Read the Transcript

Jun 24, 2016
Originally published on July 14, 2016 2:54 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

Hey everybody. It's Alix here. Before we get started, I just wanted to tell you about these cool coloring pages that we have for each of our episodes so that you can color as you listen - a little something to do. They are very beautiful, and if you want us to email them to you ahead of time each week so that you can be ready for coloring adventures, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/invisibilianewsletter. The newsletter also has lots of other great stuff you might like, including bonus content and information about our music and links to things that we reference in each episode. You can sign up again at npr.org/invisibilianewsletter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: There are April showers. There are May flowers. And then there's June - wedding season.

LULU MILLER, HOST:

OK - standing outside of the Superior Court in D.C., looking for people who are about to get married.

You didn't just get a marriage license, did you?

SPIEGEL: If you're looking to accost unsuspecting couples who are in the process of uniting themselves in holy matrimony, probably the best time to do it is June in Washington, D.C.

MILLER: You're not here to get a marriage license, are you?

SPIEGEL: Just go downtown to the courthouse, and you see all kinds of doe-eyed, hopeful couples traipsing in and out with these thin, white envelopes that indicate that they have finally done it - committed themselves to one person.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is it. This is a piece of paper that says that we're official. So -

MILLER: Aww.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Certificate of marriage - certified copy.

MILLER: And then it was signed by who? The deputy clerk.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Darrell May (ph).

MILLER: Darrell May.

Now, the reason we were accosting these unsuspecting couples was that we wanted to talk to them about the person they had chosen. Specifically, we wanted to ask them about the other person's personality. How would they describe them?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: She's feisty and outspoken.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Say something nice.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Sensitive.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Aggressive. (Unintelligible).

MILLER: Turned out it wasn't hard at all to get people to talk about personality. Everybody had thoughts about it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: We are very, very quiet, introverted people.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Best thing? I don't know - her kindness, her loyalty, her respect for others. I would have never thought it. I would have never thought it was possible to find a woman with all them qualities in one.

SPIEGEL: These people had searched the world and finally found a person - an entity with a very specific set of characteristics that resided deep within them and made them who they were.

And they were pretty sure that their loved one's essential them-ness - their personality - would endure.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: He is who he is. And I know who he is and vice versa.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I don't think people change too much. I think their attitudes towards things change. But the root of who they are is so firmly entrenched.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: I mean, I trust that he'll still be the same person.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Like I said, the core of him would still be the same.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: If anything, your personality is your core. It's not - that's who you are.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

MILLER: And I'm Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is a show about all of the invisible things that shape human behavior - our thoughts, expectations, beliefs, emotions.

And today, the invisible thing that we are looking at is how you think about your you-ness and their them-ness. Personality is one perfectly legitimate way of doing that. But it's not the only way.

MILLER: Nope. So hold on to your loved ones...

SPIEGEL: ...And to yourself...

MILLER: ...Because things might not be nearly as solid as you think.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: Free at last. Free at last.

MILLER: (Laughter) You didn't just get a marriage license, did you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: I got divorced.

MILLER: Oh, divorce (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: Free at last.

MILLER: Congrats (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: OK, Alix. So you are going to take us from one confining institution to another, right?

SPIEGEL: Yeah. We're going to prison. And to begin this prison story, I want to introduce you to four men - two rapists, a violent felon and a thief.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Back, around, back - circular port de bra - two, three, four, and back.

SPIEGEL: This is a recording of the men, all inmates at the Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio. They're warming up on a stage in the prison chapel because later in the day, they're doing a ballet performance there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: ...Four, five, six, seven - close fifth - back and round to the front - two, four, five...

SPIEGEL: I will watch this performance. And it will be one of the most beautiful, moving things I've ever seen. Two of the men will do a dance - a duet about love and yearning. One of those two will move fluidly. He obviously has had training.

But the body of the other will be stiff, his bulky muscles forcing themselves into graceful positions, as if the man is trying to remake himself from the outside in.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Four, five, six...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Back.

SPIEGEL: But that's all later. All I know now is that I have never seen or even imagined inmates gracefully bending their bodies into warm-up plies.

That idea is inconsistent with the model of inmate that I hold in my mind, which is what this story is all about - inconsistency and consistency and our need to believe in a consistency in ourselves and the people around us - some essential personality that defines who we are throughout our lives - a consistency that may or may not exist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Up two, go down, seven, eight.

MILLER: So to explain, we need to go back.

SPIEGEL: Hi Delia.

DELIA COHEN: Nice to meet you.

SPIEGEL: How are you??

COHEN: I'm great.

SPIEGEL: Wait, wait. I think Nurith has a question.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Maybe you should - should she just truly turn off her cell phone? - ‘cause i find that sometimes...

SPIEGEL: I first learned about the Ohio prison from the two women that you just heard. The last voice, talking about cellphones, is Nurith Aizenman, a reporter here at NPR who helped me report parts of the story.

AIZENMAN: I cover global health and development.

SPIEGEL: The other voice is her friend Delia Cohen.

COHEN: Hello.

SPIEGEL: Nurith has known Delia for a long time.

AIZENMAN: I've known Delia since, I guess, the ‘90s.

SPIEGEL: Which means that Nurith has witnessed firsthand this thing that Delia's been going through and how it's transformed her view of how consistent people are. Nurith first heard about it about two years ago.

AIZENMAN: OK. So I'm at this dinner at my friend Laura's (ph) house. We're all getting together with Delia. I haven't seen her in a really long time. And she tells me this story.

And it starts with - she had been doing some work for the TED organization - of TED Talks. And she hears about this TEDx event that was held in a prison by prisoners. And she's really intrigued.

COHEN: I was immediately intrigued - had never been in a prison, figured there wasn't internet in prison. Who on earth in a prison was - knew about TED and was organizing TEDx events?

AIZENMAN: So she finds out that they're doing another one very soon, and she decides to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPENING GATES)

AIZENMAN: Cut to Delia standing in front of the metal gates of Marion Correctional Institution as they slowly creak open.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COHEN: I was really nervous - didn't know what to do, didn't know what to expect.

AIZENMAN: And she walks through this prison - all the metal bars, all the clanging noises. She turns a corner, and she walks into a chapel.

COHEN: ...Into this sea of men in blue. And I just froze.

AIZENMAN: Standing there, she's only thinking about one thing.

COHEN: What did you do to get you here?

AIZENMAN: What crime did you commit?

COHEN: Couldn't stop thinking, what did you do? What did you do? I was insanely curious.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Which brings us to Dan.

COHEN: Dan was running around - very busy setting up the event.

SPIEGEL: Dan was one of the inmate organizers of the TEDx event at Marion.

COHEN: He's white. He's medium height. He has a hatred tattoo on his neck.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

COHEN: The word hatred is tattooed on his neck. It's kind of hard to miss.

SPIEGEL: But here's the thing. As soon as Delia starts talking to Dan, she totally forgets about the tattoo. Dan's personality just doesn't seem to have anything to do with the word hatred.

COHEN: Completely charming, playful, fast talking, fast thinking, very poetic, creative...

SPIEGEL: It was a puzzle. And then the show began.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) How long will I be here in this hell I've made?

SPIEGEL: The show featured some of the normal talks that you would hear at any TED event - but also poems and skits and songs written by inmates.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) Who are you? Who am I? Who are they? Who's to say?

AIZENMAN: And Delia finds it incredibly touching.

COHEN: I was so excited. It was moving, beyond any of my expectations.

AIZENMAN: So after the event she finds Dan. And she makes a proposal.

COHEN: I said, this seems like it needs to be everywhere. Can you help me do that? Let's figure out how to do this in prisons all across the country. Like, that became the thing right away - that first day.

SPIEGEL: Dan, the other organizers - everybody is thrilled by this idea.

AIZENMAN: So the next day, she returns. And she meets with everyone, including Dan. And they're really talking the details. And by the end of the day, she's flying.

COHEN: Full of enthusiasm for this idea of working with these guys to spread this concept - just incredibly up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: But then, literally as Delia is leaving, something happens that changes everything.

AIZENMAN: Gets in her car - she's with a friend. She starts the car. As they're pulling out of the prison, her friend, without even consulting her, whips out her iPhone and is like, huh, let's look up, you know, these prisoners who you've been talking to, starting with Dan.

COHEN: She just Googled it and started reading out loud - blah blah blah blah blah - and I was so horrified by the things she was reading that I didn't stop her.

Defendant entered the home, closed the door behind him and locked the door.

Basically it was - he was a sexual predator and was - had raped a woman. He had, you know, had her with a knife. And I was absolutely horrified.

AIZENMAN: Rape is the crime Delia fears most. And, like, Delia just cannot get past her feeling that somebody who committed rape, even if it was 15 years ago - there's got to be something inherently evil in them.

COHEN: If you were able to do that, there had to be some, like, permanently rotten part of you. And I thought, I will never be able to do this. I can't work with this person. I can't.

AIZENMAN: And so she goes home to California.

COHEN: And I went into my bedroom (laughter) and turned the lights off.

AIZENMAN: She's just lying there, trying to figure out - how should she think about Dan? You know, like, where did this - where did his crime come from? Does he have this brutal, sadistic personality? Is there something rotten in his core? So she decides to ask him.

COHEN: So this is the email that I sent. Excuse me. (Reading) First of all, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed meeting you and what a fabulous job you did with TEDx. I drove away from Marion brimming with excitement and emotion and possibility. Then it happened. As I was driving, my friend Googled...

DAN: ...Your case history, and I read it aloud. And I hope you don't mind me sharing my reaction with you. I have to admit I was shocked.

SPIEGEL: This, of course, is Dan. In order to speak with him, we agreed not to use his full name. Marion's Office of Victim Services felt it would be less difficult for the victim that way.

Also, we weren't allowed to interview Dan at all about his crime. Still, we wanted to hear Dan's side. So we set up the interview and started by asking about how he responded to Delia's email.

DAN: It kind of blew me away and then kind of didn't, you know?

SPIEGEL: See, Dan is used to people being disgusted by him and his crime.

DAN: I've - I don't want to say inured or immune to it - but I've had a lot of people contact me. I don't know - they see some of my poetry online or they see something about me and they write me.

And then at some point in their bit of knowing me, either I say something to them or they go and look online to find out why I'm in prison. They find out, and they vanish. So I'm kind of used to people having adverse reactions to it.

SPIEGEL: Remember Delia.

COHEN: If you were able to do that, there had to be some, like, permanently rotten part of you.

SPIEGEL: So how should we think about Dan and people like him? Should we, like Delia, see their crimes as emanating from who they are - what happened as a product of their character or personality?

Really, this is a question for all of us. When we tell stories of lives - criminal lives or even successful ones - the legendary businessman, the beloved teacher - usually at the center of the story is a personality, a set of consistent characteristics fundamental to them and the same over the many situations that they pass through that's seen as primarily responsible for whatever happened.

Personality is how people usually explain things. And for a long time, it was how many psychologists explained things too. And then came a man named Walter Mischel, who helped transform the way that psychology thinks about what makes us us.

WALTER MISCHEL: I was considered the devil - killing the field, trying to destroy the very concept of personality.

SPIEGEL: You see, in 1968, Walter Mischel, the man that you just heard, wrote a book that challenged some of the most basic ideas that we have about the role that personality plays in our lives. You probably don't know the book. It has the extremely unsplashy title "Personality And Assessment." But you probably do know something about Walter Mischel because he is the man behind one of America's favorite experiments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: OK, sit in that chair. All right, here's the deal - marshmallow for you.

SPIEGEL: This is a re-enactment we found on YouTube of Mischel's famous marshmallow test. You sit a kid in a room in front of a delicious marshmallow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: It smells yummy.

SPIEGEL: Tell them that you're going to leave the room. And if they can delay their gratification and not eat the marshmallow until you come back, they'll get two marshmallows instead of one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: Stay in here and stay in the chair until I come back, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: All right.

SPIEGEL: A small test seen as having huge implications.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: The kids who successfully delay gratification at this age do much better later in life.

SPIEGEL: This is from a CBS report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: They make more money. They are happier. They have better relationships, and they're less likely to get into trouble.

SPIEGEL: Basically, over the last two decades, the marshmallow test has become a kind of poster child for the idea that there are specific personality traits that we all have inside of us that are stable and consistent and will determine our lives far into the future.

There is only one tiny problem with this interpretation, as Walter Mischel himself will tell you.

MISCHEL: That iconic story is upside down wrong - that your future is in a marshmallow - because it isn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: So I promise that later, I will explain exactly what is wrong with how the marshmallow test is usually portrayed. But to get the full force of how ironic it is that Mischel's marshmallow test has taken on the cultural meaning that it has, you really have to go back to 1961, when Mischel was a professor at Harvard University and got assigned to teach a course on personality.

MISCHEL: So realizing I had to teach this stuff, I decided to look at the literature. And I found myself enormously puzzled.

SPIEGEL: See, Mischel, like pretty much every psychologist at the time, had a bunch of basic assumptions about personality. The first was that people did have different personalities and that those different personalities could be defined by looking at their traits - traits like you heard at the beginning of the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: ...Quiet, introverted...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...Outspoken.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Aggressive.

SPIEGEL: There are all kinds of traits.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #10: Sensitive.

SPIEGEL: And at the time, personality researchers liked to argue over which were most important. But the thing they almost never argued about was the other major assumption of the field of the time, which is that whatever traits you had were stable over time and consistent across different situations.

MISCHEL: For example, a friendly person is someone who should be friendly over time. So if he's friendly at 20, he should be friendly at 25. And if he's friendly, he should be essentially friendly across most situations in which friendliness is a reasonable and accepted way - possible way of being.

SPIEGEL: So an honest person is an honest person and a dishonest person is a dishonest person?

MISCHEL: Exactly. And a criminal is a criminal across many situations and will remain that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Which is why Walter Mischel was so puzzled when he sat down to do his literature review.

MISCHEL: All the studies that I were reading - when they were looking for the consistency across situations - weren't finding it.

SPIEGEL: Consider, for example, this enormous study done on honesty in children. The researchers, Hartshorne and May, had put thousands of kids in experimental situations in a wide variety of settings - had actually given the children opportunities to cheat or lie at school, at home.

MISCHEL: And it came out with results that were shocking at the time, which is that the same child who cheats, for example, in the arithmetic class could be a fantastic student - no cheating and so on - in another class. They were not consistently anything. They were inconsistent in their honesty. And that was the shocking result, essentially, of the Hartshorne and May study, which essentially got buried.

SPIEGEL: A pattern Mischel found in other studies too. Whenever personality research found inconsistency, it was dismissed.

MISCHEL: Maybe our measures weren't right. And what I began to wonder about as I was reviewing this vast literature was maybe our assumptions aren't right. Maybe we're not thinking right about who we are and what we can be.

SPIEGEL: And so Walter Mischel wrote his book - 365 pages of tables and charts which argued that one of our most basic beliefs about personality, that our personalities are consistent, made up of traits that determine our behavior no matter where we go or what we do, that idea, might just be a mirage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: So Nurith?

AIZENMAN: Yes...

SPIEGEL: Did Delia tell you how Dan responded to the email she wrote to him?

AIZENMAN: Yeah. So after Delia sends the email, she gets an email back from Dan saying OK. He is willing to talk to her about his crime. But the conversation doesn't really go very well.

COHEN: It was an incredibly awkward conversation from the whole way around. Basically, he said he was a horrible, horrible person.

AIZENMAN: He's acknowledging, like, general badness. I mean, it's - but he's not, like, he's not really giving her specifics.

COHEN: No, not in a good way, not in a way that I found satisfying.

SPIEGEL: And after wrangling with him for almost an hour, Delia didn't feel any closer to having an answer to the questions that she felt like she needed to answer. Was there something in Dan's personality that caused his crime? And did that thing still exist?

So we brought these questions to Dan.

How would you describe your personality?

DAN: Wow. I don't know. It's a good question.

SPIEGEL: When we talked, Dan, like Walter Mischel, seemed very wary of the way personality is portrayed as static. And he wasn't really comfortable describing himself as only one thing.

DAN: 'Cause, like, personality is kind of, like ephemeral, right?

SPIEGEL: It was only when you asked about particular moments in his life - like when he committed his crime - that Dan had a clear answer about who he was.

DAN: I was kind of a - I was a real live piece of [expletive] at one point in my life. I mean, that's the term I use. I say, you know, my grandfather would've called me a no-good mother-[expletive]. And I would have said a real live piece of [expletive].

SPIEGEL: But according to Dan, that personality that he had at the time of his crime has truly ceased to exist. He says it happened about six years after he went to prison.

DAN: I was at a closed-security institution. One of my - my best friend at the time, the guy I spent more time with than anybody, someone that I professed to love, treated as family - did something really stupid, had for some reason stolen something from another inmate's cell. And because of that, the guys who found out it was him wanted to do something to him. And in order to stop that because he was a sheltered kid, got locked up when he was a teenager, I went and took care of it for him.

SPIEGEL: Dan threatened to beat the men if they touched his friend. Dan's a big guy and had a reputation for being violent, so they listened.

DAN: And then I went back to him and I taught him a lesson that hurt me more than it hurt him.

SPIEGEL: Oh, you mean you physically hurt him?

DAN: Yeah. I mean, like, I remember while I was doing it he was asking me to stop. And I was like, how could you be so stupid? I'm going to beat the stupid out of you. This hurts me more than it hurts you. This is an easy lesson you're learning the hard way. These are the same terms that the male role models in my life used on me when they were teaching me lessons. And I remember looking in the mirror and looking down at him and like, whoa, what am I doing? This is someone I say I love. This is someone I care about. This is someone I say I treat like family. And this is how you treat family? And that was the last time I physically hurt a human being, yeah.

SPIEGEL: Like, you just decided I'm not going to be that person anymore?

DAN: Yeah, I stepped away from it. And I stepped away from a lot of people because of it. Yeah.

SPIEGEL: You mean - what do you mean - a lot of people in prison?

DAN: Yeah. I ran with a gang, if you want to call it that, and spent a lot of time with dudes, did a lot of time with - with a family. You know, like, they call it a gang. But you guys will get together every day. You guys spend hours learning about each other, working out together, playing cards together, basketball, whatever and then you belong. And I walked away from that to isolate myself to stay away from the physical violence, yeah.

SPIEGEL: So you tried to change your situation so that you could change who you were?

DAN: Yeah. I just...

SPIEGEL: And was that hard?

DAN: It was almost impossible. It was easier to be a no good mother-[expletive] than it was to be alone. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Dan says it took him about two years to reconfigure his personality, in terms of traits like aggression and conscientiousness and impulsivity. But he says he did it. In fact, Dan believes he has changed so thoroughly...

DAN: I've come to terms that I'm kind of in prison now for someone else's crime

SPIEGEL: Dan says the rapist inside him is long gone. But he knows it will be hard for other people to see that.

DAN: I'm forever going to be a criminal, which I'm not. I've come a completely different human being at this point, at a cellular level let alone a personality level or a, you know, a mental level.

SPIEGEL: This statement probably makes you uncomfortable. The words, I'm changed, are easy to say but hard to believe. You hear them so often from prisoners, which was the problem that Delia faced when after wrangling with Dan for an hour on the telephone she finally hung up, frustrated and disappointed. But then Delia had a realization.

COHEN: I realized that I couldn't get a quick sound bite and understand how, why, he raped someone. It was going to take me a while. I'd have to get to know him and ask a lot of questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: When we come back, Delia tries to find her way to an answer about whether or not Dan has changed.

SPIEGEL: And we also hear from psychologists who have new ways of thinking about what makes you, you.

MILLER: Like, not your personality?

SPIEGEL: Not your personality - other things.

MILLER: What are the things?

SPIEGEL: There are many things. They're - you have to wait.

MILLER: No, I know but...

SPIEGEL: You know you have to wait.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: Fine.

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA returns in a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Hey, we've got another NPR podcast we think you might like, NPR's Politics Podcast. It's where NPR's political reporters talk to you like they talk to each other with weekly roundups, short takes on the news and reporting from the campaign trail. You don't have to keep up with politics to know what's going on. You just have to keep up with them. Listen and subscribe to the NPR Politics Podcast on the NPR One app and at npr.org/podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MILLER: So how would you describe my personality, my Lulu-ness (ph)? You can be honest. You don't have to be nice.

SPIEGEL: I mean, like, there's - you know, it's an interesting combination of, like, genuine lightness and genuine darkness, like lovely and nice.

MILLER: But with a - with like a depressed chocolate center?

SPIEGEL: (Laughter) Yeah, it's true. OK, so this is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

MILLER: And I am Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: And we're talking today about personality, the qualities that we think of as consistent and make us, us.

MILLER: But you just told us about this research that shows our personalities are way less consistent than we think.

SPIEGEL: Yeah. So the question is, why does they seem so consistent? Why does my mom always seem to act exactly like my mom?

LEE ROSS: Well, you're actually asking a question that turns out to be pretty deep.

SPIEGEL: This is Lee Ross, a famous Stanford psychologist who read Walter Mischel's book about personality in the 1960s and immediately understood the profound puzzle that it presented.

ROSS: Why do we believe there's so much consistency? Why do we so much believe in personality and use the idea of personality to explain behavior if, in fact, there isn't very much consistency?

SPIEGEL: Psychologists came up with all kinds of theories. Some argued that consistency is an illusion. We simply don't see behaviors that don't conform to our notion of a person's personality. But Ross had a different idea.

ROSS: What I said is, oh, they are seeing real consistency, but they're getting the reason for it wrong. We see consistency in everyday life because of the power of the situation.

SPIEGEL: See Ross believes the real thing that determines your behavior isn't the stuff sitting inside of you - your personality - it's all the stuff around you - your situation. Take for example, this situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Now what I'm going to do is strap down your arms to avoid any excessive movement on your part during the experiment.

SPIEGEL: This is a recording of the infamous obedience study done by Stanley Milgram. You've probably heard of it. It's the study where nice everyday people administered what they thought were real electrical shocks to completely innocent strangers because they were put in a situation which required them to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This one will be 195 volts.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Screaming) Let me out of here. Let me out of here.

SPIEGEL: The Milgram experiment was actually one of a bunch of studies done in the '60s and '70s, which all had a similar theme. The idea was that by manipulating situations you can change what people do for good or for ill because situations determine how we behave, not character.

ROSS: That's true.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This will be 345.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Screaming) Ow, ow.

SPIEGEL: Which brings us back to this question of consistency and why the personalities of the people around us often seem so consistent. The theory proposed by Lee Ross was that we see consistency not because of this thing inside people - their personality - but because people are usually embedded in stable situations.

ROSS: Because the circumstances that are influencing their behavior remain consistent.

SPIEGEL: That is, we exist inside jobs and families that hold us in place. Sometimes the specific dynamics of those jobs and families ask us to be the same kind of person at work and at home - pastor at work - kind father at home. Sometimes the dynamics at work and home ask us to be different - gangster at work - kind father at home. The point is that ultimately it's the situation - not the person - that determines things.

ROSS: People are predictable, but they're predictable because we see them in situations where their behavior is constrained by that situation and by the roles they're occupying and the relationship they have with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Huh, but even though the power of situations was big scientific news for a while, Ross says the studies never changed how people actually thought.

ROSS: Oh, no, certainly not. I don't think - I don't think it changed. I don't even think it changes very much for most psychologists. It's a very, very powerful bias - this tendency, at least in our culture, to keep feeling that ultimately people's behavior is a reflection of who they are.

SPIEGEL: And it's no wonder, as Walter Mischel told me, that we're drawn to this idea that personality is important and stable. It makes us feel better.

MISCHEL: I mean, how can you marry anybody unless you believe that they're essentially going to be like you've got them pictured now. We like to feel that we're living in a stable world. It's - I think the more we learn about the universe, the more we learn about its instability. The more we learn about any science, the more we learn about its endless complexity. When it comes to human beings we really don't have tolerance for realizing that there is an enormous amount of complexity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Really - if you think about it - discomfort with instability was a big part of the reason why Delia was struggling with Dan. Delia believed in a core consistency. Like most of us, she'd observed that consistency in the people around her all her life. But there was Dan, saying he was different, and the only way to really know was to interact with him. So Delia went forward, tentatively, with her plan to work with Dan to build TEDx in prisons.

COHEN: May 25, 9:37 pm.

AIZENMAN: So Delia and Dan start exchanging emails.

COHEN: (Reading) Delia, I have written and deleted like four different greetings because they were A, too familiar, two, (laughter) too business-y (ph) or three, just plain lame. So hi.

AIZENMAN: And, you know, it's mostly about TEDx stuff, but there's some personal stuff in there too. Like, he sent her this poem called "I Want To Be."

COHEN: (Reading) I'm still a puzzle to myself, a collection of so many colliding and colluding passions that I have been accused of not only of revisionist history but of revisionist destiny, too.

SPIEGEL: In the poem, you can feel Dan himself struggling with this question of who is he really - what his essential personality is and where it exists. He twists and turns trying to pin it down - make it stay in one place.

COHEN: (Reading) The real me - the essential me - it's in the ink found on the pages of those notebooks you see stacked everywhere I go. I'm in the scribbles, scrawls, you see in the margins that scream out read me please. Like the silence between the notes, I exist in the space between the words.

SPIEGEL: Delia and Dan interacted for months and the man who showed up in emails, during the visits Delia made to Marion for TEDx, was not a monster.

COHEN: He's funny and self-deprecating and I just - I was very surprised (laughter). I liked him a lot. I liked him a lot.

AIZENMAN: I think it was such a strange feeling for her. She'd find herself sometimes thinking - I like a rapist.

SPIEGEL: But then Delia would catch herself and the struggle would begin again. She couldn't quite let go of this idea that the person who committed the rape might still be lurking. Which brings us to the warden of Marion, Jason Bunting.

Can you describe Dan's personality?

JASON BUNTING: Oh, my gosh - articulate, humorous, kind, passionate.

SPIEGEL: Jason Bunting has worked at Marion his entire professional career - around 20 years - which is to say that he has had a lot of experience with prisoners but also a lot of experience talking to people on the outside about the men behind his prison walls. And he says that people are always coming up to him and saying things that make clear that they believe a criminal is a criminal always.

BUNTING: The community thinks about people that are incarcerated as criminal, an inmate will always be manipulative, an inmate will always be mean and angry and those things never change.

SPIEGEL: In fact, he says this belief is so ingrained that it appears in our language without us even realizing it. Then he points out my own first question to him after we met this guy who used to be incarcerated at Marion but was now a free man who had just come to Jason's office to see him

BUNTING: What was your first question to me - what did he do? That's your first response - formerly incarcerated - you're - you did it. What did he do? Who cares what he did? Who cares?

SPIEGEL: That question itself, Jason said, assumes on a basic level that the man is who he was - not who is he today. And that makes Jason bristle because Jason believes that people are genuinely capable of change, which doesn't mean that Jason has never been burned by that belief. He's been burned badly. Just this year, a former prisoner - a rapist who had transformed himself into such a model prisoner that after he was released from Marion, Jason actually went out of his way to hire the man back to do rehabilitation work with the other prisoners - that man betrayed Jason terribly. The guy who Jason considered a friend was arrested for running drugs in the prison. And that wasn't the first time Jason was disappointed. But when he looks over the course of his experience, he still holds that belief. Then he told me about this other guy who used to be at Marion.

BUNTING: A man who was incarcerated for 20 years - my age - is - has what you would consider and the public would consider a hideous crime - a sex offense that he committed when he was 18. It was hideous.

SPIEGEL: Jason says he knew the man for years in prison. And now he's known the man for years out of prison - the man's been free for about seven - and Jason has watched him become a profoundly different person.

BUNTING: Has a beautiful young daughter, a beautiful wife, a home, stable job. He's a changed man.

SPIEGEL: So is Jason naive? Not according to Walter Mischel.

MISCHEL: Maybe we're not thinking right about who we are and what we can be.

SPIEGEL: That's Mischel again, who told me that to truly understand how people change, you actually have to consider a third way of looking at all of this and think about the role played by the brain.

MISCHEL: The source is this thing up here that's called your mind and your brain.

SPIEGEL: And stay with me here for a second because what Mischel does, I think, gives a broader view that shows how personality and situation all fit together. So to explain it to me, Mischel drew a small diagram on the blackboard behind his desk.

MISCHEL: I'm going to go to a board.

SPIEGEL: Yeah, OK, can I come with you?

MISCHEL: Yeah, of course.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Which brings us back, finally, to the marshmallow test.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #11: Here's the deal - marshmallow for you - you can either wait…

SPIEGEL: Literally the point of the original marshmallow study was to demonstrate how flexible people are, how easily changed, if they simply re-interpret the way that they frame the situation around them - for example, the situation of being exposed to a delicious, tempting marshmallow.

MISCHEL: The same little girl who can't wait for even a half minute for two little Oreo cookies - if she tries it and I tell her ahead of time you can make believe that they're not really there, it's just a picture in your head, the same child waits 15 minutes. It's a very small change that's been made in how the child is representing the object. Is it real, or is it a picture? And by changing the representation, you dramatically change her behavior on a measure as serious as the marshmallow test.

SPIEGEL: The vast majority of the kids that Mischel studied were able to delay gratification after they reframed their interpretation of the situation in front of them,

though, of course, that's not the moral that our culture drew.

MISCHEL: It's your destiny. Your future is in a marshmallow, and it's far from your destiny.

SPIEGEL: Which brings us back, for the final time, to Delia and Dan. Now, to be clear, there are people whose horrible crimes really do emanate from their personalities - psychopaths.

But after interacting with Dan for more than a year, Delia felt sure that he wasn't a psychopath. And a funny thing happened to her on the way to figuring out whether or not something rotten remained in Dan. Delia decided to just reject the entire frame that she'd used to think about people when she walked into prison.

COHEN: There are no bad people out there, and there are no good people. Like, everybody is a - such a mix of both. And they can, you know, be dominant at different times. But all these people that I've met that have done really horrible things are not horrible people.

SPIEGEL: How certain are you of that?

COHEN: Positive, absolutely positive.

SPIEGEL: Delia continues to work in prisons to spread TEDx, but she says she no longer even thinks about people's crimes.

COHEN: Now I don't want to know, and I'm not even curious anymore about what they did. That's not - I'm more curious about who are they now.

SPIEGEL: Like, I mean, is it like you honestly don't want to know or you just have no interest because it doesn't seem relevant to you?

COHEN: It isn't relevant.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in Italian).

SPIEGEL: Two years after she first set foot in Marion, Delia went back to see another TEDx event, also organized by Dan, and stood in the back talking as one of the inmates warmed up for his vocal performance.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: (Singing in Italian).

SPIEGEL: Dan was there, running around, trying to get things ready.

DAN: We're doing the green room over there. They're worried about mics. You're going to make sure the guys are ready, or am I going to do that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I will do that.

DAN: OK.

SPIEGEL: And then everyone went to their seats, and the show began. There was a speech about the power of music by an inmate who'd shot somebody. Dan had one of his poems read. And then came the ballet performance. And two of the dancers that I'd seen warming up when I first walked in the door, they danced to this song - "Still Love" by the band Great Caesar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL LOVE")

GREAT CAESAR: (Singing) Show me your wounds, and I'll wrap your bandages. If...

SPIEGEL: In a room filled with people, the men embraced and then ran apart and then embraced again. Over and over, they twisted themselves around each other's bodies, one body fluid, the other stiff but trying to move differently from how he'd been taught.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL LOVE")

GREAT CAESAR: Let go of fear. Trust in me, dear...

SPIEGEL: At the end, the crowd erupted - a whole room of people on their feet, screaming and clapping, each of them amazed at the profound inconsistency that they'd been lucky enough to see dance in front of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STILL LOVE")

GREAT CAESAR: The days, of all my years, this...

MILLER: INVISIBILIA will return in a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

MILLER: And I'm Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: And we are talking about personality. Is it or is it not consistent over a lifetime?

MILLER: And, Alix, can I tell you why I, personally, am a little hesitant to let go of the idea of a consistent personality?

SPIEGEL: Mhmm.

MILLER: Well, think about all of the people at the beginning of the show who are about to get married.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Best thing - I don't know, her kindness, her loyalty, her respect for others.

MILLER: If you take away personality, then what do you have? Like, what can you actually hold onto in a person you love?

SPIEGEL: I don't know.

MILLER: I don't know either, and that fills me with terror. So before we disappear for the hour, I want to go to a scientist to see if we can build an inventory of what actually remains throughout a lifetime.

And so that's kind of what I want to do with you, if you - if you are game.

DAVID EAGLEMAN: Sure, I'm game.

MILLER: This is scientist David Eagleman.

EAGLEMAN: I'm a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine. And I do a lot of thinking about this issue of what remains in terms of our memory, in terms of our biology.

MILLER: And he said let's begin the inventory with the body.

EAGLEMAN: You know, the cells in your body are turning over quite often. So your red blood cells only last 120 days. Your hair gets turned over every few years. Your skin cells only last two or three weeks. The colon and the stomach - it's only four or five days before all those cells get replaced. Now, neurons, the cells in your brain, those don't die and get replaced.

MILLER: OK.

EAGLEMAN: But the atoms that make them up are constantly turning over. So when you look at your friends and loved ones, atomically, they've completely turned over from when you last saw them, let's say, five years ago.

MILLER: OK, so scratch off cells, scratch off atoms. Let's move on to memories.

EAGLEMAN: Memories can drift around a little bit. When you have some very emotionally salient event...

MILLER: Like a car crash or any kind of trauma...

EAGLEMAN: Those memories are unerasable (ph). They are laid down on essentially what's a secondary memory system.

MILLER: But before you get perversely excited about that, like I did...

EAGLEMAN: These flashbulb memories are no more reliable than other types of daily memories.

MILLER: Because, according to Eagleman, each time we think about them, we corrupt them - fictionalize them, meaning even trauma memories...

EAGLEMAN: Eventually fade.

MILLER: OK. So you aren't totally helping with my fear, I have to tell you because - so now we've got, like, body doesn't stay constant, memories don't stay constant.

It went like this, for over an hour. He crossed off everything else I could think of - the rate of your heart beat...

EAGLEMAN: The architecture of your brain.

MILLER: Even your DNA, he says, changes over the course of a lifetime.

EAGLEMAN: We have all these things that make us feel as though we have a consistent identity through our life and, in fact, you are not staying the same. You're changing all the time.

MILLER: Scientifically speaking, there is nothing he can point to that actually stays fixed throughout a lifetime.

EAGLEMAN: We have this illusion of continuity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AVIVA: (Crying).

MILLER: But it just so happened that four days before this interview, David and his wife had had a baby.

EAGLEMAN: This is a little girl who's now just a few days old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EAGLEMAN: Hi, little Aviva. Hi, baby.

MILLER: And though he's excited to watch his daughter grow and change, David says there is now a part of him that wants to believe in the illusion...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EAGLEMAN: Hi, baby.

MILLER: ...That perhaps there's some tiny part of her that will remain constant.

EAGLEMAN: All the way down in the foundations, in ways that are probably ineffable, ways that you could never put your finger on and the most advanced neuroscience could never know the details of - every once in a while, we can find pieces of evidence that point to that. So I'll give you an example of this...

MILLER: So he told me about this study he had recently done on synesthesia - you know, where people see colors associated with different letters. And in that study, he found that there was no pattern to which color gets associated to which letter.

EAGLEMAN: Everybody's alphabet looks random except...

MILLER: Except for this one group. In people born throughout the '70s, there was this strange similarity. A huge portion of them saw...

EAGLEMAN: The same pattern of colors to their alphabet.

MILLER: OK.

EAGLEMAN: So A is red and B is orange and C is yellow and D is green and E is blue and F is purple.

MILLER: And that stays - it's just suddenly this, like, this law.

EAGLEMAN: Exactly.

MILLER: OK.

EAGLEMAN: And it turns out that this pattern is the colors of the Fisher-Price alphabet magnets that were introduced in the early '70s and became very popular all through the '70s. And then the popularity of these magnets drifted off by about the '80s. So here's the thing, when we think about what lasts, their whole lives these synesthetes felt that - yeah, that A was red and B is orange and C is yellow and so on - their whole lives that happens, even though they don't know where that came from.

There was something about what they were exposed to at the age of, let's say, 2 or 3 that lasted - that made an imprint on them, without them having any insight into it.

MILLER: And to David, these Fisher-Price letters are a kind of proof that there are things that remain in pristine form throughout a lifetime. This precious subset of memories that happen so early you can't recall them, and thus can't corrupt them that stay with you...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EAGLEMAN: Hi, baby.

MILLER: ...Always.

EAGLEMAN: You know, these things are hard to prove, but I'm just speaking from my neuroscientist's intuition on it.

MILLER: Intuitions we cannot prove are acts of faith. In David's case, a faith that even as her skin cells shed and her atoms turn over and the circuitry of her brain is constantly rewiring itself, this little girl will always stay his little girl...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EAGLEMAN: Yeah, there you go.

MILLER: ...Or so parents everywhere...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AVIVA: (Crying).

MILLER: ...Would like to think.

SPIEGEL: And that's the show?

MILLER: Indeed.

SPIEGEL: Dance party.

MILLER: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FOUND A NEW BABY")

EIGHT DICE CLOTH: (Singing) I found his baby. I found his gal. My fast feet baby has got me wrong (ph).

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Alix Spiegel.

MILLER: And me, Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: With Hanna Rosin.

MILLER: Our senior editor is...

SPIEGEL: Anne Gudenkauf.

MILLER: Our executive producer is Jeff Rogers.

SPIEGEL: INVISIBILIA is produced by Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle.

MILLER: With help from Linda Nyakundi, Liana Simons, Meghan Keane, Brent Baughman, Mathilde Piard, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Mickey Capper, Andy Huether, Maya Dukmasova, Kira Hennahan (ph) and our vice president of programming, Anya Grundmann.

SPIEGEL: Special thanks to David Eagleman, he has a new show out on PBS and a book called "The Brain." Also thanks to Walter Mischel, his book is "The Marshmallow Test." And thanks to the awesome band, Eight Dice Cloth for giving us permission to use the song that you are hearing right now, "I Found A New Baby."

MILLER: And for non-zen a moment with our co-host Hanna Rosin who you didn't hear from this hour but will be back after next week. She's been busy perfecting her radio delivery.

HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

Ahhhhh... I'm trying so hard, this is really hard. OK.

MILLER: Join us next week for more Invisibilia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.