What can science reveal about our “character” — that core of good, or evil, that shapes our moral behavior? The answer, according to a new book, is that there may not be much of a core, after all. In “Out of Character,” scientists David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdelsolo argue that how we think about character — a conception that dates back to at least the ancient Greeks — is deeply flawed. Our moral behavior, to a surprising degree, is shaped by the context in which we find ourselves. Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook spoke recently with DeSteno about the book, and the broader implications of the new science.
COOK: How did you become interested in the issue of character?
DESTENO: One of the main goals of my lab is to investigate how emotional responses guide social behavior. Most people are willing to believe that emotions can be useful to navigate the physical environment. For example, we feel disgusted at the sight of carrion, which prevents us from eating it. But for humans, navigating the social environment is just as important as navigating the physical one. For us, issues of trust, fairness, fidelity, intergroup conflict, and the like hold important consequences for successfully navigating our world.
Over the past decade of work, my lab has examined how changes in emotional states, often due to very subtle factors in one’s environment, can lead people to act in ways that they’d never expect: to be hypocrites, to lie, to cheat, but also to show compassion and kindness, and pride and leadership. What Piercarlo and I realized in looking back on this work is that, in essence, we were studying the factors that shape character – factors that, for most people, fly under their conscious radar. But of even more importance, what we saw was that the idea of character that most people posses is decidedly wrong.
What is wrong with our popular notions of “character”?
The derivation of the word “character” comes from an ancient Greek term referring to the indelible marks stamped on coins. Once character was pressed into your mind or soul, people assumed it was fixed. But what modern science repeatedly shows is that this just isn’t the case. As we discuss in our book, everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted.
When you think about it, the way we reason about character isn’t logically consistent. Take someone like Gov. Mark Sanford. Irrespective of their political views, most people thought he was a morally upstanding guy until that fateful day he admitted crossing the “sex line” with a mistress. Then, suddenly, we all assumed that he must have always been deeply flawed – a wolf in sheep’s clothing, if you will. He had just been pulling the wool over our eyes. Fair enough, but then why, when Farron Hall, who was a homeless drug addict who lived under a bridge in Winnepeg risked his own life to save someone who fell in the river, why don’t we now assume that he is really a good guy? We seem to believe that one bad act marks a supposed good person as deficient in character, but not that one good act marks a supposed bad person as now noble.
At one point you say that the distinction between good and bad is ““passe.”“ Can you explain what you mean by that?
Sure. The usual motif for how character works is that you have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, whispering into your ears. Early on in life, you decide to which voice you will listen, and that sets the direction for your life. The problem with this view is that, intense psychopathology aside, it makes little sense from an evolutionary perspective to assume that the mind would have “evil” mechanisms. What’s adaptive about being evil?