We're often taken aback when a respected governor, political candidate, husband or wife is caught cheating. But psychologist David DeSteno argues that there's a growing body of evidence that shows that everyone — even the most respected among us — has the capacity to act out of character.
The book Out Of Character, which DeSteno co-wrote with psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo, details the evidence and applies it to familiar stories.
"We spent a lot of time constructing situations that pose challenges to people in the ways of moral dilemmas to see ultimately, when push comes to shove, what they'll do," DeSteno tells NPR's Neal Conan.
DeSteno cites one experiment in which subjects where told to flip a coin in order to choose between a simple, fun task and a boring, hour-long task. They were also told that the next participant would have to do the task that wasn't chosen, and then they were left alone to their own devices.
"These were experiments centered on hypocrisy," DeSteno says. "If you do this, what people will typically do when we leave them alone is 90 percent of them will not flip the coin."
That is, they'd cheat the system and pick the preferred task for themselves. Later, when asked if they had acted fairly, the subjects responded that they had.
Then, those same subjects were asked to watch another participant — really, a fake participant planted by the researchers — do the same thing. They observed that person skip the coin toss and choose the easy task, just as they had done. Only this time, they were quick to condemn the planted participant.
DeSteno says that's because "when they don't flip that coin, they feel that immediate pain of guilt. It's just that if you give them 30 seconds, unbeknownst to them, their mind will rationalize it away."
And that, according to DeSteno, helps explain former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's scandals.
"There's really an inherent tension in our minds between what we refer to as short-term goals and long-term ones," DeSteno says. "If you're a hypocrite too often, it's not going to be very beneficial for your long-term relationships. But once in a while, if you can get away with it, people will often try to do so and rationalize it away."
DeSteno says the push and pull between short- and long-term goals, and selfish and selfless impulses exists at both the level of intuition and rational thought.
"It's when they disagree that some of the most interesting changes in our behavior happen," he says.
Take the coin-flipping experiment, which can be cleared of its hypocritical results with only the slightest change. When participants were asked to pronounce a judgment on their own actions after counting backwards from seven — that is, to focus on something else in the time their brains would otherwise be rationalizing their actions — they judged their actions just as harshly as they had judged those of the planted participant.
The bottom line, according to DeSteno, is that while character is typically thought of as something fixed, it's actually much more dynamic.
"If you look at the scientific data, what we see over and over again is that people's moral behavior — for ill and for good — is much more variable than we would ever expect," he says.
So it's no use strictly defining someone's character because, DeSteno says, "We're continually going to be surprised when their behavior falls outside of those bounds."