3Qs: A fresh perspective on what makes character

A new book from Northeastern professor of psychology David DeSteno and coauthor Piercarlo Valdesolo (a fellow at Harvard University and graduate of Northeastern’s PhD program in psychology), challenges the idea that character and morality are developed from a young age and explores why people act the way they do. The book, “Out of Character: Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us,” released on May 3, includes a compilation of studies about the social self, including jealousy, gratitude, fairness, trust, compassion and prejudice, that were conducted over the past 10 years. Here, DeSteno talks about the book’s findings and what we should learn from them.

What is “Out of Character” about?

The goal of this book is to try and help people understand why you, me, celebrities, politicians — any of us — act in ways that surprise us, and in ways that we say are out of character. I think what the research is showing us is that our character, our morals, aren’t inherently stable. Where we are on this scale of what we call “virtue and vice” is always in flux, and depending upon what is going on in the environment around us, it can give one side or another a little advantage. So, any of us can occupy different ends of that spectrum.

The book describes why that is the case. “Out of Character” is kind of an intuitive force between work that we’ve been doing in my lab for the past decade and other people’s labs as well, and it’s meant to be publicly accessible — that is, for people who aren’t scientists or psychologists. They can kind of digest and be exposed to material in an interesting and hopefully entertaining way.

What was the most surprising result of your research for this book?

We had a study where we created a scenario. You came into the lab and you thought you were participating in a music perception study. You sat next to somebody and you either tapped your hands in time with them or out of time, on these sensors.

You weren’t even looking at each other, but you could hear if you were tapping in time or not. Through lots of machinations, you saw this person basically get cheated by somebody else, and they had to do this long task that was really awful and you knew they didn’t like. At the end of the study, the computer asked the subjects “Well, you’re free to go, but if you want to stay — there is a lot of work to be done — If you want to go help the person that needs to do it, you can. You don’t have to, but if you want to, go find the experimenters and tell them you want to help.”

What we found was this huge effect. If you simply moved your hands in time with someone, you felt you were more similar to them. You also felt more compassion for their plight and you also spent a much longer time going to help them. I think that was the most surprising finding.

What you would like people to take away from this book?

The takeaway message is this: When we talk about variability in people’s character, what we don’t want people to think is, “it’s not my fault.” We’re not saying that there is no character; we’re not saying that anything can be excused. What we are saying is that if you really want to work on your character — and it’s between you and your ethical principles, or your god or however you define what you want your character to be — but once you know who you want it to be, then we hope what we’re giving people is a better view of the way the system works. Because if you’re going to manage it, you need to know how it works. The common view that character is this thing etched in stone from early childhood is completely wrong. In the book, we talk about how it really works and we give people strategies for managing it, and we hope that’s what people take away.