Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A bit on the science of character

David Brooks at the New York Times has a piece on the Where the Wild Things Are movie. Don't read it if you haven't seen the movie. He gives the whole thing away (fume, fume).

In light of Cheryl Klein's brief discussion of literary depth, though, I wanted to combine these two ideas.

Here's what Cheryl says:

The writer and blogger Caleb Crain recently defined "depth" on his blog as "a sense of the complexity of reality." That's precisely what I mean when I say I'm looking for a novel with literary depth: I want fiction that presents the complexity of reality (which could be a funny or romantic reality as well as a tragic one--indeed, most realities are in more than one mode), and writers who can make those realities tangible and meaningful. (Here's a link to the Crain piece she's talking about.)

And here's what Brooks has to say about character and how it isn't necessarily the fixed element we tend to create in fiction. In other words, it could be a kind of complexity.
Op-Ed Columnist
Where the Wild Things Are
In Homer’s poetry, every hero has a trait. Achilles is angry. Odysseus is cunning. And so was born one picture of character and conduct.

In this view, what you might call the philosopher’s view, each of us has certain ingrained character traits. An honest person will be honest most of the time. A compassionate person will be compassionate.

These traits, as they say, go all the way down. They shape who we are, what we choose to do and whom we befriend. Our job is to find out what traits of character we need to become virtuous.

But, as Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Princeton philosopher, notes in his book “Experiments in Ethics,” this philosopher’s view of morality is now being challenged by a psychologist’s view. According to the psychologist’s view, individuals don’t have one thing called character.

The psychologists say this because a century’s worth of experiments suggests that people’s actual behavior is not driven by permanent traits that apply from one context to another. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call “cross-situational stability.”

The psychologists thus tend to gravitate toward a different view of conduct. In this view, people don’t have one permanent thing called character. We each have a multiplicity of tendencies inside, which are activated by this or that context. As Paul Bloom of Yale put it in an essay for The Atlantic last year, we are a community of competing selves. These different selves “are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control — bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.”

The philosopher’s view is shaped like a funnel. At the bottom, there is a narrow thing called character. And at the top, the wide ways it expresses itself. The psychologist’s view is shaped like an upside-down funnel. At the bottom, there is a wide variety of unconscious tendencies that get aroused by different situations. At the top, there is the narrow story we tell about ourselves to give coherence to life.

The difference is easy to recognize on the movie screen. Most movies embrace the character version. The hero is good and conquers evil. Spike Jonze’s new movie adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” illuminates the psychological version.

Read the rest if you've already seen the movie or don't care about the spoilers.

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