Exploring the science behind emotions and behavior
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Professor DeSteno studies human emotion and behavior at Northeastern.  Photo by Craig Bailey.

August 6, 2009

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.

For more information, please contact Jenny Catherine Eriksen at 617-373-2802 or at j.eriksen@neu.edu.

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