Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On Character

Iskra Fileva at the Opinionator: Character and Its Discontents:

What is character? Ordinarily, we envision character as a set of stable and unified dispositions: we expect the timid employee to be shy on a regular basis, not just on some days, and we picture him as a mellow father, not as a tyrant at home. Since we suppose that characters are unified in these ways, we are almost invariably surprised when it turns out that the different aspects of someone’s personality stand in tension with one another. It is news to us that Tolstoy’s attitude toward his own illegitimate son was worse than aloof, notwithstanding the humanism and sensitivity of Tolstoy’s writings, or that Richard Nixon was rather a good father and husband despite his mendacity in other contexts. [...]

What is the basis for our assumptions that people’s characters are unified, and that their behavior in one context will resemble their behavior in other contexts? [...] There are, indeed, various features of our perception of other people’s characters that make us prone to expect unity.

Consider first what I would call the “privileged perspective” bias. We tend to give priority to our own interactions with and feelings for the person we are called upon to judge, and since people are usually consistent in their behavior toward us, we form unfounded beliefs in the stability of their dispositions. [...]

There is another, more general limitation on ordinary observation that inclines us to find unity where none is to be found. Everyday experience rarely affords us grounds to discover what people are capable of and how they would behave in novel contexts. And the truth about what they are capable of may well contradict our beliefs about them. [...]