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Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us Hardcover – May 3, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


"A fascinating yet highly readable perspective on the psychology of the hero/villain spectrum of human character, inviting us to reconceive personality, both our own and that of others." – The Atlantic

“My bad -- and your bad too. This smart and lively book uses cutting-edge research in psychological science to reveal the hero and the villain that live inside each of us.”
-Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University and bestselling
“Who would have ever thought that a pair of social psychologists would have so much to say about good and evil? David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo are brilliant experimentalists and deep thinkers, and Out of Character hits the sweet spot --it's scientifically rigorous, smoothly written, and achingly relevant to everyday life. It shows how laboratory research is undermining the very notion of a fixed moral character, and explores a new approach to hypocrisy, pride, prejudice, jealousy, and love.”
-Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology, Yale University, author of HOW PLEASURE WORKS
“It is not unusual to think of someone as either a moral or immoral person, of good character or not.  David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo make the intriguing argument instead that the world is not filled with saints and sinners, but rather there is good and bad in all of us.  Marshalling data from some of the most clever and counterintuitive experiments in social psychology and interpreting these findings in new ways, DeSteno and Valdesolo surprise us on nearly every page.  Out of Character should be read by anyone interested in human behavior; it challenges simple but engrained ideas about virtue and evil in a lively, entertaining, and insightful way.”
-Peter Salovey, Provost, Yale University and co-creator of the theory of Emotional Intelligence

About the Author

DAVID DESTENO is associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University, where he is also director of the Social Emotions Lab. He is editor of the American Psychological Association’s journal Emotion and has served as a visiting associate professor of psychology at Harvard University. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, ABC News, Scientific American, and NPR. He has also guest-blogged for the New York Times Freakonomics blog.
PIERCARLO VALDESOLO is an assistant professor of psychology at Claremont-McKenna College. His work has appeared both in top journals and major news outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, LA Times, and Newsweek, and he has been awarded fellowships at Harvard University and Amherst College. He is a contributor to the Scientific American Mind Matters blog.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harmony; 1St Edition edition (May 3, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307717755
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307717757
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 0.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #846,327 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on March 29, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is another one of those fascinating books that deals with "What psychology can tell us about ourselves." In this case, it's Character. We tend to predict someone's behavior from their character, but every now and then someone behaves in a way we wouldn't expect. Almost every day we read of the public figure that's behaved in a totally reprehensible manner (although we tend to expect better behavior from them than ourselves).

David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo have produced a book that tells us not so much how to tell if some individual will "break character," but rather what character is. And surprise - character is a moving target. Extreme circumstances make us behave in ways no-one can predict - least of all, ourselves. We may claim to have high moral standards, but such people (not ourselves, naturally) may suddenly lose them. What DeSteno and Valdesolo show is that people who "let themselves down" never expected that this would happen.

Why did the NASA astronaut, veteran of many psychological tests, suddenly decide to put on adult diapers and drive across country to confront the man she loved? Why did the Eagle Scout, admired by many, eventually destroy his career as Governor of South Carolina by taking a mistress in Argentina? To most of us, living our humdrum lives, these actions seem ridiculous. And that is why - a humdrum life never presents us with a totally new set of circumstances that we must deal with. So it's easy to live our lives in character.

DeSteno and Valdesolo are professors of psychology, so this book is not just philosophical thinking about how we behave, but also an exploration of how to test people to find out what they'd do in a particular situation.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Charles S. Houser on April 24, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is an interesting, scientific look at the nature of human character. The research scientists who authored this volume, David DeSento at Northeastern University and Piercarlo Valdesolo at Amherst College, have drawn upon the research of others or devised some clever studies of their own for testing various aspects of character. Often starting with a vivid example from the tabloids (Tiger Woods, Governors Sanford and Spitzer, etc.), they explore the things that make all of us susceptible (under the right conditions) to moral failure, hypocrisy, excessive pride, cruelty, cheating, and intolerance. The laboratory study they devised to test the relationship of gratitude to acting on the "Golden Rule" was especially clever and persuasive (I won't spoil it for you). For each of the characteristics studied, the authors show an evolutionary basis for choosing between the deferred gratification solution (the ant's position in Aesop's fable about the ant and the grasshopper) and that of immediate satisfaction (the grasshopper's). Human's always act in self-interest, but how they understand what will serve them best varies based on the peculiarities of the situation at hand.

This book is very readable. At times I wanted to know more about how the studies were set up and carried out; in other instances, I had no desire to linger over details and appreciated getting the executive summary. In the end, the authors don't extrapolate any solutions for people who may want to know how to best guard against major lapses of character. I think the best readers can do is to remind themselves that they are not immune from any temptation or weakness. In the mean time, we can all afford to be a little more forgiving when noticing the character deficiencies of others.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Lita Perna VINE VOICE on May 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The authors' frequently lighthearted style and elbow-to-the-ribs humor soften the seriousness and often disturbing conclusions of this book.

The book is packed with experiments by researchers, David Desteno (Northeastern), and Piercarlo Valdesolo (Harvard), and others. Their conclusion is that character is not a fixed set of traits, but is fluid and influenced by variables such as current emotional states, short term vs. long term rewards, threats or boosts to self esteem, commonly accepted behaviors, risks vs. probabilities and possibilities, and ancient short hand survival benefits of "us vs. them" mentality of prejudice and stereotype.

According to the authors we all have the capacity given the right circumstance to be "liars, cheats, sinners or saints."

The book uses as examples, the behavior of famous fallen- from- grace figures like Bill Clinton, Marc Sanford, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Lisa Nowak and others to illustrate concepts of hypocrisy morality, pride, hubris, fairness, tolerance, bigotry and playing it safe or taking a gamble.

This is not an easy book. There were many experiments with much detail. At times the book grew tedious, but the many cited experiments were probably necessary for the authors to fully present their arguments.

The authors do appear to attempt to lighten the load with humor,
but this kind of humor coming from two renowned researchers on such a weighty subject somehow seems incongruent.

The authors also made some unusual statements, "...if we didn't feel jealous, we wouldn't have the kinds of stable relationships that are necessary to adequately protect and care for our offspring.
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