Quite The Characters We Are

NPR’s Talk of the Nation covered the release of a highly relevant new book this […]

David Zahl / 5.17.11

NPR’s Talk of the Nation covered the release of a highly relevant new book this week, David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo’s Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us. What’s most interesting about it is not the predictably powerful glimpse of original sin it provides, but the way they inadvertently highlight the all-or-nothing nature of (moral/divine) Law, with the word ‘character’ being a fairly close stand-in for ‘righteousness’ or even ‘identity.’ Indeed, they almost articulate a secularlized version of Martin Luther’s notion of simul iustus et peccator – the understanding of people being simultaneously justified and sinful, post-regeneration. Fascinating, ht KW:

It seems that wolves may masquerade as sheep, but sheep just don’t masquerade as wolves. We rarely view one good act as proof someone had good character all along, yet most of us are ready and willing to do the reverse. Those marked as “bad” can do something nice now and again and our opinion of them doesn’t change, but all it takes for a person of seeming high virtue is one slip for us to claim that his or her character is inherently flawed.

The things we deem “bad” consistently seem to hold more weight than those we deem “good.”…This very fact provides a bit of a problem for the commonly held view of character as a stable phenomenon. Think of it this way: if you believe that character is fixed, you have to accept that an instance of behaving “out of character” is one of two things: (1) an aberrant event (like Hall’s heroic act) or (2) a window into the person’s “true” and yet hidden nature (like Sanford’s indiscretion). But in reality, which one we choose seems to depend on whether the person in question was a “saint” or “sinner” to begin with.

An even bigger problem for the fixed view of character is that acting “out of character” isn’t a freak occurrence or something restricted to the famous few. As we’ll see throughout this book, it’s actually much more commonplace than most people think. There lurks in every one of us the potential to lie, cheat, steal, and sin, no matter how good a person we believe ourselves to be. Combine these two problems, and the view of character as a stable fixture begins to crumble.

This is not to say that character doesn’t exist or that our behavior is completely unpredictable. A random system like that wouldn’t make any sense either. If the mind worked that way, our social world would be chaos — our actions at any moment in time would be reduced to a simple roll of the dice. No, character exists. It just doesn’t work the way most people think.



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