Kind at the Core

Morality seems more central to who we are than memories or personality traits.

By Matt Huston, published November 2, 2017 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

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What makes you you? Red hair and hazel eyes? An introverted nature? Nothing holds as much weight for others as your sense of right and wrong: We consider moral characteristics more central to a person than memories or standard personality traits, research by psychologist Nina Strohminger and others suggests. Strohminger, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, explains how the evidence binds morality and identity

Why do you argue that morality is more important for our sense of who someone is than, say, extraversion?

We kept finding that when people act in a way that's inconsistent with their moral character, we're much more willing to relabel what kind of people they are. If someone is generally an extravert and then one day acts like an introvert, we're not like, "Oh, she's actually shy." But if someone is generally very honest and then one day lies to you, it's very easy for you to say, "This person's really a liar."

You have also used real-life cases to show that morality is a keystone of who we seem to be.

We recruited people with neurodegenerative diseases—Alzheimer's, ALS, and frontotemporal dementia—and collected data for various symptoms. In Alzheimer's patients, for example, the most obvious change is memory loss, but many also experience personality changes, and some of them become nicer or meaner. For all patient types, changes in moral character almost exclusively predicted whether a caregiver said, "This is not really a recognizable person to me anymore."

Why might such traits be more fundamental than others?

Because we're social creatures, maybe what we're trying to do when we identify others is to track what kind of social partner they'll be. Will they cheat or defect? Will they reciprocate and be nice to us? So when we try to figure out, "Is that the Eric I was interacting with yesterday?" the most important factor is "Is he still the good person I thought he was?" 

Nina Strohminger

Research also suggests we believe that, like Scrooge, most bad people have a good "true self" buried underneath. How robust is that belief?

I think if you are really clear that someone is a monster, we are able to engage with that viewpoint. But people will often continue to believe there is a good "true self" even when there is no evidence of one. If the essence of a person is thought to be moral goodness, then even if a person is damaged on the outside, there is a cognitive bias to hope that there will eventually be a reversion to form.