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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....:)

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    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 |
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