Con­trary to pop­ular belief, having good char­acter isn’t just about con­trol­ling your emo­tions, but about lis­tening to them, says David DeSteno, asso­ciate pro­fessor of psy­chology at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. DeSteno argues that there are sub­con­scious mech­a­nisms shaping a person’s char­acter, and that this can change from moment to moment. In this Q&A, DeSteno talks about how emo­tions shape behavior and the sci­ence behind the prover­bial “good” and “bad” angels that sit on our shoulders.

Much of your research focuses on how human emo­tions affect a person’s social behav­iors. What made you decide to focus on this par­tic­ular area of psy­chology?
Most of us are familiar with expe­ri­encing the ups and downs of emo­tions in life.Our goal was to try and under­stand not just the ups and downs, but more impor­tantly, how these states impact our deci­sions and actions—and toward what ends.

Did you set out to deter­mine if humans were inher­ently good or inher­ently bad?
No.I think that “black and white” view is too sim­plistic. Mem­bers of most species need to opti­mize their self-​​interest to thrive, but when you’re a social animal like humans are, sud­denly opti­mizing your self-​​interest involves suc­cess­fully dealing with others to build sup­portive social net­works. Con­se­quently, acting in a morally accept­able manner takes on great importance.

You believe that char­acter is shaped, in part, by our sub­con­scious. Can you explain that?
For a long time, the view has been that to be moral, we need to tamp down our emo­tions, which run under the con­scious radar, and think ratio­nally. Although that is cer­tainly true at times, it misses an impor­tant fact: Some­times it is our emo­tions that push us to do the right thing in oppo­si­tion to our rea­soned analysis that we may strate­gi­cally use to jus­tify selfish behavior. As we’ve demon­strated in our lab, com­pas­sion, grat­i­tude and the like compel us to act vir­tu­ously without our even being aware of it.

What role, if any, does intel­li­gence play in the devel­op­ment of one’s char­acter?
Intel­li­gence, in and of itself, isn’t directly related to char­acter. It allows us to under­stand our world and, if we choose, the work­ings of our mind. On its own, how­ever, it doesn’t pro­mote virtue or vice.

Does char­acter deter­mine a person’s like­li­hood of suc­cess?
Yes, but it is one of many fac­tors. To the extent that suc­cess in one’s field involves suc­cess­fully dealing with others, char­acter becomes quite cen­tral. Being in tune with one’s moral emo­tional responses can increase the odds for engaging in actions that bring the respect of others (e.g., hon­esty, per­se­ver­ance, altruism).

Can someone be moral and amoral at the same time? And, is it all based on who is making that judg­ment?
Good ques­tion. One of the cen­tral tenets of this book is that we have dif­ferent mech­a­nisms in our minds that com­pete to push for self versus com­munal interest—kind of like the prover­bial “good” and “bad” angels that sit on your shoulder. The mech­a­nism that wins out in any given sit­u­a­tion will deter­mine how we act. In our lab, for example, we’ve demon­strated that simple changes in sit­u­a­tions and feel­ings can lead people to become hyp­ocrites, to seek revenge on others, or to extend their hands in sur­prising levels of gen­erosity to others in need.

You men­tion the good and bad angels that sit on our shoul­ders and urge us to be vir­tuous or to suc­cumb to vice. Is the latter always a bad deci­sion?
Cer­tainly not. It depends on the vice and what the con­se­quences would be. Both total self­ish­ness and total altruism can be dis­as­trous from a bio­log­ical perspective—one becomes shunned or totally taken advan­tage of. Finding the bal­ance is the optimal way to go—hence, the two com­peting mech­a­nisms in the mind.