stability of character

I think most people believe, as a matter of common sense, that individuals have stable characters. In fact, it turns out that the word “character” comes from a Greek noun for the stamp impressed on a coin. We think that adults have been “stamped” in some way, so that one person is brave but callous; another, sensitive but vain. We make fine discriminations of character and use them to predict behavior. We also see categories of people as stamped in particular ways. For instance, we may think that men and women have different characters, although that particular distinction is increasingly criticized–and for good reasons.

Experiments in social psychology, on the other hand, tend to show that most or all individuals will act the same way in specific contexts. Details of the situation matter more than differences among individuals. For instance, in a famous experiment, seminary students on their way to give a lecture on helping needy people are confronted with an actor who is slumped over and pretending to be in distress. Whether the students stop depends on how late they believe they are–a detail of the context. All the self-selection, ideology, training, and reflection that goes into seminary education seems outweighed by the precise situation that a human being confronts on his way to an appointment.

On a much broader scale, we are all against slavery and genocide today. But almost all White people condoned slavery in American ca. 1750, and almost all gentile Germans turned a blind eye to genocide ca. 1940. It seems safe to say that context made all the difference, not that our characters are fundamentally better than those of old. (For a good summary, see Marcia Homiak, “Moral Character,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Spring 2007 Edition], edited by Edward N. Zalta.)

My question is why the common sense or folk theory of character seems so attractive and is so widespread. If human behavior depends on the situation and is not much affected by individuals’ durable personality traits, why do we all pay so much attention to character?

In fact, most people we know are rarely, if ever, confronted with new categories of challenging ethical situations. Neither the political regime nor one’s social role changes often, at least in a country like the USA. An individual may repeatedly face the same type of situation, and these circumstances differ from person to person. Thus a big-city police officer in the US faces morally relevant situations of a certain type–different from those facing a suburban accountant. An American lives in a different kind of social/political context from an Iraqi. Individuals occupy several different social roles at once. But the roles themselves are pretty stable. They are, to varying degrees, the result of choices that we have made.

Thus what we take to be “character” may be repeated behavior resulting from repeated circumstances–which, in turn, arise because of the roles we occupy, which (to some degree) we choose. In that case, it is reasonable to expect people to act “in character,” yet situations are what drive their behavior. By the way, this seems a generally Aristotelian account.

One thought on “stability of character

  1. Michael Weiksner

    I think that people are influenced by both situational and dispositional factors. Research aimed at finding situational influences find (surprise, surprise!) situational influences. Much of the social scientific results I’ve seen, by *design*, cannot shed much light about the relative importance of situational and dispositional factors. Your example of the slumped actor fits this design perfectly.

    While plausible as a theory, I haven’t yet seen convincing evidence that character is over-emphasized.

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