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?

It makes much more sense to frame the two sides of the scale of character by immediate and forward-looking mechanisms – those that look for rewards in the short term and those that look in the long-term. In fact, social living requires finding the right balance between these two. Actions like borrowing money and not paying it back, or loafing on the couch instead of studying for the SAT’s, have immediate short terms rewards, but do them too often and no one else will want to associate with you. Similarly, always thinking of others and helping them at your own expense can lead you to give too much – so much that it negatively impacts your finances or resources. Yes, in the long run, the more good will you generate, the more you may receive if and when you need it, but you may end up never really needing it. So, using your resources to better your own immediate position is not always a bad thing. The trick, of course, is to find the right balance.

What Piercarlo and I argue is that moment-to-moment, both above and below our conscious radar, short- and long-term mechanisms are in a pitched battle to determine what we will do vis-à-vis others. Which side wins in any one instant depends on a host of factors, and understanding how the whole system works is one of the main points of the book.

Are there ways that this system functions that you think people will find surprising?

I think most surprising is the basic fact that character is always in flux. We tend to delude ourselves that character is stable, because people’’s day-to-day environments usually don’’t vary very much. But when an option or dilemma presents itself that holds very different ““pay offs”“ for the long- vs. short-term, that’’s when people may act in ways they or we would have never expected.

As we discuss in the book, simple acts like wearing colored wristbands or tapping in time to music with someone can influence the way our minds evaluate other people. In the short-term, when push comes to shove, individuals will discriminate against others who are wearing wristbands that differ in color from their own or, conversely, go out of their way to help others who were tapping in synch with them to music, as the brain interprets these colors or movements as markers of who is on “our team.” 

There is something troubling in talking about these dueling systems, short-term versus long-term, because it seems to reduce people, and morality, to mechanism. Doesn’t this imply, at some level, that we are not responsible for our actions? 

No, not at all. What it implies is that character isn’t solely about willpower. That doesn’t mean that we’re absolved of our responsibilities to others. Rather, it means that we have to accept that our moral behavior isn’t entirely directed by intention. However, it is usually controllable once we understand the way the system truly works.

We’re not out to dictate morality to anyone — that’s still, as it has always been, for each person to decide based on her or his beliefs, philosophy, or religion. Our goal is to show you how the system really works, and in so doing, to increase your ability to guide it in the directions you want. Once you know that your actions aren’t only influenced by willpower, you can better modify your actions by attending to, for example, what cues you expose yourself to in your environment, or what type of strategy you use (i.e., listening to your “heart” or your “mind”) to make a decision about how to treat someone.

Given your view of character, what lessons does this hold for parents? What would be examples of good ways to instill good behavior, and what would be bad ways? 

I think the message here is two-fold. First, knowledge is power. Piercarlo and I would urge parents to be willing to suspend their view of how they believe character works and to examine the scientific evidence we’re putting forth.

The second part, assuming people are willing to let go of their long-held view, is that character shouldn’t be “taught” using a simple strategy of providing rules and examples. You can’t just tell Johnny to be good, or not to steal and assume that he will know how, or even be able, to do this by willpower alone. Moral education needs to be more skill-based. That is, we would advise parents to tell their kids not only what the goal is, but also how to get there — what tricks to expect their minds will engage in and what strategies they can use to keep their character moving in the direction they want. Because in the end, it’s not about “Are you a good person in general” — it’s about “Are you a good person right now.”

Are you a scientist? And have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.