Character study

A hard look at the idea of "character" shows we're a lot more malleable than we like to think

David DeSteno, associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University. (Andre Mehta) David DeSteno, associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University.
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
May 8, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

In a constantly changing world, it sometimes seems that our only anchor is personal character. Strip away fashion, politics, and pretense, and what’s left is the true grit at the core of every person, forged early in life, that gives us the gumption to win elections or the weakness to succumb to temptation. But put the tidy notion of character to a test, and what we think of as the most durable part of human nature starts to look flimsy indeed.

In their new book, “Out of Character: Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us,” psychologists David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo argue that the traditional view of character — as the indelible core of a person that officiates between a cartoon angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other — is just flat wrong. DeSteno, an associate professor at Northeastern University, and Valdesolo, who is starting his lab at Claremont McKenna College, build a case that character is the ever-fluctuating product of warring impulses in the brain — one focused on immediate rewards, the other on long-term payoffs. Good and bad have little to do with it, but the situation does. Imitate another person’s movements, and you become more compassionate and altruistic; just feeling thankful for something can push you to help others.

To reveal these dynamics, the researchers engaged in experimental sleight of hand — for example, luring research subjects in with experiments ostensibly about opinions or flavor preference. In fact, they were testing not group problem solving, but how a person jilted by the group will try to harm the team members who brushed her off, by, say, giving lots of hot sauce to people who hate spicy food. Time after time, DeSteno and Valdesolo pulled people out of their supposed character, showing just how easy it is to generate flashes of jealousy, empathy, vindictiveness, and hypocrisy.

This isn’t to say that character doesn’t exist. But to be shocked when a politician or celebrity makes a misstep or to sort people into categories of good and bad is to misunderstand how the system works. A model of character as a delicately evolving balance, DeSteno and Valdesolo argue, may give people an edge when it comes to understanding their own behavior, and to improving it.

DeSteno spoke with Ideas from his home in Canton.

IDEAS: If character is not stable, why would we have come up with this inaccurate concept for understanding people?

DESTENO: Day to day, people’s situations aren’t changing so much. Because of that, we create this theory in our mind: The person is stable. Realistically, the proof is in the pudding. When something happens to test them — when there’s a chance to cheat, a chance to help someone — our model says [that what they do] depends on the nature of that environment. That’s where you see this breakdown of the system.

IDEAS: Does this mean we need to reevaluate thinking of hypocrisy, for instance, as a character failing?

DESTENO: Most of what people assume about character is that it is a function of strong will, conscious will — that if I give into these things typically considered vices I’m not strong enough in my willpower....What we’re arguing here is that intention is only a very small part of character. There’s lots of computations happening below your conscious radar that influence what you’re doing....We have to understand that behaviors for better or for ill, vice or virtue, aren’t always a function of intention or our ability to control them. You have to understand how the system works to gain control of it.

IDEAS: If character is slippery, do you think we need to reconsider Hitler? Or bin Laden?

DESTENO: Once we’re in the realm of things like mass murder, we’re talking about an individual whose mind has moved out of normal social living.

What I would say is that we always see individuals, whether [it’s] the Barry Bonds issue or the Eliot Spitzer issue...and everybody wonders, how could they do this? The same mechanisms that affect them prey on our minds as well.

IDEAS: In your experiments, you find ways to jerk people out of character. Is there anything you think you can’t manipulate? Is there a situation where you think character would make a last stand?

DESTENO: Logically, any of these behaviors should be manipulable. It’s always a balance of the short-term vs. long-term payoff. I think where character shows up is [that] different people are going to require different strengths of manipulation to get the same effects. Colloquially, what I’m saying is everybody has their price. Some people are able to resist things more than others, some people it will require much more or stronger incentives or manipulations to get them to behave in a certain way....There is nothing I would say a priori shouldn’t be subject to these dynamics.

IDEAS: If character is always changing, shouldn’t there be a mechanism for others to guess what state we’re in at the moment?

DESTENO: The benefit of categories is, [if] we say a person is x or y, it gives us predictive power in guessing what they’re going to do next....Our work on trust is suggesting we pay attention, very much below our consciousness, to nonverbal cues....If it [character] is very dynamic, we should have evolved some way to predict what the person across the table from you is going to do — are they going to screw you over or not?

IDEAS: Do you think of yourself as a good person?

DESTENO: I think, ultimately, we’re all going to be judged by our behaviors....[But] the question itself presumes an inherent trait, and we are arguing there isn’t one. The question of, “Am I a good person?” is an evolving question or an iterative question....To some extent that’s going to be dependent on what I am doing and the weight of those acts I have committed, which is changing. The question is, “Am I a good person now?” not “Am I a good person?”

Carolyn Y. Johnson covers health and science for the Globe. E-mail