Personality Shift

Messaging alters the listener’s personality with an express purpose


I took a late-August hiatus from it all. And plot twist – I met new people in person for once.

A guy who’d hitchhiked from Krakow to Ghana, in honor of Kapuściński. He defined travel journalism. A woman working Portuguese leather in the traditional way, deeply understanding why Italian luxury brands outsource to Portugal. She defined craft leatherworking. A man two years into owning his own eco-construction business in Andalucia. He defined eco-construction.

So the common throughline of my summer acquaintances was new, personal definitions.

That and stories.


A study published in the 2012 edition of the Scientific Study of Literature exposed participants to stories in literature, including Why Do We Love by Bergson, and East and West by Tagore.

And the outcome was an immediate change in the “Big 5 personality traits”, with participants assessed before and after.

1. Extraversion
2. Openness
3. Neuroticism
4. Agreeableness
5. Conscientiousness

Which of these traits changed the most, I wonder? I guess depends on the story. Zorba the Greek might make you more extraverted, The General of the Dead Army, more introspective.

How is it possible that a personality might change so rapidly?

Because we have unimaginable plasticity, a fact we overlook and take for granted. 99.999% of humans can learn perfect pitch (regardless of DNA), as proven in studies discussed at length in Ericcson’s Peak. Drop a bucket of potatoes on a rusty washing machine? Any of us can tell, with training, whether the resulting clang-thud sound is in middle C or down an octave in G minor.

So of course, powerful stories shape our minds. As do the messages that come with them.

These hit in different ways.

Take this short tragedy from Tagore, the poet and author from Bengal who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913:

When I was young a stranger from Europe came to Bengal. He chose his lodging among the people of the country, shared with them their frugal diet, and freely offered them his service. He found employment in the houses of the rich, teaching them French and German, and the money thus earned he spent to help poor students in buying books. This meant for him hours of walking in the mid-day heat of a tropical summer; for, intent upon exercising the utmost economy, he refused to hire conveyances. He was pitiless in his exaction from himself of his resources, in money, time, and strength, to the point of privation; and all this for the sake of a people who were obscure, to whom he was not born, yet whom he dearly loved. He did not come to us with a professional mission of teaching sectarian creeds; he had not in his nature the least trace of that self-sufficiency of goodness, which humiliates by gifts the victims of its insolent benevolence. Though he did not know our language, he took every occasion to frequent our meetings and ceremonies; yet he was always afraid of intrusion, and tenderly anxious lest he might offend us by his ignorance of our customs. At last, under the continual strain of work in an alien climate and surroundings, his health broke down. He died, and was cremated at our burning-ground, according to his express desire.

I’m guessing that when those study participants read this, there was a shift in the fifth Big 5 personality trait: conscientiousness.

Tagore didn’t want to make that happen. It happened as a byproduct of his primary purpose: to describe reality as accurately and artfully as possible.

He followed this short vignette with a message:

We all have a realm, a private paradise, in our mind, where dwell deathless memories of persons who brought some divine light to our life’s experience, who may not be known to others, and whose names have no place in the pages of history.

At this point, the offer is to reflect on who these persons are in your life.


The point is that crafting messaging (or propaganda) is not a joke or a gimmick. It’s not wordplay. It is the alteration of someone’s personality, if only for a short time, so they become more receptive to whatever is on offer