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Increasing Our Self-awareness

A Q&A with Christian Miller

Published on:
June 4, 2018
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9 min.
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Tell us briefly a bit about your new book The Character Gap and your ongoing work with The Character Project. What about this work fascinates you?

I have been writing for my fellow academics my entire professional life, and eventually I came to question the value of what I was doing. So, I wanted to try to write for a broader audience. But I am getting ahead of myself.

For the past ten years I have been researching the topic of character and virtue from the perspectives of philosophy, theology, and psychology. Given all the interest people have in character here at Wake Forest University, we were able to partner with the John Templeton Foundation to start The Character Project in 2010. Over the course of the ensuing years we received more than $5 million in funding to support new research on character. Most of the funding went to support twenty-eight projects around the world by younger scholars who had new and innovative ideas that they wanted to explore. At the same time, I also wrote two academic books of my own, Moral Character: An Empirical Theory and Character and Moral Psychology, in which I developed my take on the subject of character in great detail.

As The Character Project was winding down, I was discouraged by the thought that most of the work we were doing might only remain in the halls of academia. Not that that is a bad thing by any means, but people in general really care about things like honesty, compassion, and justice too.

Hence my book, The Character Gap. This book tries to present the main ideas of my own academic research, together with some of the discoveries of the other members of The Character Project, in a way that is fresh, relevant, and accessible. No technical jargon and namedropping, if I can help it.

One of the reasons why writing the book was fascinating for me is that I had no training in doing this kind of thing. The academic world does not value writing for a popular audience (although there are signs this is starting to change), and in some cases it could actually hurt one’s career. So, I was largely on my own trying to find my way. Some of my intellectual heroes like C. S. Lewis were companions on the journey.

Who do you hope is reading this book and what do you hope they will gain?

Frankly, anyone who is interested in things like courage, honesty, and wisdom. I don’t presuppose that the reader has any background knowledge or training in philosophy or psychology. Nor do I assume a religious worldview. The first nine of the ten chapters are completely secular (the last one is on character improvement from a Christian perspective).

I would love for readers to come away feeling that there was something important and true being said about the four topics which structure the book:

  • What is character, and what are the qualifications for having a virtuous character?
  • Why is becoming a better person and developing the virtues important?
  • How good is our character today? Is it virtuous, vicious, or somewhere in-between?
  • Given that for most of us it is not virtuous, what concrete steps can we take to try to become better people?

If readers felt that the book offered a good treatment of these issues, I would be thrilled!

As you have studied character, what have been some of the more shocking revelations about our bent toward viciousness?

What has surprised me is how people in various studies can behave in terrible ways which, prior to learning about the studies, most of us would never have expected. Let me give two examples.

What would you do in that situation? Help, right? Well, it depends

One is the famous Milgram shock experiments from the 1960s. In the most well-known version, a participant would be seated at a desk and told to administer a test to someone in the next room. For each wrong answer the test-taker got, the participant was supposed to turn up a dial one more level. The dial was set to the lowest level initially, but each turn would lead to a higher and higher level of electric shock given to the test-taker as punishment, all the way up to the XXX or lethal level.

In addition to the participant, there was an authority figure in the room who was watching everything. The participant could opt-out of the experiment at any point. But if he started showing signs of hesitation, the authority figure would use a scripted prod like “Please continue.”

The results? Under pressure from the authority figure, 65% of participants turned the dial up to the XXX level and, by their lights, voluntarily killed an innocent person (of course the shocks were not real, but they did not know that). All this, while ignoring earlier screams of pain, pounding on the walls, and complaints about a heart condition.[1]

The other study I’ll mention was done by the Columbia psychologists Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin, also in the 1960s. In this case, a participant would come into a room and be told to fill out a survey. A stranger would join the participant and be told to do the same thing. The person in charge would then leave the room, and after a while the participant could hear a loud crash from a toppled bookshelf followed by cries of pain.

What would you do in that situation? Help, right? Well, it depends. If the stranger in the room does nothing, you are likely to do nothing as well. In fact, only 7% of participants did anything to help.[2]

Voluntarily killing an innocent person and not doing anything to help someone in pain who is trapped under a bookshelf. Not the best reflections on our character.

In the book, you mention a third approach to character, beyond a virtue/vice dichotomy. Can you give us a quick description of this approach? What is unhelpful in using virtues and vices to understand character?

So, when you see results like these, the natural temptation is to conclude that we are deep down really vicious people—cruel, callous, self-centered, and the like. I think we should resist this temptation. Why?

Because there are also plenty of studies in psychology which find people behaving extremely well too. Indeed, we see this in variations of the very studies mentioned above. For example, when there is no authority figure present, the average level of shocks remains very low. When there is no stranger present, 70% of participants helped the person in the next room. And in research done by the University of Kansas psychologist Daniel Batson, he found that when we empathize with the suffering of others, we are much more like to help, and to do so for selfless, altruistic reasons.[3] That’s impressive.

Most of us (but not all!) have what I call a mixed character, with some morally good sides and some morally bad sides.

So, instead what I think is really going on is that most of us (but not all!) have what I call a mixed character, with some morally good sides and some morally bad sides. We are not good enough to qualify as virtuous, in other words, but also not bad enough to qualify as vicious. Incidentally, I think this is very much the Christian perspective too, where we need to balance the idea that we are created in the image of God with the idea of our sinfulness.

If my picture is correct about what our character looks like, then one reason it is unhelpful to continue to describe people as either virtuous or vicious is that it will generate faulty expectations. If, for instance, I assume that most people are kind and compassionate, I can set myself up for major disappointments in life. But if I assume that most people are cruel and callous, I also underestimate their potential for doing tremendous good for others, say, when feeling empathy for those who are suffering.

You have spent a lot of time researching character and the way people view virtue and vice in others and themselves. What do you think leads people to believe that they are more virtuous than they actually are?

I’m afraid I don’t really know. Part of it might be just a general bias we have to think highly of ourselves (examples include how good we are at driving and how intelligent we are). Another part of it, I suspect, is that some of the ways we fall short of virtue fly below our conscious radar screen. Take the Milgram studies. Now thanks to those studies we have a much greater understanding of how strong our willingness is to obey authority figures, even if they support awful causes. Before Milgram had done his studies, our willingness to obey authorities was not as well appreciated, and so we might have had a higher opinion of our character in this area of our lives than was warranted.

After digging in to the research as a reader, even at a cursory level, you really begin to appreciate the complexity of the human situation.

Or take the bystander effect, as demonstrated in the study where only 7% helped when in the same room with a stranger who did nothing. There, part of the explanation offered by psychologists for what is going on is a basic fear of embarrassing ourselves in front of people we do not know. The influence of fear of embarrassment is still greatly under-appreciated by most people today, and if it were better known, it might lead us to lower our estimation of our own virtue.

After digging in to the research as a reader, even at a cursory level, you really begin to appreciate the complexity of the human situation. For example, we are nudged toward certain behaviors by sensory perceptions that operate at a subconscious level (e.g., the smell of cookies!). How does our environment shape our character?

I came away with the same appreciation myself. And the cookie study is really quite fascinating. The psychologist Robert Baron was looking to see what impact good smells would have on helping behavior. His control participants were shoppers in a mall who had just walked passed clothing stores and were approached to do a simple helping task. A second group was shoppers who had passed Cinnabon or Mrs. Field’s Cookies and then had the same chance to help. The difference? Batson found that in the first group 17% of women and 22% of men helped.[4] In the second group 61% of women and 45% of men helped. Really amazing, the difference.

Character exists, and it influences our behavior every day. But it doesn’t work in a vacuum. Our character is highly sensitive to what we notice going on in our environment. And that “noticing” is sometimes conscious, but it is sometimes unconscious too. For instance, I bet many of the shoppers didn’t pay much attention to the smell of the cookies. Or if they did, they certainly did not consciously connect it to being more willing to help a few minutes later. Similarly, when asked why they didn’t help the person in the next room who was in pain after the loud crash, the participants came up with all kinds of excuses. But rarely did they say anything about the influence of the stranger with them who was not doing anything to help.

Character exists, and it influences our behavior every day. But it doesn’t work in a vacuum.

Fortunately, though, while our environment shapes our character, we are also able to shape our environment too. Because of the conscious choices I make, I can influence what my surroundings will be like in the future, and I can even put myself on a path toward developing a better character.

What is the way forward from here? Is it a pursuit of self-knowledge? Or do we severely overestimate our ability to know ourselves?

The last section of The Character Gap is devoted to character improvement, or concrete steps we can take to bridge the “character gap” between how we tend to actually be, and the virtuous person we should be. One of the ways forward I suggest is what I call “getting the word out,” which basically amounts to increased self-awareness. The thought is that if we come to better appreciate the various tendencies we have which hold us back from being virtuous, we can be in a better position to try to curb and correct them. There is, incidentally, some research to back this up. For instance, returning to the bystander effect, a study done in the 1970s found that only 25% of participants in a control group helped in an emergency where another person was not helping. But for students who had attended a lecture two weeks earlier on the psychology of groups and helping, 42.5% of them helped in the same emergency.[5]

But increased self-awareness is not the only way forward, I suggest. I also discuss other strategies, both secular and Christian, such as looking to moral role models.

You mention that the role of the Holy Spirit is a feature that is entirely unique in the discussion of character. How is this feature helpful for Christian character development?

In the final chapter of my book I turn to some ideas from the Christian tradition about how to improve our characters (while also noting that one does not have to be Christian to be a good person). Some of the ideas I examine, such as the role of Christian practices like fasting and tithing, and the influence of being in a community with fellow believers, have parallels in other religions like Judaism.

But the role of the Holy Spirit is different. There is no analog to the Trinity and to the idea that one of the persons of the Trinity is intimately involved in the process of sanctification. This idea is profoundly helpful, I think, because it means that Christians are not left with the (impossible) task of making themselves perfectly virtuous on their own. If left to their own devices in trying to bridge what we might call the sanctification gap, Christians could experience a lot of frustration and discouragement. Fortunately, they are not on their own. They have a divine helper in the form of the Holy Spirit, and so sanctification becomes a partnership rather than a one-way process. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the process is a smooth one, nor that it is completed in this lifetime. But it does mean that eventually we will be restored to the character God intended for us to have all along.

What’s next for you?

Well, I am already hard at work on a new book, this time on honesty. Believe it or not, the virtue of honesty is almost completely neglected in philosophy (and other disciplines too). For instance, there has not been a book or article in a leading journal in philosophy on this virtue in over fifty years. So my plan is to go back to my academic roots and try to say something helpful about what honesty really involves, and what the psychological research tells up about how honest (or not) people are today. Then after that I might try a popular book again.

Christian B. Miller
Christian B. Miller is A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. His writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Dallas Morning News, Aeon, Christianity Today, and Slate, and he is the author or editor of eight books. His most recent, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? has just been released with Oxford University Press.

[1] Milgram, S. Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

[2] Latané, B. and J. Rodin. “A Lady in Distress: Inhibiting Effects of Friends and Strangers on Bystander Intervention.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 5 (1969): 189–202.

[3] Batson, C. Altruism in Humans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[4] Baron, R. “The Sweet Smell of . . . Helping: Effects of Pleasant Ambient Fragrance on Prosocial Behavior in Shopping Malls.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23 (1997): 498–503.

[5] Beaman, A., P. Barnes, B. Klentz, and B. McQuirk. “Increasing Helping Rates through Information Dissemination: Teaching Pays.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 4 (1978): 406–411.

Cover image by Pepe Reyes.

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