) keep making the same mistakes over and over again to be frustrating. When it comes to character change, in movies, there seem to be several common variants.
Protagonist goes to (hick town, home town, foreign country, war, boot camp, school, etc.) — a novel environment and generally one that the protagonist initially misperceives and/or actively dislikes.
Hick town: Heart of Dixie
Home town: Sweet Home Alabama
Foreign country: Under the Tuscan Sun
War: Full Metal Jacket
Boot Camp: Stripes; Private Benjamin
School: Legally Blond; To Sir, with Love
Beauty Pageant: Miss Congeniality
In many cases, a child is key to the psychological change of the adult. Perhaps you recognize some of these examples:
A Christmas Carol.
I am Sam.
The Blind Side
The Magic of Belle Isle
In some cases, the agent of change may be a person with lower status; e.g., a servant as in East of Eden. In other cases, it can even be an animal as in The Call of the Wild. Sometimes, change occurs among multiple characters and from multiple sources as in The Sound of Music. Here, the children help change Maria, help change the Captain while Maria & the Captain also change each other.
In many cases, the “change” is portrayed, not as purely the accretion of new skills, but as the re-emergence of something that was there all along but needed to be elicited. For instance, in The Magic of Belle Isle, Morgan Freeman is already an accomplished writer, but he hasn’t written anything for awhile, finding solace in a bottle instead. In attempting to help a young girl find her voice as a writer, he rediscovers his own. In many cases, as the mentor or teacher tries to teach a younger person, they often get back in touch with their own (earlier) self.
Psychotherapy may be viewed as a kind of teaching as well. In Good Will Hunting, for instance, Robin Williams plays the part of therapist working with a brilliant but emotionally damaged young man played by Matt Damon. The therapist manages to open up the angry young man, but at the same time, the patient opens up the therapist to the possibility of having a relationship again. The patient does this by reflecting back to the therapist the very things the therapist is saying in order to open up the patient.
We see something of a similar kind of process in Akeelah and the Bee. Here, the talented speller, Akeelah gains a tutor in spelling and he teaches her spelling (and many other things as well). But she also re-awakens in her tutor, passionately caring about life.
What do these stories seem to be telling us about change in adults?
- For the adults, the change seems to be a re-awakening of something that is there, but hidden beneath defenses that have been erected to shield from pain.
- The conditions for change occur because the adult teacher, to be effective, has to “open up a deep and honest channel of communication.” Though unintended, once that channel is opened, it is a two-way street. The teacher may well have opened up solely for the benefit of the student, but once open, they benefit as well.
- The channel is not just informational; it is empathic; it is emotional.
- Change is contagious. In Akeelah and the Bee, for instance, it isn’t only Akeelah and her tutor who change. So does Akeelah’s mother; so do some of the other kids in the spelling bee; indeed, Akeelah’s entire neighborhood joins in an effort to teach Akeelah.
- Change is not monotonic. As people begin to change, they almost inevitably “backslide” at some point. Good Will Hunting, for instance, begins a relationship with a woman but then tries to sabotage the relationship because he’s terrified she will end it.
- Effective change agents pay attention to what works for that particular person. Akeelah’s tutor, for example, notices that Akeelah uses rhythm when she’s trying to recall how a word is spelled. He doesn’t try to “talk her out of doing that” or “show her a better way.” Instead, he encourages her and introduces a skipping rope to make the rhythm even more of a “whole body” experience. In The Blind Side, the adoptive mother discovers that Michael Oher (a strong, talented athlete) is fiercely loyal and although his nature is gentle — and perhaps too gentle for the violence of football, by having him think of the ball carrier as someone in his family — someone he needs to protect, Michael becomes an extremely good blocker.
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