Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us Hardcover – May 3 2011
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"A fascinating yet highly readable perspective on the psychology of the hero/villain spectrum of human character, inviting us to reconceive personality, both our own and that of others." – The Atlantic
“My bad -- and your bad too. This smart and lively book uses cutting-edge research in psychological science to reveal the hero and the villain that live inside each of us.”
-Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University and bestselling
author of STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS
“Who would have ever thought that a pair of social psychologists would have so much to say about good and evil? David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo are brilliant experimentalists and deep thinkers, and Out of Character hits the sweet spot --it's scientifically rigorous, smoothly written, and achingly relevant to everyday life. It shows how laboratory research is undermining the very notion of a fixed moral character, and explores a new approach to hypocrisy, pride, prejudice, jealousy, and love.”
-Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology, Yale University, author of HOW PLEASURE WORKS
“It is not unusual to think of someone as either a moral or immoral person, of good character or not. David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo make the intriguing argument instead that the world is not filled with saints and sinners, but rather there is good and bad in all of us. Marshalling data from some of the most clever and counterintuitive experiments in social psychology and interpreting these findings in new ways, DeSteno and Valdesolo surprise us on nearly every page. Out of Character should be read by anyone interested in human behavior; it challenges simple but engrained ideas about virtue and evil in a lively, entertaining, and insightful way.”
-Peter Salovey, Provost, Yale University and co-creator of the theory of Emotional Intelligence
About the Author
DAVID DESTENO is associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he is also director of the Social Emotions Lab. He is editor of the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion and has served as a visiting associate professor of psychology at Harvard University. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, ABC News, Scientific American, and NPR. He has also guest-blogged for the New York Times Freakonomics blog.
PIERCARLO VALDESOLO is an assistant professor of psychology at Claremont-McKenna College. His work has appeared both in top journals and major news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, LA Times, and Newsweek, and he has been awarded fellowships at Harvard University and Amherst College. He is a contributor to the Scientific American Mind Matters blog.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo have produced a book that tells us not so much how to tell if some individual will "break character," but rather what character is. And surprise - character is a moving target. Extreme circumstances make us behave in ways no-one can predict - least of all, ourselves. We may claim to have high moral standards, but such people (not ourselves, naturally) may suddenly lose them. What DeSteno and Valdesolo show is that people who "let themselves down" never expected that this would happen.
Why did the NASA astronaut, veteran of many psychological tests, suddenly decide to put on adult diapers and drive across country to confront the man she loved? Why did the Eagle Scout, admired by many, eventually destroy his career as Governor of South Carolina by taking a mistress in Argentina? To most of us, living our humdrum lives, these actions seem ridiculous. And that is why - a humdrum life never presents us with a totally new set of circumstances that we must deal with. So it's easy to live our lives in character.
DeSteno and Valdesolo are professors of psychology, so this book is not just philosophical thinking about how we behave, but also an exploration of how to test people to find out what they'd do in a particular situation. All too many of these kinds of books describe these tests as if they were handed to the psychiatrists on stone tablets, but in fact they have to be thought up in a way that the participants don't catch on. This is another great reason to read this book.
Character, we learn, has to do more with the ant and the grasshopper - long-term gains versus short-term gains. DeSteno and Valdesolo argue that this has arisen from the way humans have evolved, and they show that this has made us smarter than before.
The book also covers pride and hubris, using the public example of Tom Cruise. In fact just about every chapter has something about an out-of-character flaw and the experiments DeSteno and Valdesolo devised to see how commonplace these were in the general population. Be prepared to be surprised about how likely you are to do something bad.
There's a lot of humor, particularly when they describe a guy "coming on" to a woman who was then dropped for no apparent reason. Naturally, they wanted to keep expenses to a minimum, so co-author Piercarlo Valdesolo volunteered himself to be the guy who flirted outrageously with the subjects. I'm sure you'd approve of his actions, and in similar circumstances you'd selflessly flirt with the gender of your choice, in the name of science.
As you can imagine, I like this book a lot. It has something that speaks to all of us, especially since it speaks to behaviors that we'd claim that we'd always choose the best path. The way they come up with experiments is interesting, and they give full acknowledgement to the people in the lab who helped come up and carry out the experiments.
In short, buy this book. It will teach you something about yourself that you probably don't know and probably don't want to know. But self-knowledge is never a dangerous thing, and I hope that the book will find wide acclaim.
This book is very readable. At times I wanted to know more about how the studies were set up and carried out; in other instances, I had no desire to linger over details and appreciated getting the executive summary. In the end, the authors don't extrapolate any solutions for people who may want to know how to best guard against major lapses of character. I think the best readers can do is to remind themselves that they are not immune from any temptation or weakness. In the mean time, we can all afford to be a little more forgiving when noticing the character deficiencies of others.
The book is packed with experiments by researchers, David Desteno (Northeastern), and Piercarlo Valdesolo (Harvard), and others. Their conclusion is that character is not a fixed set of traits, but is fluid and influenced by variables such as current emotional states, short term vs. long term rewards, threats or boosts to self esteem, commonly accepted behaviors, risks vs. probabilities and possibilities, and ancient short hand survival benefits of "us vs. them" mentality of prejudice and stereotype.
According to the authors we all have the capacity given the right circumstance to be "liars, cheats, sinners or saints."
The book uses as examples, the behavior of famous fallen- from- grace figures like Bill Clinton, Marc Sanford, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Lisa Nowak and others to illustrate concepts of hypocrisy morality, pride, hubris, fairness, tolerance, bigotry and playing it safe or taking a gamble.
This is not an easy book. There were many experiments with much detail. At times the book grew tedious, but the many cited experiments were probably necessary for the authors to fully present their arguments.
The authors do appear to attempt to lighten the load with humor,
but this kind of humor coming from two renowned researchers on such a weighty subject somehow seems incongruent.
The authors also made some unusual statements, "...if we didn't feel jealous, we wouldn't have the kinds of stable relationships that are necessary to adequately protect and care for our offspring."
They made assumptions, such as saying that Tom Cruise's jumping on Oprah's couch was a sign of hubris. (I thought it was a kind of mania.)
And they said, "One of the biggest challenges we face in life is the universal quest for social status?" Is status "something we all want"?
There's a lot to digest here. The authors seem to be able to explain the reasons for a multitude of `bad' behaviors which aren't actually bad, but adaptive. The research backs them up. That's what's so disturbing.
They're scientists who spend countless hours dreaming up elaborate games, situations, scams, & trickery involving real people interacting with other real people, some of whom are test subjects - but others are staff. The ruse is always cleared by review boards and revealed to participants (victims) at the end - and they almost always want to learn how they scored and why they acted the way they did.
Relying on the principles of EP - Evolutionary Psychology - our authors invent elaborate ruses to study hypocrisy and dating games. They zero in on the thin lines separating pride from arrogance; how compassion can instantly change to cruelty; when fairness & trust recognizes it's been scammed; between playing it safe vs taking a gamble; and when tolerance becomes bigotry.
Aside: Recently, I have read about resistance in university humanities departments to EP - humans being so special and all. We are - in the sense that our intelligence has given us free reign over our world - but humans are still very imperfect. We are poorly designed in many ways (backs, knees, tendency to war, self-delusion) - exactly what one would expect from evolution. Cockroaches or certain scorpions, which can live without food and water for almost a year, are also impressive. There is every reason to believe that our (at times) unethical behavior as well as our superior intelligence evolved in just as Rube-Goldberg a fashion as did our (very complicated and redundant) blood clotting mechanism and the hardiness of cockroaches.
Back to the book: This is a highly readable book documenting the authors' studies in layman's language. They feature the ant and the grasshopper who represent, respectively, "your logical side" versus "your impulsive side," that battle it out to see how much "character" a person might exhibit in dozens of manufactured ethical dilemmas. It's a helluva read and I recommend it highly. You won't be able to put it down.
The authors suggest our minds contain significant conflict -- it's like a jungle in there! -- which can be broadly symbolized by the Ant (the longer-term, more rational perspective) and the Grasshopper (the short-term, emotive, live-for-today urge). Both perspectives have value, but if we don't quickly distinguish between them, we can all find ourselves in deep problems that seem "out of character." The authors suggest people "fall out of character" not necessarily because they are hypocrites, but largely because they failed to understand, and compensate for, the occasional tsunami of short-term drives. The short-term Grasshopper Mind, instead of being the villain, sometimes has advantages; short-term impulses can often be creative, enriching, accurate, and transformative, while the Ant is not always morally right -- long-term objectives can be inflexible, inaccurate, poorly-conceived, and damaging (Stalin, for example, was a terrific Ant). Early in the book, I thought the authors were condoning a strongly pro-Grasshopper, postmodern moral relativism, but this interpretation generally disappeared after reading further. They actually give several suggestions for how to manage short-term interests and maintain a respectable "moral compass" (among these suggestions are mindfully recognizing our inherent biases, knowing your weaknesses and not overplaying a bad hand, becoming proficient in examining situational contexts, viewing character as a Balance Between Extremes rather than searching for the right extreme position, and maintaining flexibility). The book's interpretation seemed nicely balanced and workable.
The authors appear to have translated some excellent academic credentials into a popular, descriptive, non-technical introduction, with good backup, good editing, and good scholarship. I found the book "flowed" well, with understandable transitions, sound examples, and good justifications for their conclusions. They also gave insight into the discipline of psychological research (which seems to demand stretching the truth with research subjects!) and how studies are designed and conducted. Their Bibliography and Footnotes are a gift, with apparently decent, solid research. Even when I disagreed with their findings, they make me think and question assumptions, and that's commendable.
OK, despite the book's value, I found shortcomings. The authors sometimes report a single research study's conclusions as if they were conclusive truths -- a scientific no-no, but an easy one to spot. In their rush to make a point and support their central idea, they often seem to exaggerate -- they often give the impression that "everybody falls out of character so it's really OK for you to do it too," and they provide examples of famous figures who are now in the media's penalty box, but they completely ignore the examples of people who consistently maintained an ethical compass throughout their lives. Actually, the presence of such good character examples in all our lives may even have produced the very idea that human character is a solid entity. The authors also seem to confuse ethics with rule-following, and largely ignore habit development or character ethics. I often felt the authors associated "short-term gain" with "hedonism," which is a mistake because short-term gains can often be highly refined, and the ability to transform or disconnect from an overpowering desire can be among the most pleasant, enriching, and freeing things we do. The authors often seem to confuse understanding something (like why our brains often latch on to short-term pleasure) with justifying it. Finally, the authors never explored Forgiveness as a valuable character trait -- and if our characters are as fluid and as mistake-prone as they suggest, giving ourselves (and others) a bit of slack now and then can be a powerfully redemptive quality.
The book seems a respectable addition for understanding Character. If you liked it, here are a few other suggestions: M. Seligman (Character Strengths and Virtues, a marvelous catalog of Character), P. Eckman (Telling Lies, an odd title for a solid book that describes some mental obstacles to character), J. Kornfield (A Path With Heart, which IMHO is a wonderful book for fluidly developing character), and M. Ricard (Happiness, which shows we can flourish even if we are not a perceptibly solid entity). Hope this review helped and you gain something from this book.