Adam Lewis's Reviews > Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us

Out of Character by David DeSteno
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's review
Aug 10, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: psychology, moral-and-ethical-science-and-philo, sociology

Dueling insects in your mind: Grasshopper vs. Ant

Who should you listen to when it comes to moral decisions and attitudes that constitute your "character?" That little angel hovering over your shoulder or the miniature devil whispering in your ear? According to Desteno and Valdesolo, these aren't event the correct metaphors to use as they describe traits as erroneously having some type of good or bad essence. Rather, the authors argue that a more apt metaphor is the grasshopper and ant. The grasshopper is the creature representing selfish short-term goals--he's the guy urging you to cheat on that exam or respond to the flirtatious advances even though you are married. The ant is the prudent counterpart and is concerned with our long-term goals. He's urging you to be honest or you'll ruin long-term relationships with your professors or spouse.

That the grasshopper and ant are the more accurate metaphor doesn't mean that it matches up with our scientifically naïve intuitions and perceptions about moral decisions and their aggregate summation for an individual--otherwise known as "character."

Indeed, as the devil and angel metaphor is deeply flawed, it shows that people's understanding of "character" is likely flawed as well. It isn't some essence attained by piety or sheer strength of will or reason but rather can be more accurately described as a drop of viscous fluid oozing along a continuum that may tilt toward acting in-line with short-term goals one moment or long-term the next according to the highly variable contexts and situations we find ourselves in.

To drive this point home, the authors give many illustrative anecdotes as well as the experimental studies that provide the empirical support. Part of their job in convincing us that they are right about character (I was convinced by the end of the book) is to free us of our misconceptions. As anyone familiar with the cognition behind people's beliefs will tell you, this is often quite a chore or even nearly impossible with topics like politics or religion.

The reason being: facts literally do not matter if the beliefs in question are causal in nature. To use Steve Sloman's excellent example from his book Causal Models: How People Think About the World and Its Alternatives:

"This is obvious in politics where people commonly stick to their causal beliefs regardless of the facts. Politicians, successful ones anyway, have long known not to bother trying to dissuade firm believers with facts. Firm believers are rarely interested in facts; they are interested in perpetuating their causal beliefs, beliefs that may at one time been based on facts but are no longer tied to them. Failures of the free market are as easily explained by conservatives (as due to `irrational exuberance' say) as failures of the welfare system are by liberals (perhaps as a `bureaucracy out of control'). Both explanations may be right. What's noteworthy (and a little scary) is how easy it is to generate good explanations in support of one's causal beliefs regardless of the facts." [p. 106]

Such, it would seem, is the case with our beliefs about character. In the book you will find many of the popular cases recounted from the upstanding astronaut who went on a nutty interstate drive in a diaper to the high profile politician anti-prostitution crusader turned John. But for the purposes of this review suffice it to say: we've all heard it said that when a person we perceive as otherwise trustworthy and upstanding does something downright damnable that this action was "out of character." It would seem that in our causal picture of individuals, we can accommodate any number of contradicting facts and still persevere in using the flawed model of "character."

Desteno and Valdesolo want to replace this model with one that is more coherent and scientifically informed. Drawing from their own extensive research as well as that of others, they dismantle the traditional concept of character and instead show us that the tangled knot of neurons sitting inside our skull is chock full of biases and a roiling sea of unconscious processes operating underneath the radar of rationality. This heritage of cognitive evolution profoundly affects our moral decision-making and hence "character." Seeming trivialities such as being elated after watching a comedy sketch can deeply affect moral decision-making and perceptions as studies recounted here show. Facts such as this are impossible to account for using the traditional model of "character."

Persons of "good character" can do selfish and cruel things under the right circumstances. Likewise, persons of "bad character" can perform acts of the highest altruism under the right circumstances.

All of this isn't to say that there is no such thing as "character" as the authors reiterate in the conclusion. It is rather that the traditional "folk-level" conception of it is highly flawed. "Character," rightly understood, is more akin to a drop of viscous fluid on a tilting continuum. It is true some drops may tend to stay toward one end of the spectrum on average. But we are all capable of flowing to one side or the other if the circumstances tilt us toward them.
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