As 2018 draws to a close we can now nominate our weasel word for the year.
The weasel word for 2018 is ‘character.’
Perhaps I should explain.
Traditionally ‘character’ describes the qualities of a person or thing that defines it or makes it unique. For example, in psychology, a person’s character might be described as introverted, or humorous, or competitive.
However, recently a different understanding of ‘character’ has become more popular. For example, this month when Ada Hegerberh was named the world’s best female footballer, the TV host presenting the award controversially suggested she twerk for the audience. Later, when he apologized, he added that he usually respects women -implying his behavior was out of character.
Other examples include the popular tennis player spitting the dummy at the umpire, the multitude of famous people accused of sexual misconduct this year and more serious examples such as family violence. What all these actions have in common is when people attempt to explain their bad behavior, they all tend to claim their actions were out of character; a so-called ‘brain snap’. How else do we explain bad behavior in good people?
This explanation makes some very big assumptions. Firstly, it assumes our character is something we inhibit only some of the time, and take a leave of absence from at other times. Like a favorite set of clothes we change on occasion. This view is appealing because when we do act badly, but only rarely, it wasn’t really us. Of course, our finest moments are also rare but we claim those without hesitation.
A second assumption is these ‘out of character’ moments are driven by stress or provocation. In fact, stress does not drive a person out of character. Stress is more likely to drive us further into our character, deeper into the depths of our personality we don’t readily acknowledge. For example, an angry person, when provoked, simply gets angrier. An anxious person, under stress, becomes more anxious. A co-dependent person becomes more possessive and more controlling.
Certainly stress causes people to overreact, as in road rage. But the idea of a ‘brain snap’ is more a creation of the media than a recognized psychiatric condition. And while neuropsychologists have discovered more about the involvement of the hypothalamus in moments of extreme stress, ‘character’ is never completely bypassed. We can all think of that person we’d rather avoid when they ‘do their nut’. A brain snap might explain the trigger, but character predicts what they do next.
A third assumption is ‘out of character’ behavior can be blamed on alcohol or drugs. For example, when the actress Rosanne Barr made controversial remarks about a former Obama advisor, she blamed her sleeping pills. The following day the manufacturer responded brilliantly saying “racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.” As the Latin phrase goes ‘In vino veritas,’ or, ‘in wine there is truth.’
Finally, the biggest assumption of all is that our character is known to us, that we are the experts on which actions we are and are not capable of. In fact, it’s worth remembering that character is the ultimate iceberg, more complex and more extensive than we can imagine. We don’t like to think there are parts of our character that are unknown to us, our dark side so to speak, however, there are numerous social psychology experiments we need to keep in mind. For example, in the 1960s Stanley Milgram wanted to measure what proportion of the population would obey instructions to inflict pain on a helpless stranger. As a subject in Milgram’s famous ‘memory experiments’ you are assigned, by the toss of a coin, to the role of ‘teacher’. Another person is assigned to the role of ‘learner’. The learner, a kindly older gentleman, is fitted into a chair that receives painful electric shocks. As the teacher your role is to test him on a series of memory tasks and administer a painful shock whenever he makes a mistake. You are also instructed to increase the voltage each time making the next scream louder than the one before.
Unknown to you the learner is really an actor working with the experiment. The coin toss was fixed and no real shocks are administered. The true purpose of the experiment is to measure the extent to which ordinary people will obey orders, regardless of the inhumanity of the situation.
Despite the conservative predictions of Milgram’s colleagues most subjects complied in administering some or all of the shocks. Some subjects were visibly upset about what they were doing, but they still complied. Ironically, when the experimenters were hauled before a Yale ethics committee they pleaded they had only been following Milgram’s orders.
Labeling our regrettable actions as ‘out of character’ provides a more agreeable and convenient view of ourselves. But it’s fool’s gold. Denying our base capabilities ensures less, not more control over our actions. In contrast, the psychologically mature person takes ownership, not just of the favorable parts of their nature but the unfavorable parts also. To paraphrase Carl Jung, we’re all a bit Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, so we may as well take responsibility for the lot. In doing so we empower ourselves to better manage our impulses, both good and bad, with insight and personal responsibility.
We are all a little complex, but none of us are out of character.
- Blass, Thomas (2004). The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. Basic Books. ISBN 0-7382-0399-8. Milgram, S. (1963).
- Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.