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A rare Saturday post, partly to remove the rather odd New Year’s Eve offering from my front page. This is inspired by a post by Jonah Lehrer on why we should avoid making too many New Year’s resolutions.

 A few weeks ago I commented on a Demos report about character. The pamphlet argued for the importance of certain personality traits in determining life chances. It also pointed to three factors making it more likely that someone will have a deficit in these traits; the experience of poverty, inherited psychological flaws, and poor parenting.

While welcoming the report (which shares many themes with a paper produced by Matt Grist of the RSA’s Social Brain project), I raised a couple of issues. First, is it the case that the bundle of traits that we might call ‘good’ character always go together? Second, is character revealed in a personality type or in the decisions a person makes:

If you are born happy, have great parenting and then go on to live a life of self interested middle class complacency, do you have better or worse character than the deeply troubled and disadvantaged individual who manages to survive or even to use their own experiences to help others?

Another complexity is neatly summarised in an article on Jonah Lehrer’s site. It appears that will-power, like physical energy, has limits over the short term. Just as your ability to run a fast mile will be reduced if you have just run a half marathon so one exercise of willpower will make it more difficult to perform another immediately. What is more, the mental systems that govern will-power are also responsible for other activities, like short term memory and abstract reasoning, so performing these also appears to reduce our will power in the short term.

All of which takes me back to the metaphor for human behaviour which I used in my annual lecture; an elephant (our genetic and socialised mental hardware) riding through the pathways of a cultivated forest (social rules and norms) being guided by its rider (conscious thought).

Character is a function of the interaction of all three complex dimensions. This is why the idea of character is more difficult than it might appear. Demos’ work focuses on the elephant, but the Lehrer post makes clear that even on this dimension the idea that one person consistently has more ‘will-power’ than another is problematic. The rider’s capacity (our ability to decide to exercise out will) is influenced by the way the elephant functions (the constraints of our frontal cortex).

This is a fascinating and important subject and one I am sure the RSA will be addressing often in 2010.


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