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Judging Character: When We Fall Short

June 16, 2010 by ·

There have been books written about why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to good people.  Now what we need is a book that talks about when good people do bad things, such as when an honest person lies.

We readily talk about how the 24 VIA character strengths each occur along a continuum of strength as opposed to existing categorically as black or white.  The VIA Survey reports scores along a continuum and we have been attending to what the presence of those strengths mean in our lives.  But the flip side of that coin is a critically important one for us to consider.

The flip side of possessing a character trait at some strength is that we also do NOT express that character trait to some degree.  Though we may usually be open-minded, there are times when we can be stubbornly closed.  I can often be honest, but sometimes not.  What happens to our judgments of ourselves and one another when we observe these infractions of character?

A large literature on actor-observer bias tells us that we all have a tendency to excuse our own misbehavior by noting all sorts of circumstantial reasons, while others judge our misbehavior as reflecting stable dispositions.  Herein are two problems.  First, this attributional asymmetry allows us all to fall short of our values without damaging our self-esteem. It may be difficult to correct this side of the actor-observer bias.  Like someone with bulimia whose restraints on eating dissipate when a purging solution becomes viable, our ability to rationalize can keep us from having a governor on misbehaving.  Thankfully, though, we seem to have an intrinsic motivation to act good to compensate for the fact that our psyche has developed a loophole that allows bad behavior through.

We may, though, be more able to manage how we judge others when we observe character infractions.  First, we can be cognizant of our tendency to under-recognize situational factors and try to be more balanced.  We can do a better job of looking for factors in the situation that might have pressured the person to misbehave and considering the validity of those factors.  Stealing a loaf of bread to feed one’s family is a more valid reason than stealing just for the fun of it.   Second, we can recognize that ALL of us fall short of our values sometimes – “to err is human” – and find some compassion and forgiveness in that realization.

We can also look at the seriousness of the infraction, knowing that all infractions are not equal.  A “misstatement” is less egregious than a bold-faced lie.  A rude remark impugns one’s “kindness” less than an affair with one’s best friend’s spouse.  Finally, character is a trend and not an event.  So, we need to consider the consistency of a person’s behavior over time and across situations to find the truth of someone’s character.

As we become better at judging the character of ourselves and others, we will be growing a more compassionate world in which to live.

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Filed Under: VIA Strengths general