7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
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- I found this a fine and enjoyable read about a subject so close to the center of our lives. Character is usually described as something concrete, which we inherit or establish after many years, but the authors suggest a radically different approach -- Character is not even a "thing" at all. It is a verb instead of a noun. The authors suggest Character, which may be briefly defined as a tendency to select between ethical alternatives, is fluid, vague, situation-dependent, and often not even ethical in nature. Instead of emerging from some concrete entity, the choices which make our Character often result from subconscious risk calculation, our emotional state when we make a decision, our often-confusing collection of habits/ memories/ perceptions, etc. Character is a continuum rather than on a point, and resembles not so much a hard drive as a user-modified source code.
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.