Can a tiger change his stripes?

Tiger at Australia Zoo.
Tiger at Australia Zoo.

…Or a leopard her spots? How about the zebra? Or possibly a giraffe?

I’ve seen this question a lot recently, and it started me pondering, as I often ponder. The question is usually rhetorical and refers to the fact that people do not change their intrinsic character, any more than any of the wild creatures aforementioned could change their coloring and markings as dictated by their genetics and evolutionary path over time. There are just certain things that we expect cannot be changed, and that question is generally meant to trigger our thoughts towards an individual and their past behaviors. What that question says to the person listening or reading is that the subject in question acted or embodied certain traits in the past and that they will continue to carry those markings for the rest of their natural life.

But is it true? This is what I’ve been thinking about since the last time I saw this question posed in a pithy internet commentary upon a particular public figure of the current events. Do events of the past always dictate the same actions in the future? Or more pointedly, can a person ever truly change?

By the assumption of the question, that answer would be decidedly, No. To a certain extent, I can actually go along with this. As a professional in the mental health community, we are always taught that the best predictor of current and future behavior is past behavior. This is one of the tenants of risk assessment. It is a bylaw of behavioral science. It tells us that a person who chose violence as their solution to any life problem will likely fall back on the same solution when presented with a problem in future. That tells us that an individual is more likely to choose the same coping mechanism for each negative experience (regardless of the adaptive or maladaptive nature of that coping mechanism).

For risk assessment, it is tried and true. It is a good way to make sure no one overlooks a potential for harm to self or others. On the other hand, for other predictive reliability, it does a disservice to any person who wants to change their circumstances. By its very nature, the assumption says that no creature can ever change. That goes against the whole idea of growth. It says that no human being can ever adapt, learn, or express themselves in new ways.

As a therapist… and a person who has made some significant efforts in my own growth… I’m calling bullshit. And I’m not even going to apologize for the language.

Not only that, but for those of a spiritual nature, and the church… that is a serious bummer. That means that no one can truly repent. I’m not going to get into that whole predestination argument again. That is just 1) not really my thing, and 2) will take way longer than I had intended in this post. However, I will say one thing about it. To truly repent (by certain definitions) the admonishment is to Go and sin no more. If the tiger cannot change its stripes, that’s just a waste of breath. If the behavior and emotion is like the tiger’s stripes, it will never change and thus, there can be no true redemption or penance because they will just do it all over again. And… we just traveled further than I intended into that religion thing. The point I was making is that if change is impossible, then why even try?

And… that is what brings me to my next key point. Physical attributes are fixed, constant… or relatively so. For all intents and purposes, physical features, like the tiger’s stripes or the leopard’s spots stay pretty close to how they started. Granted, we have a remarkable amount of science and surgery to make physical features less of a permanent fixture than perhaps ever in the history of human vanity, but for the majority of people, aside from minor fluctuations in size and tint of skin and hair (possibly eye color if we count contacts), the physical attributes stay pretty close to factory specifications. Your nose and ears are going to stay pretty much where they started. Without significant intervention, all those features are going to be defined by the code written in your DNA and combinations of the chromosomes of the contributing parental units. Most of the actual appearance of such is dictated by genetics and (without the assistance of chemistry or surgery) environmental factors.

To a certain extent, I will even grant you that some behavioral, emotional, and intellectual attributes are also founded by some genetics and environmental factors. There are factory settings in the operating system, so to speak. But that is where it stops. Human beings have a greater potential for choice and growth in their cognitive functions than they do in their physical attributes. To say otherwise is to negate the purpose of teaching, counseling, coaching, or guiding. It also demeans the efforts of the person who chooses to better themselves by the use of learning, introspection, spirituality, or counsel.

People learn from experience. They also learn from observing others. They learn from failure as well as success. And they can grow…

People can change. I fully believe that. I believe that any person who chooses to do so can grow and change and become better (or worse). Behavior, emotion, action, and knowledge are different than the physical stripes that define the external appearance. They may manifest to indicate character and personality as much as the plumage of a bird announces its purpose and message to others, but it is more changeable, and we have more choice.

Do I think that we should never be wary and aware of the past behaviors and choices of any given person? Well, no, of course I’m not saying that! It is always wise to examine the full profile and history before coming to a conclusion of what any individual will choose to do given certain circumstances.

I’m just saying that people can change. The circumstances and experiences of their past can impact and influence that change. People can choose to grow… or they can choose not to…

So, remember that the behavior of the tiger is not always defined by the stripes they’re showing…

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