Sarazen'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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Apr 04, 12

Read from August 17 to 20, 2011 — I own a copy

Disappointment is the product of an incongruity between expectations and cold hard reality. You would think that authors, especially if they were in the business of analyzing human behavior would be more attuned to that fact or perhaps it is an ironic example of what the book was supposed to be about. Whatever the case, as you have no doubt already pieced together, I ultimately did not care for this book.

This book purports to be about surprising behavior where we as individuals can deviate not only from the image that others expect of us, but even the ways in which we act in ways that surprise ourselves. In some ways it does touch on these subjects, but not in a satisfying way largely because they both muddy the subject, as well as ignore some obvious short comings in their premise.

And about that premise... Primarily they take issue with the idea that 'character' is something that is static. They suggest that people's behavior is overly influenced by their environment, dirty rags, even what they smell, and that it is often impossible to predict how we ourselves will act when confronted with certain pressures. This is all good in their lab setting with the small stakes experiments they conduct to test their theory, and in fact I think that they are successful in pointing out where deep cognitive processes can lead us in surprising ways.

If we came to each decision point as a blank slate we'd be done. Out in the wild though, you do see people behave consistently, some for good, others for ill. Some people struggle with addiction, others are consistently dependable. Twin studies have shown us that a number of these tendencies are genetically (or epigenetically) set from very early on in our lives. So could any one us have become Mel Gibson in similar circumstance? IMO no. Perhaps this is the first foray into what will become a more nuanced picture of character wherein we each have our own continuum. Where I perhaps might have the potential to cave to certain vices given the right circumstance, your weakness may be quite different. But isn't that in fact what we already believe about character?

The authors make no mention to the various genetic tendencies toward certain behavior patterns, but their real oversight is not mentioning the evolutionary basis by which we have learned to judge the character of others. Most of the book goes on at length as to how evolutionary pressures have developed our brains with patterns of deep intuitive thought and how that guides our choices at a level where we may have little or no awareness. By that same token we have learned to judge the 'character' of others through that long evolutionary process, and as their work testifies so well, those deep thought processes are often on to something. Yet they make no mention of this paradox in their reasoning.

All of those things are short comings, of what could later become a much more refined picture. If the book finished with that, I call it interesting, but incomplete. However they don't stop there. Where they really fall down is in dealing with hypocrites. Someone who makes a one off mistake that is counter to their beliefs is acting 'Out of Character', however someone who is living a double life -Eliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods etc. is someone who has had their true character revealed. Certainly we can all be guilty of hypocrisy, but cases of long standing deception (even if it accompanied by self-deception) points to a certain weakness in thought or personality once it is revealed. Attempting to explain away such behavior as 'out of character' is at best blind and at worst disingenuous. Bad work guys, back to the drawing board.

Also noticeably not mentioned are known personality (character) types like psychopaths, narcissists, etc. These people also act in predictable ways, mostly bad. Can they act out of character? Ted Bundy worked for many years on a suicide prevention hotline. Which behavior was the anomaly, the helping or the murders? Get the chlorine, we need to clear the waters.

Can we redefine character as more fluid? Perhaps, but having these deep processes is not the same as being controlled by them. Many of us can and do chose to change our behavior on a conscience level. And their are some behaviors that many of us will never exhibit no matter what the outside pressure.

Teasing out these distinctions is important. Better books for those curious about our deeper nature are:
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
and The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.

Final words - Send this one back to the oven. It needs to cook more.
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08/17/2011 page 83
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Michelle Good point about the lack of info on genetic influence. I felt like this book was overly simplistic and dumbed down. I also agree with your 'read instead' recommendations :)


Sarazen Thanks. And thanks for bringing me back to this. I haven't looked back since Aug. and found a couple of spelling errors I was able to correct. Lol.

Shame about the book though. They could have done better.


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