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Out of Character

Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us

By David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo
15-minute read
Audio available
Out of Character: Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us by David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo

Out of Character (2011), introduces a more flexible idea about character that goes beyond the classic dichotomy of the saint and the sinner. These blinks use psychological experiments to demonstrate how many of the traits we consider fixed are prone to influence by outside events, often in surprising ways.

  • Students of psychology and philosophy
  • Anyone who is interested in human behavior

David DeSteno is an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University and director of the school’s Social Emotions Lab. His work has been published in The New York Times and Scientific American.

Piercarlo Valdesolo is an assistant professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and many other notable publications.

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Out of Character

Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us

By David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Out of Character: Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us by David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo
Synopsis

Out of Character (2011), introduces a more flexible idea about character that goes beyond the classic dichotomy of the saint and the sinner. These blinks use psychological experiments to demonstrate how many of the traits we consider fixed are prone to influence by outside events, often in surprising ways.

Key idea 1 of 9

Character is the product of dueling forces in every moment.

Have you ever wondered about the origins of the word character? Actually it comes from an ancient Greek word that referred to the indelible marks pressed into coins to differentiate them. However, the nature of character is anything but fixed and eternal. So when people act “out of character” they are often just expressing a part of their true nature.

In fact, character is really quite flexible and it’s common for people to behave differently at different times since each of us contains both vice and virtue. This divide is classically depicted as a battle of opposing ideas within each of our minds: the proverbial angel and devil on our shoulders. These forces are seen as guiding our actions and early on each person is swayed more by one than the other.

However, the duality of angel and devil is problematic for three reasons:

First, it’s too simplistic to think that each of us is guided by only a good and a bad force. In reality, the powers that influence our behaviors are much more nuanced.

Second, it’s not possible to be certain about which side to trust.

And, third, external events greatly affect our thoughts and actions, a fact that we’ll see explained in detail later on.

So what’s a better metaphor?

That of the ant and the grasshopper, drawn from a fable by the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop, which goes like this:

The ant, always thinking long-term, is busy preparing for winter while the grasshopper enjoys himself, singing, playing and not worrying about winter until it arrives.

The two mindsets symbolized in this story better describe our internal struggle because they depict the battle between immediate rewards like going to a party and long-term planning like spending the night studying. Rationally speaking, it’s the future gains that bear the greater potential. For instance, if you save money it will grow but you also have to live long enough to enjoy it. Therefore, both sides are important and both are contained within all of us.

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