Opinion Blog

Ask a Psychologist

Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

If You Think You Have Multiple Personalities, You’re Not Alone

By Angela Duckworth — August 25, 2021 3 min read
Why do I act differently depending on the situation?
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This is the second installment of a three-part series inspired by psychotherapy pioneer Tim Beck. Read the first piece here.

Why do I sometimes act differently, depending on who I’m with and where I am?

You’re not being inconsistent—every person responds differently depending on the situation. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

Tim Beck turned 100 years old this summer.

What is the psychotherapist who revolutionized how we treat mental health challenges thinking about these days?

Recently, Tim and I have been exchanging emails about a new idea that explains why Good-Natured Angela had mysteriously disappeared from the Zoom call I described in last week’s tip.

Where’d she go? And where the heck did Hot-Tempered Angela come from?

Tim’s explanation for how very different our thoughts, feelings, and actions can be is what he calls the Theory of Modes. The basic idea is that each and every one of us has developed a variety of “modes": separate personality states—different selves, so to speak—complete with their own goals, attitudes, and so forth.

Good-Natured Angela shows up a lot. In this mode, I want to respect other people’s perspectives. I give other people the benefit of the doubt. My ego is fairly sturdy.

But every so often, Hot-Tempered Angela makes an appearance. In this mode, I want to be right. I want other people to see things my way. My ego is like a hermit crab without its shell.

At first blush, this view of character seems absurd. After all, isn’t a kind person always kind, a patient person always patient?

Of course, it means something to be a kind and patient person. But no matter who you are and how much you’ve matured, your behavior can vary dramatically across situations—particularly when different cues trigger different modes.

Though Tim’s Theory of Modes is relatively new, a classic experiment conducted a half-century ago at the Princeton Theological Seminary made a similar point. Psychologists created a ruse designed to identify the situational determinants of helping behavior. Unbeknownst to the seminarians in this investigation, they would all encounter a stranger in need of help on their way to give a scheduled talk.

According to the researchers, the scene was carefully staged with an actor “dressed shabbily” and “slumped in a doorway, head down, eyes closed, not moving. As the subject went by, the victim coughed twice and groaned, keeping his head down.”

How many seminarians stopped to help?

If led to believe by the experimenters that there was ample time to get to their talk, 63% of the seminarians offered help. In contrast, if led to believe that they were running late and others were waiting for them, only 10% of seminarians did the same.

In sum, the mode we’re in depends a great deal on our situation.

When I am at my best, I am generous and patient. My thoughts turn to how wonderful the people I love are to me. This makes me feel grateful and happy. But I can also be selfish and impatient. There are times when my thoughts turn to what I believe other people ought to be doing for me but aren’t. I am easily angered.

Don’t underestimate how different you can be across situations. As the 16th-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne once observed: “There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and other people.”

Next week, I’ll pass along Tim Beck’s advice for bringing out your best. But for now:

Do consider the selves you prefer to show up in the world more often. Invite the young people in your life to do the same. Talk about the situations that trigger your different modes, and notice the thoughts and emotions that go with them. “The streets of our mind seethe with endless traffic,” observed theologian Howard Thurman. How good it is “to look at ourselves in this waiting moment—the kinds of people we are.”

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Assessment Webinar
The State of Assessment in K-12 Education
What is the impact of assessment on K-12 education? What does that mean for administrators, teachers and most importantly—students?
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Centering the Whole Child in School Improvement Planning and Redesign
Learn how leading with equity and empathy yield improved sense of belonging, attendance, and promotion rate to 10th grade.

Content provided by Panorama
Teaching Profession Webinar Examining the Evidence: Supports to Promote Teacher Well-Being
Rates of work dissatisfaction are on the rise among teachers. Grappling with an increased workload due to the pandemic and additional stressors have exacerbated feelings of burnout and demoralization. Given these challenges, what can the

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being COVID Vaccine Uptake Has Stalled for Young Children. What Schools Can Do to Help
Overall, only about 1 in 5 children ages 5-11 in the United States are fully inoculated against COVID-19.
4 min read
An information sign is displayed as a child arrives with her parent to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children 5 to 11-years-old at London Middle School in Wheeling, Ill., on Nov. 17, 2021.
A child arrives with her parent to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at London Middle School in Wheeling, Ill., in November.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
Student Well-Being Q&A Communications Expert Explains: How to Talk to Parents About COVID Vaccination
A Johns Hopkins University expert discusses a new training project on how to communicate about the sensitive issue.
7 min read
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters rally outside the garage doors of the Los Angeles Unified School District, LAUSD headquarters in Los Angeles on Sept. 9, 2021. The Los Angeles board of education voted to require students 12 and older to be vaccinated against the coronavirus to attend in-person classes in the nation's second-largest school district.
Anti-vaccine mandate protesters rally outside the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters in September, 2021.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
Student Well-Being What the Research Says New Research Shows How Bad the Pandemic Has Been for Student Mental Health
Researchers say the road to recovery will be a long one.
4 min read
2016 Opinion ELL 840293800
Student Well-Being Letter to the Editor Policymakers Must Prioritize SEL
SEL is important both to help students overcome challenges caused by the pandemic and to build resilience in the longterm, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.