Monday, November 30, 2009

Situation (not character) maketh the man?

Chris Dillow points to Thierry Henry's now famous "hand of god" goal in the recent World Cup qualifier against Ireland and argues that instead of being a "cheat" as he is accused of, Henry's may be a case of an "ordinary guy who found himself in a position where there was an overwhelming incentive to act dishonestly". He points to a recent study of the "dictator" game to analyze the role of personal identity and altruism, which finds that we should be cautious about "attributing identities to people and attempting to explain economic conduct in terms of these identities" ("fundamental attribution error" at work).

Two issues here

1. It is not that self-perception of character does not matter, but the extent of its influence may not be as large as thought of. In particular, when the situation posits an overwhemlimg incentive to act contrary to character, the average indivdual invariably ends up deviating. As Dillow himself says in the context of the Dictator game, "subjects who say they believe in fairness tended to give away a similar large sum" - character does exhibit a positive co-relationship with many of their behavioural outcomes, though the extent of this is mitigated or enhanced by circumstances. This critical role of situations only underlines the importance of incentives (that distinguish situations) that can make human beings act one way or the other.

2. We may not have given enough allowance for instinct. As people who have played football will acknowledge, instinct does play a critical role in many of the split-second reactions of players on the field. But the difficulty is to find out how much of Henry's reaction was a result of instinct than of volition? In any case, it cannot be denied that instincts do play an important role in many decisions taken by human actors. And are instincts a reflection of character?

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