Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations

​​Character (Virtue and Wisdom)

Good character is the habitual tendency to do the “right” thing across diverse social situations, even when daily anxieties and temptations push and pull one in other directions. The right thing is usually a moral ideal beyond narrow self-indulgence. It is what the Greeks referred to as virtue and is sometimes equated with wisdom. A foundational feature of character (or virtue or wisdom) is the capacity to see a wide array of relevant perspectives in any situation and to act in accord with the most relevant and appropriate ones. This capacity for appropriate action across diverse circumstances is what the Greeks referred to as the master virtue of Prudence. From the Greek perspective, appropriate action adhered to the other three cardinal virtues of Justice, Temperance, and Courage. Justice requires the capacity to appropriately consider other people beyond oneself, and to give them their due. Doing so requires the capacity to recognize perspectives beyond one’s own personal priorities. Temperance requires the capacity to moderate any focal desire by controlling oneself, keeping focal desire in balance with others’ perspectives and alternative personal priorities that one might hold in different circumstances. Courage requires the capacity for appropriate engagement of passion (closely linked to what we see as approach motivation)—being neither too passionate (and reckless or impulsive), nor too bland or inert. 

In more colloquial terms, character usually refers to the justice aspect of moral discipline vs. moral laziness, i.e., not being selfish. Justice (considering others) is a cornerstone of almost all moral systems. Relatively selfless (high character) people habitually consider others, and have found ways to tame habits of personal indulgence, egocentricity, and hostility. Anxious circumstances are the acid test of character. Most people can be relatively friendly and fair-minded when things are going well. In anxious circumstances, however, some people habitually become hostile and small-minded. In contrast, others rise to the occasion with compassion and magnanimity. Some of our recent work suggests new possibilities for simple character improvement interventions (see Morality section).

One of the ideas we are currently pursuing is whether high intensity motivation of either anxiety or approach motivation may compromise character by constricting perspective. High anxiety may cause self-preoccupation with personal difficulties and obstacles that loom large. High approach motivation may cause rash selfishness and impulsivity. Either way, consideration of alternative perspectives could be blocked. We are currently investigating  whether moderating participants' motivational intensity will improve their capacity for perspective and character in action. A related question is whether low personal motivation might be necessary at first, for open-minded consideration and reflection on various perspectives. Once a course of action has  been prudently identified, however, might high approach motivation be required to power tenacious action through distractions and obstacles?

*Note: to see in context of other research topics in our lab, click on the RESEARCH link at the top of this page.