Out of Character

The surprising truths about the liar, cheat, sinner (and saint) lurking in all of us

Wolves in Sheep's Clothing

Lessons in character from a bloodthirsty cattle rancher.

In 1989 Enrico Ponzo slipped on a ski mask and attempted to murder Mafia boss Francis Salemme, aka Cadillac Frank, outside an International House of Pancakes in Saugus, Massachusetts. The Cadillac had assumed power in the late 80's after the arrest of former boss Jerry Angiulo, but his lack of "polish" as a #1 inspired brazen attacks from those who sought the crown. With promises of endless stacks of pancakes and twenty four hour omlettes as bait, Enrico took his shot, and missed. With a contract out on his head, he eventually disappeared, only to resurface last month in the unlikeliest of places: Marsing, Idaho (you can find the full NYT coverage here)

Perhaps inspired by the seemingly fluid transition to suburban life that Steve Martin achieved in My Blue Heaven, Enrico lit out west in search of a new identity - trading in his gangster life style for the bib overalls and straw hats that only those whose experience with country living was limited to TV movies would deem appropriate. He became Jeffrey John Shaw, the cattle rancher. The idea of a Boston Mafioso herding cattle may seem absurd ("where's my friggin tract-ah"), but "Jay", as he was affectionately called by fellow ranchers, was a welcomed addition to the community. On Feb 7th that all came to an end when Federal Marshals finally caught up to him. After 10 years living a lie, his true character was revealed to the townsfolk in a Boise courtroom, and his story has captured the imagination of people well beyond Marsing.

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Why do such cases of hidden identity fascinate us? From Superman to war criminals, the idea of someone hiding in plain sight shakes our understanding of the constitution of character to its core. We see character in black and white - good and bad. And when we form an impression of an individual as one or the other we cling to it. When our friends err, we forgive them, justify their misdeeds, and remind ourselves that they are good people despite their bad actions. When others err we criticize and condemn, seeing their faults as reflections of their true, rotten selves. So, when our expectations of others' character are seriously violated, like when cattle ranchers turn out to be hit men, we sit up and take notice. We wonder how we could possibly have been fooled. How could such a menacing brute ingratiate himself so easily into a community? This bewilderment is rooted, we think, in a flawed conception of character. Character is simply not as stable as we assume. The dispositions that predict attempted homicide can quite easily coexist with those that predict living the good life. Which dispositions manifest themselves depend significantly on the environment.

This is not to say that any individual in Enrico's situation would have ended up lurking in IHOP parking lots with loaded weapons. But it is to say that our intuitions about character lean far too heavily towards dispositional accounts. As we hope to show with this blog, the data from behavioral science simply do not support such an interpretation.

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Adapted from posts on our oocblog.com (outofcharacterbook.com)

Piercarlo Valdesolo, Ph.D., is a social psychologist working as a College Fellow at Harvard University.

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