On the Brain: Finding good and bad people
May 11th, 2011
05:22 PM ET

On the Brain: Finding good and bad people

You probably have your own idea about what makes someone a "good person" or a "bad person," but the latest research in psychology suggests you might want to be a little more flexible in such categories.

A new book called "Out of Character," scientists David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdelsolo say that the a person's so-called "character" is constantly in flux, as they tell Scientific American. How we behave isn't only a matter of willpower, nor is it based on some abstract "core" of good and evil inside you. They argue that environmental cues are crucial in shaping behavior, often in ways you're not even aware of.

For instance, research has found that if you are wearing a wristband, you are likely to discriminate against someone wearing a different color wristband. But if you are tapping your foot in synch with music, you're more likely to help a person who is also tapping in the same way.

And, of course, the famous Milgram Experiment and Stanford Prison Experiment showed that under specific circumstances, ordinary people are capable of doing terrible things.

When it comes down to it, the scientists say, it's not so much about "good" and "evil" as it is about long-term and short-term reward-seeking. You might borrow money and not pay it back, or lend out more money than you can afford to and feel the negative impact that way. So, it's important to have a balance of strategies.

All in all, "character" isn't a thing that can be taught, but skills can, they stress. "Because, in the end, it's not about 'Are you a good person in general' - it's about 'Are you a good person right now,' " DeSteno told Scientific American.

Of course, plenty of people do give in to short-term temptations and deceive others for various reasons. Psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, have researched how you can detect deception, and published their findings in the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry. Professor R. Edward Geiselman offers some tips about how to tell if someone is lying, which include:

• When questioned, deceptive people generally want to say as little as possible. Geiselman initially thought they would tell an elaborate story, but the vast majority give only the bare-bones. Studies with college students, as well as prisoners, show this. Geiselman's investigative interviewing techniques are designed to get people to talk.

• Although deceptive people do not say much, they tend to spontaneously give a justification for what little they are saying, without being prompted.

• They tend to repeat questions before answering them, perhaps to give themselves time to concoct an answer.

• They often monitor the listener's reaction to what they are saying. "They try to read you to see if you are buying their story," Geiselman said.

Finally, Paul Slovic, widely noted for his research in decision making and judgment, asks us to rethink our views on intervention in foreign conflicts, such as Libya, through the lens of psychology. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, he talks about "psychic numbing," a concept that explains why we lose compassion in for people who die in an event - research shows when there is more than one victim, in fact, the emotional connection lessens. Strangely, we place a high value on individual lives, but change the channel when there's news of many people killed.

But there is a way to overcome that numbing: Point out the bad guy. Studies have shown that "people are more punitive toward identified wrongdoers than toward equivalent but unidentified wrongdoers," so if you single out a leader as being bad, the public will be more likely to condemn his or her actions. Apparently, it takes a villain to make people care.

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. goodone

    nice one............ Morality is the invention of weak.

    May 12, 2011 at 09:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. nina786

    nice information....:)


    May 12, 2011 at 09:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. DevPsychMA

    So what is/are the mechanism(s) behind the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations? Anyone else see chicken and egg here?

    May 12, 2011 at 13:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Jing Hu

    I don't know if this research is all the nessacary at all! We are a product of both nature and nurture. I don't think you can judge a person fully until you have walked in their shoes or know them for a long time. We are all different.

    May 12, 2011 at 13:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Burns

      We are all different but stealing and homicide are never acceptable. A person's morality is mostly judged on "grey areas." None of us would kill a child, and all of us would save one but some of us choose not to alter our behaviour that puts children at risk.

      @goodone Morality is necessary for society to function. Dog eat dog is fine for dogs but people need to invent stuff and have needs beyond animals.

      May 12, 2011 at 15:07 | Report abuse |
  5. tommy

    Joseph Stalin said something like this: The death of an individual is a tragedy, the death of a million people is a statistic.

    May 12, 2011 at 14:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. quickster

    poor, silly little humans. just can't come to terms with their mortality so they invent wishful scenarios based on fairy tales. they deserve to go extinct, and a fitting epithet will be " they couldn't stand the fact that they were going to die, so they killed themselves. or as T.S. Eliot said:"human kind cannot bear too much reality.

    May 12, 2011 at 16:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Adelina

    The Bible tells us not to trust any human being but just to love them and do them good as if they are ourselves. Most of us have gifts of common sense and some education to measure people, but we need to be always checking whether we are being deceptive or not since all humans are deceitful. Knowing God and other beings watching us all the time everywhere and the later sure justice put us in a pretty good shape in a realistic way.

    May 14, 2011 at 01:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Adelina

    Realistically and practically, if I think there is no ultimate justice waiting for me at the end and without the knowledge of the Creator's sacrificial love, I find no reason to be honest or be truly good to others. I may be able to function my own humanistic love, but only while I find convenience to do so. Human love is selfish and unreliable, open to all kinds of betrayal, termination, misjudgment and misconduct. Christ alone gives to mankind a defferent kind of love and a true, unshakable reason to love and do what is right and wise.

    May 14, 2011 at 02:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • gottahearthe

      me thinks you need a couple of drinks, get laid and loosen up a little. no matter your age.

      May 14, 2011 at 19:10 | Report abuse |
    • gottahearthe

      What "different kind of love"? in the ear-hole?

      May 14, 2011 at 19:12 | Report abuse |
  9. Adelina

    If anyone thinks he or she is pretty okay, that's because the individual is blind and filthy about oneself. People who lived in mud for life never know what it means to be clean. Mankind needs outside help to see our sin as it is.

    May 14, 2011 at 02:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • gottahearthe

      You are a sad,sad, excuse for a human.

      May 14, 2011 at 19:04 | Report abuse |
    • gottahearthe

      by the way, you so-called "christian". I belive it says in the bible"judge not lest ye be judged". you are in some bbiiiggg trouble when you meet your maker girl!

      May 14, 2011 at 19:07 | Report abuse |
  10. スーパーコピー オメガ

    ウブロレプリカ時計、IWC イミテーション時計、

    October 5, 2018 at 15:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. zortilonrel

    I have been browsing on-line greater than three hours these days, but I by no means found any interesting article like yours. It is lovely value enough for me. In my opinion, if all webmasters and bloggers made just right content material as you did, the web shall be much more helpful than ever before.


    February 7, 2021 at 20:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. https://g.page/dr-goz-peter-ugyved-debrecen

    This is the fitting blog for anyone who wants to find out about this topic. You notice so much its virtually arduous to argue with you (not that I truly would want…HaHa). You positively put a brand new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Nice stuff, simply nice!


    February 9, 2021 at 04:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. stornobrzinol

    Needed to compose you a very small remark so as to say thanks as before for those wonderful concepts you have contributed in this case. It is quite seriously open-handed of you to make unhampered precisely what many of us might have supplied for an e book to help with making some bucks for themselves, primarily seeing that you might have tried it in the event you desired. These guidelines as well served like the great way to recognize that some people have the identical keenness like my personal own to know the truth great deal more in regard to this condition. I'm certain there are several more fun occasions in the future for many who look into your site.


    May 14, 2021 at 03:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. lich thi dau bong da asiad 2019

    Trực Tiếp Bóng Đá Thời Điểm Hôm NaytivihayXem đá bóng trực tuyến Trực tiếp Odd BK vs Sarpsborg, 20h ngày 24/5, giải VĐQG Na Uy. Xem lịch phạt sóng trực tiếp đá bóng EURO hôm nay được Webthethao update chủ yếu xác nhất.


    June 14, 2021 at 11:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. thvl1 trực tuyến

    Xoilac Tv Trực Tiếp đá Bónglich da banh asian cup 2019Đây có lẽ là ngôi trường hợp “của đi thay cho người" khá may mắn đối cùng với Ben McLemore. Thiếu chút nữa tay ném của Los Angeles Lakers đã có được thể bắt gặp hiểm họa nguy hiểm. Cập nhật kết quả trận nước Việt Nam vs Lebanon nằm trong play-off vòng loại Futsal World Cup 2021.


    June 15, 2021 at 18:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. ttbd

    Xem Trực Tiếp đá Bóngtrực tuyến vtv1Theo thể thức thi đấu, đội thắng ở cặp đấu này sẽ giành tấm vé đến Lithuania trong ngày hội bóng đá lớn nhất thế giới đến futsal. Tuyển futsal Việt Nam bước vào trận play-off lượt đi tranh vé dự play-off World Cup 2021 với sự tự tin. Tuy vậy, HLV Phạm Minh Giang bày tỏ, toàn đội ko ngán Lebanon song sẽ tìm cách để khắc chế sức mạnh của đối thủ bởi bên trên băng ghế huấn luyện là nhà cầm quân Ramiro Lopez, người từng dẫn dắt futsal Tây Ban Nha.|Dựa vào lịch thi đấu, quý khách rất có thể chuẩn bị xếp làm việc


    June 18, 2021 at 05:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. fb88

    Trực Tiếp đá Bóng Ngày Hôm Nay, Liên Kết Xem đá Bóng Trực Tuyến 24h keo nha cáiĐội tuyển chọn futsal Việt Nam đã có một trận đấu đồng ý được trước đối thủ cạnh tranh đầy sức mạnh Lebanon. Kết trái Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu vs Bình Phước thời điểm hôm nay 18h00 ngày 5/5, Hạng nhất Việt Nam.


    June 27, 2021 at 04:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. ty le nha cai

    Thông Tin, Sự Khiếu Nại Liên Quan Lại Đến Thẳng Bóng Đá Nữ Giới zingplayĐội tuyển chọn futsal nước ta đã có được một trận đấu chấp nhận được trước đối thủ đầy sức mạnh Lebanon. Kết quả Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu vs Bình Phước ngày hôm nay 18h00 ngày 5/5, Hạng nhất nước Việt Nam.


    June 27, 2021 at 08:57 | Report abuse | Reply

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.