Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Apr 30, 2015

Understanding Moral Character Through Context

by Erik Helzer
Young boy with fingers on temples expressing pain
The study of moral character has taken off in recent years. A couple of recent papers by Geoff Goodwin and his colleagues and Nina Strohminger and Shaun Nichols have made clear that perceptions of morality and character are central to the way we perceive ourselves and others. But moral character isn’t only important as a lens through which we perceive one another – it is a vital component of who we are and why we do the things we do.
There are three basic assumptions in the study of character, which have been borne out by a growing body of recent research: The first is that there are detectable differences between people in moral behaviors like honesty or compassion; the second is that those differences are stable – that the most and least honest people remain most and least honest across different observations; the third is that those stable differences are maintained to some degree by “machinery” within the person. This is a view that was popular at the beginning of the 20th century, but was later abandoned due to apparent inconsistencies in people’s moral behavior (ex. Hartshorne and May) and the demonstrated impact of situational forces on behavior (ex. Darley and Latane). Since that time, personality psychologists have made huge strides in demonstrating the existence and impact of broad traits such as extraversion and conscientiousness, but until recently the study of moral behavior, true to its 20th century tradition, has focused primarily on the situated nature of moral behavior.
To study moral character as my colleagues and I ( have done is to unify the undeniable power of the situation with the often large degree of consistency that can be seen in people’s moral behaviors over days, weeks, months, and years. Our view is that the study of character is not opposed to the study of situations. On the contrary, situations, and individual differences in the social cognitive processing of those situations, may in fact be the very scaffolding upon which moral character is built.
As one example, consider an experience sampling study that our team recently conducted on honesty. Participants were contacted five times a day for seven days and reported how honest they had been in the last hour. (It turns out that if you offer people a private way to convey their honesty, they are quite happy to report when they’ve bent the truth a little, flat out lied, or been “brutally” honest with someone.) At each of these time points we also asked them about the kinds of situations they’d been in over the last hour – were the situational demands ambiguous or structured? Were the people around you friendly or not? Were you feeling in touch or out of touch with your values? Each of these is a situational variant that has been shown by past research to systematically affect moral behavior.
The results from this study provide important insights into the nature of character and situational influence. First, honesty varied from report to report. The average person in our study was sometimes honest, sometimes dishonest, and often somewhere in between. Moreover, those changes were not random – honesty changed as a function of the situations participants found themselves in. When participants were in more ambiguous or less friendly situations, for example, they were less honest. In addition to these fluctuations, though, we observed a remarkable degree of consistency. The most honest and least honest people at the beginning of the study tended to remain the most and least honest at the end of the study. And when behaviors were aggregated (so that a person’s honesty score was composed of 10-12 observations), honesty became almost perfectly stable, revealing powerful individual differences that persisted across situations. Finally – and most exciting from my perspective – was the degree of variability we saw in people’s responses to situations. Although situations exerted a main effect on honesty, different people responded in different ways to different situations. For most people being in a structured environment reliably increased their honesty, for example. For some, that increase was big, for others it was weak, and for a minority of people, structure reliably decreased honesty.
Consistent individual differences in these “situational contingencies” are intriguing because they suggest that in order to understand the structure of character one must understand the effects of situations completely. I am excited to think that a full understanding of the power of the situation –including how the same situation can affect different people in different ways—will advance the study of character. As a social-personality psychologist, I like to think of the study of character as the study of the social psychology of each individual. We can, to reference the title of this blog, understand character and context reflexively, and in doing so arrive at a much more powerful explanation of why people do moral and immoral things in everyday life.
Erik Helzer is an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. 

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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