Lack of Character: Personality and Moral Behavior

I think the general unit of observation for psychology is the individual and for the sociologist it is society.

For Protestantism, the focus is on individual salvation, and for the Jew, the focus is on the Jewish people.

Scholars with a background in evolution see evolutionary psychology as the key to understanding how the world works just as theologians regard their discipline as the king of studies. Sociologists see social mores as the magic key. Psychologists talk about the Big 5 personality traits, but sociologists may argue that these traits are shaped, in part, by our interactions with others. For example, when I am successful in life, I am more outgoing, more energetic, more generous, more agreeable, more open, and less neurotic. When I am failing in life, I go in the opposite directions.

From my reading over the past few weeks, I’ve realized that we don’t have a true self because who we are depends on our context. We are different in different places. We are different when we are with different people.

If there is no true self, then there is no moral character.

Philosopher John M. Doris writes in this respected 2005 book:

* I regard this renaissance of virtue with concern. Like many others, I find the lore of virtue deeply compelling, yet I cannot help noticing that much of this lore rests on psychological theory that is some 2,500 years old. A theory is not bad simply because it is old, but in this case developments of more recent vintage suggest that the old ideas are in trouble. In particular, modern experimental psychology has discovered that circumstance has surprisingly more to do with how people behave than traditional images of character and virtue allow.

* It’s commonly presumed that good character inoculates against shifting fortune, and English has a rich vocabulary for expressing this belief: steady, dependable, steadfast, unwavering, unflinching. Conversely, the language generously supplies terms of abuse marking lack of character: weak, fickle, disloyal, faithless, irresolute. Such locutions imply that character will have regular behavioral manifestations: the person of good character will do well, even under substantial pressure to moral failure, while the person of bad character is someone on whom it would be foolish to rely. In this view it’s character, more than circumstance, that decides the moral texture of a life; as the old saw has it, character is destiny.

* Behavior is – contra the old saw about character and destiny – extraordinarily sensitive to variation in circumstance. Numerous studies have demonstrated that minor situational variations have powerful effects on helping behavior: hurried passersby step over a stricken person in their path, while unhurried passersby stop to help…The experimental record suggests that situational factors are often better predictors of behavior than personal factors, and this impression is reinforced by careful examination of behavior outside the confines of the laboratory. In very many situations it looks as though personality is less than robustly determinative of behavior. To put things crudely, people typically lack character.

* When compared with advances in the natural sciences, psychology has exhibited little uncontroversial progress.

* Moreover, it’s not even clear that the experimentalist is well situated to tell us much about behavior; critics insist that laboratory manipulations involving small numbers of subjects on isolated occasions cannot be expected to tell us what people are likely to do outside the lab’s pretend universe. Although a balanced look at the experimental literature – or at least the best of it -makes this rhetoric look hyperbolic, charges of experimental artificiality ring of truth. But how much truth can be decided only by considering the details of the experiments in question, so a final verdict awaits more concrete discussion. For now, I’ll readily admit it: Experimental psychology is perhaps the worst available method for understanding human life. Except, I hasten to add, for all the other methods.

* As one psychologist laments, it’s “hard to avoid the conclusion that psychology is a kind of shambling, poor relation of the natural sciences” (Lykken 1991: 14). If this is the self-image of psychologists, why should philosophers look to them for help?

* In important regards, the natural sciences have obviously enjoyed more progress than the human sciences: They predict their subject phenomena more accurately and manipulate them more effectively.

* The subject matter of soft psychology is actually harder than the subject matter of the hard sciences. Given the complexity of social, psychological, and neural systems, humanity is in many regards a trickier subject than rocks, plants, or rats (Lykken 1991: 16). But complexity is itself a slippery notion: Is the subject matter of the human sciences more complex than high energy particle physics? Moreover, complexity is not inevitably associated with halting scientific advance. In natural science increasingly complex theoretical and experimental constructs have resulted in accelerated progress; modern physics looks to be both more complex and more successful than the physics of simpler times (Rosenberg 1988: 11).

* Nonetheless, the scientific study of human beings faces distinctive obstacles. Perhaps most philosophically vexing is the “multiple realizability” problem familiar from the philosophy of mind: A single psychological function might be subserved by different brain structures (Fodor 1975:15-19; Chalmers 1996: 97-8). Thus, people who have been sorted on some dimension of psychological interest may not be physiologically isomorphic, that is, highly similar in a relevant physical respect (Lykken 1991: 16-18) .24For example, despite the institutional weight and research dollars behind the medicalization of psychological disorder, at this writing I am not aware of a single biological test for the diagnosis of mental illness.25 For better or worse, there is no periodic table for the structurally determinative elements of behavior. Of course, things change, and psychology may someday be, as many seem to hope, more neatly ordered by brain science. In the meantime, though, the going is less certain than in the more “physical” sciences.

* Moreover, ethical considerations constrain psychological experimentation and prevent the imposition of important controls much more than in natural science (Meehl 1991: 17). Psychologists cannot – morally cannot -breed a genetically manipulated human population for systematic study as is done with plants or rats, nor may they systematically abuse children to gain a more systematic picture of the effects of abuse. Even where experimental work is ethically defensible, the psychology experiment is, in its own way, nearly as unruly a social environment as that outside the lab. The “human factor” in the human sciences inhibits the replication of experiments and the imposition of systematic experimental control; seemingly trivial variations in the experimental environment, such as the age and demeanor of the experimenter, may affect results.

These various disanalogies may be taken to indicate that the human and natural sciences should be understood as fundamentally different endeavors with fundamentally different aims and standards of success.

* Impressive as they are, physics and chemistry do not purport to tell us much about human behavior. Neuroscience and evolutionary biology have made a deep impression on philosophers, but neither discipline is presently in a position to provide anything even distantly like a comprehensive accounting of human functioning, if indeed they ever will be.

* In the end, talk of aspirations for “psychology” – or the failure of those aspirations – is rather unhelpful, because psychology is, just as the critic impressed with its persistent controversy observes, a remarkably heterogeneous field. Sweeping verdicts on the discipline are unlikely to accurately reflect what different subfields are accomplishing or failing to accomplish. More enlightening discussion will proceed with attention to individual research programs and particular experiments.

* Character and personality traits are invoked to explain what people do and how they live: Peter didn’t mingle at the party because he’s shy, and Sandra succeeds in her work because she’s diligent. Traits also figure in prediction: Peggy will join in because she’s impulsive, and Brian will forget our meeting because he’s absentminded. So too for those rarefied traits called virtues: James stood his ground because he’s brave, and Katherine will not overindulge because she’s temperate. Such talk would not much surprise Aristotle (1984: no6ai4-23); for him, a virtue is a state of character that makes its possessors behave in ethically appropriate ways.1 I’ll now begin arguing that predictive and explanatory appeals to traits, however familiar, are very often empirically inadequate: They are confounded by the extraordinary situational sensitivity observed in human behavior.

* Recognizing the domain-specificity of practical endeavor helps explain how the upstanding public servant can be a faithless husband; the marital and the political are different practical domains and may engage very different cognitive, motivational, and evaluative structures. We can also understand how there be considerable may integration within a practical domain; a scholar must be both diligent and honest in her research if she is to do commendable work, although this does not entail that she exhibit the same qualities in her teaching.

* Globalist conceptions of personality are predicated on the existence of substantial behavioral consistency, but the requisite consistency has not been empirically demonstrated (Mischel 1968:6-9,146-8).

* Hartshorne and May (1928: I, 385) found that even across quite similar situations, honest and dishonest behavior were displayed inconsistently; they concluded that honesty is not an “inner entity” but is instead “a function of the situation.” Shortly thereafter, their contention was buttressed by Newcomb’s (1929) study of introversion and extraversion in “problem boys,” which found that trait-relevant behaviors were not organized into consistent patterns but instead were highly situation-specific and inconsistent.

* Existing empirical evidence for globalist conceptions of traits is seriously deficient. It is this research tradition that has come to be known as “situationism.”

Situationism’s three central theoretical commitments, amounting to a qualified rejection of globalism, concern behavioral variation, the nature of traits, and personality organization.

(1) Behavioral variation across a population owes more to situational differences than dispositional differences among persons. Individual dispositional differences are not so behaviorally individuating as might have been supposed; to a surprising extent it is safest to predict, for a particular situation, that a person will behave in a fashion similar to the population norm(Ross and Nisbett 1991: 113).
(2) Systematic observation problematizes the attribution of robusttraits.40 People will quite typically behave inconsistently with respect to the attributive standards associated with a trait, and whatever behavioral consistency is displayed may be readily disrupted by situational variation. This is not to deny the existence of stability; the situationist acknowledges that
individuals may exhibit behavioral regularity over iterated trials of substantially similar situations (Ross and Nisbett 1991: 101; cf. Wright and Mischel1987: 1161-2; Shoda, Mischel, and Wright 1994: 681-3).
(3) Personality is not often evaluatively integrated. For a given person, the dispositions operative in one situation may have an evaluative status very different from those manifested in another situation; evaluatively inconsistent dispositions may “cohabitate” in a single personality.

* A persistent theme in accounts of the Holocaust is the perpetrators'”ordinariness.”69 Matters could hardly be otherwise. It takes a lot of people to kill 800,000,6 million, or 100 million human beings, and there just aren’t enough monsters to go around. Unfortunately, it does not take a monster todo monstrous things; if this were the case, our history and prospects would be much brighter. A plausible conjecture, just as with Milgram’s obedients or the Stanford guards, is that a very substantial percentage of perpetrators in the Holocaust had previously led lives characterized by ordinary levels of compassion.

* “It can be said with certitude that never in the history of the Holocaust was a German, SS man or otherwise, killed, sent to a concentration camp, jailed, or punished in any serious way for refusing to kill Jews.”

* Nevertheless, many war criminals did exhibit conflict. Major Trapp, commander of Reserve Police Battalion 101, a unit that slaughtered Jews in occupied Poland, was reported to have wept after issuing murderous commands(Browning 1992: 58).75 Among the men who carried out Trapp’s orders, heavy drinking was commonplace, for as one (nondrinking) policeman put it, “such a life was quite intolerable sober” (Browning 1992:82). Nazi doctors likewise reported drinking excessively when performing selections (Lifton1986: 193); and the same goes for the SS Einsatzgruppen death squads the Reich sent east to murder Jews in conquered territories. The Einsatzgruppen shot thousands of Jews in the back of the neck, one by one, so there was very close contact with the victims. They were apparently expected to work for only an hour at a time, despite the fact that this task was not physically demanding, and they were liberally provided with alcohol (Sabini and Silver1982: 73-4).y6 It is worth noting that Nazi propaganda sometimes took the form of exhortations to onerous but necessary work; evidently the masses were not expected to flock eagerly to their genocidal calling…

* With the passage of time, what was once unthinkable became unremarkable; persons and nations alike are subject to “moral drift” – a slide into evil as individuals and groups are gradually acclimated to destructive norms.

* The behavior of Josef Mengele struck prisoners as similarly paradoxical: “He was capable of being so kind to the children, to have them become fond of him, to bring them sugar, to think of small details in their daily lives, and to do things we would genuinely admire… And then, next to that, … the crematoria smoke, and these children, tomorrow or in a half hour, he is going to send them there. Well, that is where the anomaly lay.” (quoted in Lifton 1986: 337)

* Just as descent into evil can be stepwise, so too may the ascent to heroism be stepwise. Beginning with acts of ordinary decency, rescuers progressed to something extraordinary indeed. Ordinary people may be swept up in evil, but they may also be swept up in heroism. As everywhere, persons and situations interact, with results that may be inspiring or atrocious, depending in large measure on circumstance.

* Typically, the more dissimilar are situations, the weaker the relationship between behaviors. Consistency, we might say, is proportional to situational similarity.

* Four related observations tell against globalism and for the fragmentation hypothesis. (1) Low consistency correlations suggest that behavior is not typically ordered by robust traits. (2) The determinative impact of unobtrusive situational factors undermines attribution of robust traits. (3) The tenuous relationship found between personality measures and overt behavior leaves globalist accounts of human functioning empirically under supported. (4) Biographical information often reveals remarkable personal disintegration. Taken together, low consistency correlations, the astonishing situation-sensitivity of behavior, the disappointments of personality research, and the confounds of biography provide a wealth of data problematizing attribution of robust traits and evaluatively integrated personality structures.

* Behavioral reliability…is highly specific: One can expect the “usual” only in the usual circumstances.

* Like much of personality psychology, research favoring the FFM [Five Factor Model] is overwhelmingly of the pencil and paper variety.

* since each individual infuses his environment with distinctive meanings, his behavior will be ordered according to those meanings rather than an “objective” taxonomy of situations and traits.

* Intuitively, attitudes have much to do with how people behave, but as in the case of personality, the relationship between attitudes and overt behavior is problematic: In their exhaustive survey, Eagly and Chaiken (1993: 155) conclude that one can probably expect correlations of “no more than moderate magnitude” between attitudes and behaviors.

* Social psychologists have long noted that people – at least, people in the West- tend to inflate the importance of dispositions and neglect the importance of situations in explaining behavior (Lewin 1931; Heider 1944, 1958;Ichheiser 1949). This has been variously called the “fundamental attribution error” (Ross 1977), the “correspondence bias” (Gilbert and Jones 1986b), and – to use my favored term – “overattribution”.

* Performance in interviews has generally been found to correlate with subsequent measures of job performance at around .10, an association little better than chance.

* Apparently, people are quite put off by personal inconsistency and devote considerable ingenuity to reorganizing incongruent stimuli into an integrated whole.

* But if I’m right that there is considerable disparity between actual and expected behavioral consistency, people should very often find themselves facing considerable surprise and disappointment. And if this really is the state of people’s experience, it’s hard to believe they go on as blithely as they do. One possibility, of course, is that I’m wrong about our experience -behavior is more consistent than I’ve alleged. I favor a second possibility: People go on blithely in the face of such disappointment and surprise because we are, well, rather blithe. That is, we are remarkably untroubled by experiences that should cause us to doubt what we believe. To put matters a bit more technically, we seem rather limited in our ability to assimilate disconfirming evidence.36

* “For the purpose of living one has to assume that the personality is solid, and the “self is an entity, and to ignore all contrary evidence.” E. M. Forster

* Perhaps the discourse of character is required for the narrative enterprises by which people make sense of their lives. Biographical narrative is a commonplace interpretive tool: Early disappointments in his career are what fuel Donald’s ruthless ambition, while Angelina’s betrayal at the hands of Maxwell is what makes her so slow to trust. Such narratives seem most relevant to descriptive psychology, but they are also implicated in ethical practices like exhortation and transformation; the interpretive process is a vehicle for determining what needs to be changed and how to change it. It’s no accident that my locutions are beginning to sound clinical. Clinical narrative, like ethical narrative, may be interpretive, evaluative, or transformative; while clinicians sometimes aspire to neutrality, psychotherapy and behavioral medicine are inevitably value-laden, not least because notions of health and pathology are freighted with evaluative commitments(Woolfolk 1998: 35-40). Since I’m inclined to think that ethical discourse is centrally concerned with the regulation of interpersonal behavior and sentiment (Frankfurt 1988: 80; Gibbard 1990: 76-80) and therapeutic discourse is centrally concerned with functioning in social relationships, on my view the affinities run pretty deep. While it sounds rather precious, there’s more than a little to the thought that ethical practice is a sort of informal group therapy, one that serves to maintain and repair the social fabric.33

* Therapeutic transformation is predicated on narrative intelligibility, and narrative intelligibility is predicated on character discourse, so therapeutic transformation is predicated on character discourse.

* While there is evidence for the effectiveness of psychotherapy, there is in general little decisive evidence of differing effectiveness among different treatment modalities. It appears that the ability of the therapist to establish intimate and supportive relationships is related to positive therapeutic outcomes… Indeed, the history of psychiatry is replete with examples of theoretical hokum informing spectacular “cures.” Mesmer maintained the quaint notion that all illness is a manifestation of imbalances in the body’s “animal magnetism, “but although a controversial figure, there are numerous reports of his therapeutic successes (Ellenberger 1970: 57-70). That numbers of people were “Mesmer-ized” is likely due more to the social dynamic Mesmer created with his patients than to his theoretical commitments…

* What is the relative efficacy of different approaches to moral education? It is true that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence; advocates of character education are armed with a wealth of compelling stories (e.g., Coles 1997: 9). In shorter supply is empirical research involving the systematic observation of overt behavior; at present there does not seem to be a wealth of systematically obtained empirical evidence suggesting that subjects of character education reliably perform better on morally relevant dimensions than their less fortunate peers.

* “There are crowds of things which operate within ourselves without our will.” (Pierre Janet)

* I’m urging a certain redirection of our ethical attention. Rather than striving to develop characters that will determine our behavior in ways substantially independent of circumstance, we should invest more of our energies in attending to the features of our environment that influence behavioral outcomes.

* Reflection on situationism has an obvious benefit: It reminds us that the world is a morally dangerous place.

* Think again about sexual fidelity. Imagine that a colleague with whom you have had a long flirtation invites you for dinner, offering enticement of interesting food and elegant wine, with the excuse that you are temporarily orphaned while your spouse is out of town. Let’s assume the obvious way to read this text is the right one, and assume further that you regard the infidelity that may result as an ethically undesirable outcome. If you are like one of Milgram’s respondents, you might think that there is little cause for concern; you are, after all, an upright person, and a spot of claret never did anyone a bit of harm. On the other hand, if you take the lessons of situationism to heart, you avoid the dinner like the plague, because you know that you are not able to confidently predict your behavior in a problematic situation on the basis of antecedent values. You do not doubt that your you sincerely value fidelity; you simply doubt your ability to act in conformity with this value once the candles are lit and the wine begins to flow.

* We hardly need situationism to learn that when people flirt, they flirt with disaster.

* The way to get things right more often, I suggest, is by attending to the determinative features of situations. We should so far as we are able, to avoid “near occasions for sin” – ethically dangerous circumstances. At the same time, we should seek near occasions for happier behaviors -situations conducive to ethically desirable conduct.

* As Corwin (1997: 69-70) observes in his discussion of homicide in South Central Los Angeles, while “running with the wrong crowd” might be a relatively harmless indulgence for suburban youths, in South Central it too often amounts to a death sentence.

* Indeed, a touch of bellyache or headache can mean the difference between courage and cowardice.

* The difference between fame and infamy – honor and disgrace – depends less on exceptional features of the person than on whether ubiquitous situational liabilities see the light of day.

* Commitment to globalism threatens to poison understandings of self and others with disappointment and resentment on the one hand and delusion and hero-worship on the other. In fact, engaging situationism can enable loving relationships, because affection for others would not be contingent on their conformity to unrealistic standards of character. With luck, a situationist tuning of the emotions could increase our ever-short supply of compassion, forgiveness, and fair-mindedness. And these are things worth having in greater abundance.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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