Changing How the World Thinks

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Are You As Good As You Think?

Probably not. But the great news is that you can change this
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He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

One summer day in the ocean off Panama City Beach, two boys out for a swim got caught in a rip current. When their mother heard their cries, she and several other family members dove into the ocean, only to be trapped in the current, too. Then, in a powerful display of character, complete strangers on the beach took action. Forming a human chain of 70 to 80 bodies, they stretched out into the ocean and rescued everyone.

Stories like this inspire me with hope about what human beings are capable of doing. Though we may face a daily barrage of depressing reports about sexual harassment, corruption, and child abuse, stories of human goodness help to give us another perspective on our human character. 

But, as we know too well, there is also a darker side to our character. Take, for example, the story of Walter Vance, 61, who was shopping in his local Target for Christmas decorations. It was Black Friday and the store was mobbed when Vance fell to the floor in cardiac arrest and lay motionless. The other shoppers did nothing. In fact, some people even stepped over his body to continue their bargain hunting. Eventually, a few nurses used cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but by then he was too far gone.

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"Why do strangers help in one situation and simply ignore someone in need in another?"

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Why do strangers help in one situation and simply ignore someone in need in another? This is one of the questions at the heart of my new book, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? In the book, I outline the psychological research on moral behaviour to show why sometimes we act morally and sometimes we don’t, based on who we are and what’s happening around us. Using insights gleaned from this science, I recommend steps we can take to strengthen our moral character.

The good and the bad of our character

While it may shock you to hear about Vance’s story, none of this is surprising in light of certain psychological research. For decades now, psychologists have found that if there is an emergency but no one else is doing anything to help, then we are very unlikely to help ourselves. In their famous “lady in distress” study, for instance, Columbia psychologists Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin report that when participants heard cries of pain from a woman who had fallen in the next room, only 7 percent did anything to help if they were with a stranger who was not helping.

This is just one illustration of the darker side of our character, but there are others. Studies have found that we are quite willing to cheat for monetary gain when we can get away with it. We also tend to lie to about 30 percent of the people we see in a given day. And most disturbing of all, with encouragement from an authority figure, a majority of people are willing to give increasingly severe electric shocks to a test-taker—even up to a lethal jolt.

Yet there is also much more encouraging news about character. For instance, Daniel Batson has done more than thirty years of fascinating research on how empathy can have a profound impact on our desire to help others in need. In one study, after Batson got students to empathise with a complete stranger experiencing a terrible tragedy, the number of students willing to help her dramatically rose to 76 percent, compared to 37 percent in a control group. 

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"Cheating on a test dropped when participants first sat in front of a mirror and looked at themselves before the opportunity to cheat arose."

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Other researchers found that cheating on a test dropped when participants first sat in front of a mirror and looked at themselves before the opportunity to cheat arose. And in the “lady in distress” study, for participants who were alone in the next room when they heard the cries of pain, 70 percent did something to help. Finally, in a different version of the shock experiments, when the authority figure was completely hands-off and the participant chose the shock level to administer for each wrong answer, the maximum was much lower—only an average of 5.5 out of 30 levels.

How to close the character gap

What are we to make of findings in these and hundreds of other studies of moral behavior?

While it’s important to talk about being virtuous—wise, compassionate, and honest—and to avoid being immoral—cruel, cowardly, and deceitful—most of us aren’t completely one way or the other. There are exceptions, but the majority of us are somewhere in the middle, sometimes acting virtuously, sometimes not.

Fortunately, there are promising strategies that aim to reduce what I call the “character gap,” or the space between how we should be (virtuous people) and how we actually tend to be (a mixed bag). Here are a few from my new book.

Emulate moral role models. Positive moral role models can be a source of admiration. We admire someone like US President Abraham Lincoln for his honesty, for instance, or American abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman for her courage. In doing so, we see something excellent in what they have done, something worthy of our admiration.

But admiration is not enough. I admire what the U.S. curling team did in the 2018 Olympics, yet my life has changed little as a result. Rather, we also need our moral heroes to move us and inspire us to emulate them. We thereby want to become more like Lincoln or Tubman, for instance. As a result, we feel an emotional pull to change our lives so that they better reflect the life of our exemplar, or at least the parts of their character we morally admire (sadly most of our moral heroes have regrettable parts to their characters too). 

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"We need our moral heroes to move us and inspire us to emulate them."

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Hence my admiration for Lincoln’s honesty can lead to my emulating it, which in turn can (if all goes well) lead to my actually behaving more honestly towards others. To return to the idea of a character gap, I don’t bring Lincoln’s character down to where I am. Rather I seek to raise my own character up to where his is.

For many years, researchers have demonstrated the impact of role models on moral behavior. For instance, in another study involving nearby screams of pain, John Wilson and Richard Petruska at Cleveland State University had observers rate how helpful a participant was when there were screams of pain coming from the next room. One was the lowest rating and ten was the highest or most helpful rating. When a participant was in the room with an unresponsive stranger, the average rating was 6.21. When a participant was with someone who jumped up and went into the next room to see what had happened, this role model led participants to help at an average level of 9.05 out of 10.

Moral role models can be real or fictional people. Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities or the bishop in Les Misérables count, too.Real life ones can be from the distant past or the present, well-known figures in society or someone who cleans our office building, distant strangers or close friends and family members. The more attached to them we are personally, the more profoundly they are likely to impact our character.

Use moral reminders. The customers in Target who ignored Walter Vance lying on the ground had lost sight of what was important in life. The great deals on Black Friday, or the fear of embarrassment or of getting involved in someone else’s situation, likely kept them from doing anything to help. A loss of perspective also characterises the participants who kept turning the shock dial up with encouragement from the authority figure.  

Moral reminders can shift our attention back towards what really matters. They can take a variety of different forms, from pieces of jewelry to post-it notes to a daily reading on ethics.

Recent studies on cheating support the role of moral reminders. In one popular setup, participants take a 20-problem test with a $0.50 incentive per correct answer. The control group has someone in charge check the answers at the end. The experimental group lets the participants themselves grade their own answers, shred all their materials, and then report their number of 'correct' answers. Inevitably, the average performance is higher in this group, with some studies finding as many as double the number of problems 'solved.'

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"Moral reminders can shift our attention back towards what really matters."

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The really fascinating results are when a new group of participants has this same opportunity to cheat, but is first given a moral reminder. In one study it is recalling as many of the Ten Commandments as they could. In another it is signing their university’s honor code. The results in each case? Cheating disappeared.

Moral reminders can get us back on track, and the more we use them, the more habitual or second nature they can become. 

Learn about yourself. Learning more about the feelings, emotions, and desires that could be obstacles to virtue can also help reduce the character gap. Once we gain this deeper self-awareness, we can work on trying to curb and correct their influence.

For instance, we might come to appreciate the powerful role that fear of embarrassment can play in keeping us from doing the morally right thing like helping others. Indeed, such a fear is one of the central elements in explaining why helping tends to be so much lower when people are in a group of unresponsive strangers. As such, it is likely part of what kept the Target shoppers from doing anything to help Walter Vance. By coming to appreciate the influence of our fear of embarrassment, we can work to counteract it and rise to the occasion when matters of moral importance are at stake.

Here’s how this might work in practice. You are in a busy shopping mall, and see someone grab a railing for support as he clutches his chest with his other hand. Nearby shoppers seem to notice this man, but continue on their way. Your initial inclination is to do so as well. But then something pops into your mind about how fear of embarrassment can hold people back from doing the right thing when others are not responding to a situation of need themselves. This remembrance helps you rethink the situation, and consciously deliberate about what the right thing to do is. It doesn’t take long to realise that by not doing anything, an innocent person might die before anyone bothers to call the paramedics. That outcome is far worse than the alternative of embarrassing yourself, if it turns that you are misreading the situation and there really is no emergency. So despite the initial hesitation, you run over to check on the man and see if there is anything you can do to help.

Have psychologists found any evidence that this kind of thing actually happens? Admittedly, there are very few studies in the literature, but one which is relevant to overcoming embarrassment was run by the University of Montana psychologist Arthur Beaman. He wanted to see what effect learning about our own psychology could have on reducing the negative impact on helping of being in a group. When students in the study came across a (staged) emergency in the presence of an unresponsive stranger, only 25 percent helped. But for students who had attended a lecture on the psychology of groups and helping two weeks earlier, 42.5 percent helped. That is an impressive increase.

In sum, the character gap is real and, in many of us, large. Fortunately, though, it is not insurmountable. These strategies and others can help us strengthen our moral character and rise to the occasion when moral action is required. In the world today, we all need to do our part to make sure we are not stepping over someone who is suffering, and instead lend a hand.

This essay is adapted from The Character Gap: How Good Are We? (Oxford University Press, 2017) and an article that appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

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