Personal Character Is a Myth

In a constantly changing world, it sometimes seems that our only anchor is personal character but put it to the test and this supposedly durable good begins to look quite flimsy.

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Associate psychology professor at Northeastern University, David DeSteno has found that getting people to do things "out of character" is remarkably easy. In an experiment that measured how individuals reacted to being excluded from a group, DeSteno found that feelings of jealousy, empathy, vindictiveness, and hypocrisy were easy to tease out, even if those dispositions were inconsistent with how people thought of themselves. "Intention is only a very small part of character," says DeSteno. "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."

What's the Big Idea?

At stake in DeSteno's research is the very idea that an individual has a stable character, an idea that much of our moral reasoning depends on. If questions of agency become less important—if we recognize that how people act is determined far more by circumstance than we had originally thought—assigning praise or blame to an action becomes much more difficult. While we need not go so far as to say the likes of Hitler and bin Laden were beyond self control, reevaluating what personal character means may help us to see that the dilemmas faced by the movers of history are the same ones many of us face daily on a smaller scale. What ultimately determines character, says DeSteno, is not choosing between good and bad, but between short-term and long-term gain. 

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