On a summer's day in the ocean off Panama City Beach, two boys were caught in a current while swimming. When her mother heard her screams, she and several other family members dove into the sea, only to be caught in the current as well. Then, in a powerful punctuation, complete strangers springed into action on the beach.Forming a human chain of 70 to 80 bodies, they stretched into the ocean and saved everyone.
Stories like these inspire me with hope for what humans are capable of. Although we are confronted with a daily deluge of depressing reports of sexual molestation, corruption and child abuse, stories of human kindness help give us a different perspective on our human character.
But as we know all too well, our character also has a darker side. Take for examplethe history vonWalter Vanz, 61, who was shopping for Christmas decorations at his local Target. It was Black Friday and the store was under siege when Vance fell to the ground in cardiac arrest and lay motionless. The other buyers did nothing. In fact, some people even stepped over his body to continue their bargain hunting. Eventually some nurses used CPR, but by then he was too far away.
"Why do strangers help in one situation and just ignore someone in need in another?"
Why do strangers help in one situation and simply ignore someone in need in another? This is one of the core questions of my new book,The Character Gap: How Good Are We?In the book, I outline psychological research on moral behavior to show why we sometimes act morally and sometimes not, based on who we are and what's happening around us. Using the insights from this science, I recommend steps we can take to strengthen our moral character.
The good and the bad of our character
While it may shock you to hear about Vance's story, none of it is surprising given some psychological research. For decades, psychologists have found that when there is an emergency, we are unlikely to be able to help ourselves, but no one else is doing anything to help. In yourfamous "Lady in Distress" study, Columbia psychologists Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin, for example, report that only 7 percent of participants did something to help when they heard cries of pain from a woman who had fallen in the next room when they were with a stranger who wasn't helping .
This is just one illustration of the darker side of our character, but there are others.studieshave found that we are willing to cheat for monetary gain if we can get away with it. We alsotend to lieto about 30 percent of the people we see on any given day. And most disturbing of all, with the encouragement of an authority figure, a majority of the peopleare willing to giveincreasingly violent electric shocks for a test participant - even to the point of a fatal jolt.
But there's also much more encouraging news about the character. For example, Daniel Batson has worked for more than thirty yearsfascinating researchabout how empathy can have a profound impact on our desire to help others in need. Ina studyAfter Batson got students to empathize with a total stranger who was experiencing a terrible tragedy, the number of students willing to help her rose dramatically to 76 percent, compared to 37 percent in a control group.
"Cheating on a test fell when participants first sat in front of a mirror and looked at themselves before the opportunity to cheat arose."
other researchersfoundthat cheating on a test dropped when participants first sat in front of a mirror and looked at themselves before the opportunity to cheat arose. And in the Lady in Distress study, 70 percent of participants who were alone in the next room when they heard the screams of pain did something to help. Finally, in another version of the shock experiments, when the authority figure was completely hands-free and the participant selected the level of shock to be administered for each incorrect response, the maximum was much lower -- just an average of 5.5 out of 30 levels.
How to close the character gap
What are we to make of the findings of this and hundreds of other studies of moral behavior?
While it's important to talk about being virtuous—wise, compassionate, and honest—and avoiding being immoral—cruel, cowardly, and deceitful—most of us aren't quite one way or the other. There are exceptions, but the majority of us fall somewhere in the middle, sometimes acting virtuously, sometimes not.
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Fortunately, there are promising strategies aimed at narrowing what I call the "character gap," or the gap between how we should be (virtuous people) and how we actually are (a mixed bag). Here are a few from my new book.
Emulate moral role models.Positive moral role models can be a source of admiration. For example, we admire someone like US President Abraham Lincoln for his honesty, or American abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman for her courage. In doing so, we see something outstanding in what they have done, something worthy of our admiration.
But admiration is not enough. I admire what the US curling team did at the 2018 Olympics, but it made little difference in my life. Rather, we also need our moral heroes who move and inspire usemulate, emulateShe. In doing so, we want to become more like Lincoln or Tubman, for example. As a result, we feel an emotional urge to change our lives to better reflect our role model's life, or at least the parts of his character that we morally admire (unfortunately, most of our moral heroes also have unfortunate parts of their character). .
“We need our moral heroes to move and inspire usemulate, emulateShe."
Therefore, my admiration for Lincoln's honesty can lead me to emulate her, which in turn (if all goes well) can lead me to actually be more honest with others. Going back to the character gap idea, I'm not getting Lincoln's character to where I am. Rather, I try to raise my own character to where it is.
For many years, researchers have demonstrated the influence of role models on moral behavior. For example inanother study with screams of pain nearby, John Wilson, and Richard Petruska of Cleveland State University had observers rate how helpful a participant was when cries of pain came from the next room. One was the lowest rating and ten was the highest or most helpful rating. When a participant was in the room with an unresponsive stranger, the average rating was 6.21. When a participant was with someone who jumped up and went to the next room to see what happened, that role model led participants to help with an average score of 9.05 out of 10.
Moral role models can be real or fictional people. Sydney carton boxA fairy tale about two citiesor the bishop purelypatheticcount too. Real life ones can be from the distant past or present, well-known people in society or someone who cleans our office building, distant strangers or close friends and family members. The more we are personally connected to them, the more deeply they are likely to affect our character.
Use moral reminders.Target customers who ignored the prostrate Walter Vance had lost sight of what was important in life. Black Friday's great deals or fear of embarrassment or getting involved in someone else's situation probably kept them from doing anything to help. Loss of perspective also characterizes the participants who repeatedly turned on the shock button with encouragement from the authority figure.
Moral admonitions can draw our attention back to what is important. They can take a variety of different forms, from trinkets to sticky notes to a daily reading on ethics.
Current Studieson fraud support the role of moral admonitions. In a popular setup, participants complete a 20-problem test with an incentive of $0.50 per correct answer. The control group has the answers checked by a responsible person at the end. The experimental group has the participants self-score their own answers, destroy all their materials, and then report the number of "correct" answers. Inevitably, average performance is higher in this group, with some studies even finding twice the number of "solved" problems.
"Moral admonitions can draw our attention back to what is important."
The truly intriguing results are when a new group of participants have the same opportunity to cheat, but get a moral rebuke first. In a study, as many of the Ten Commandments as possible are recalled. In another, she signs her university's code of honor. The results of each? cheating disappeared.
Moral reminders can get us back on track, and the more we use them, the more habitual or second nature they become.
Learn more about yourself.Learning more about the feelings, emotions, and desires that might get in the way of virtue can also help narrow the character gap. Once we gain this deeper sense of self, we can work to contain and correct their influence.
For example, we might appreciate the powerful role that fear of embarrassment can play in preventing us from doing what is morally right, like helping others. In fact, such fear is one of the central elements in explaining why help tends to be so much less when people are in a group of unresponsive strangers. As such, it's probably part of what kept Target buyers from doing anything to help Walter Vance. By learning to appreciate the impact of our fear of embarrassment, we can work to counter it and rise to the occasion when issues of moral importance are at stake.
This is how it might work in practice. You are in a busy mall and see someone holding on to a railing while clutching their chest with the other hand. Nearby shoppers seem to notice this man, but continue on their way. So is your initial inclination. But then something comes to mind, how fear of embarrassment can keep people from doing the right thing when others don't respond to an emergency situation themselves. This reminder will help you review the situation and consciously think about what is the right thing to do. It doesn't take long to realize that an innocent person could die if they don't take action before someone bothers to call the paramedics. This outcome is far worse than the alternative of embarrassing yourself when it turns out you misjudged the situation and there really is no emergency. So, despite the initial hesitation, you run over to check on the man and see if there's anything you can do to help.
Have psychologists found evidence that this actually happens? Admittedly, there are very few studies in the literature, but one relevant to overcoming embarrassment was conducted by University of Montana psychologist Arthur Beaman. He wanted to see what effect learning about our own psychology could have in reducing the negative impact of helping in a group. If studentsin the studyencountered a (staged) emergency in the presence of an unresponsive stranger, only 25 percent helped. But of students who had attended a group psychology class two weeks earlier and helped, 42.5 percent helped. That's an impressive increase.
In summary, the character gap is real and large for many of us. Fortunately, however, it's not insurmountable. These and other strategies can help us strengthen our moral character and rise to the occasion when moral action is required. In today's world, we all need to do our part in not stepping above someone who is suffering and instead help.
This essay is adapted fromThe Character Gap: How Good Are We?(Oxford University Press, 2017) and an article that appeared ongreater good,The online magazineGreater Good Science Centerat UC Berkeley.