Today’s Read Tells Us Nobody’s Good or Bad

Two psychologists say in a new book that we’re flat out wrong if we believe that a person’s character is unchangeable. In other words, nobody’s either good or bad; we can all be manipulated to act out of character. Author David DeSteno tells the Boston Globe:

We have to understand that behaviors for better or for ill, vice or virtue, aren’t always a function of intention or our ability to control them. You have to understand how the system works to gain control of it.

Later DeSteno is asked “Do you think of yourself as a good person?”

DESTENO: I think, ultimately, we’re all going to be judged by our behaviors….[But] the question itself presumes an inherent trait, and we are arguing there isn’t one. The question of, “Am I a good person?” is an evolving question or an iterative question….To some extent that’s going to be dependent on what I am doing and the weight of those acts I have committed, which is changing. The question is, “Am I a good person now?” not “Am I a good person?”

I’m intrigued by his approach, especially the idea that the question isn’t whether or not I’m inherently good, but whether I’m a good person right now. The more I study goodness, and the art of being good, the more I think it takes hard work, understanding and a ton of practice, which seems to be what DeSteno is saying. Interesting.

The book is Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us.

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2 Responses to Today’s Read Tells Us Nobody’s Good or Bad

  1. Linda Herzberg says:

    I tend to agree with DeSteno. Often we look at a person and say they are good or bad, without taking into account all that is involved in the decisions they made. In any given circumstance, something thought of as bad can be good and vice versa. I remember as a teenager seeing a movie called The Shoes of a Fisherman. Anthony Quinn starred as a newly made pope. He talked about how he stole food to help another prisoner in a camp where they were interned. I guess it really struck me as a kid that a pope would steal and it could be for good.

    I have seen as a child welfare worker and as a therapist that there are some situations where there is no good answer, only variations on bad. My thoughts and beliefs are that the good person will weigh out the options and consequences. Then they will pick what appears to be the best choice under the circumstances. Others will judge that person for the choice they made, but would they have chosen differently if they were in the same situation, or is it only hind sight that makes the “good” choice so easy to see?

  2. Based on personal experience, I’m sure they’re right. There are days when I can be very nice even to annoying people and there are days when I curse harmless people because they don’t move their grocery cart out of my way. Stress or illness can bring on this sort of thing.

    But probably of greater concern is the way virtually all of us will act on the job. I suspect most people (myself included) will go along with a policy that we think is wrong because we don’t want to risk our paychecks or even, on a smaller scale, make our co-workers uncomfortable.

    Despite being aware of my own goodness failures, I take issue with the idea that being good is “hard work.” Perhaps “attentive work” would be more appropriate; one needs to pay attention to act with goodness in the world. Hard work always conveys the idea that something is a struggle, and in stressful situations, I’m inclined to avoid hard work at anything that isn’t directly related to my immediate well-being. Of course, under stress, I’m less likely to pay atention, too. 😉

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