The Strength in Our Weaknesses

Coming back from a dark past is seen as more laudable than being consistently good.

By Micaela Heck, published November 2, 2017 - last reviewed on April 17, 2018

Domagoj Burilovic/Shutterstock

When we think of the people who inspire us, model citizens may come to mind more easily than former inmates. But a recent paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reports that overcoming self-inflicted troubles is perceived as even more laudable than maintaining a straight-and-narrow path.

In stories read by study participants, a fictional character had either improved on a dark past, such as one marked by excessive drug use or gambling, or had remained consistently respectable throughout life. Participants were then asked to rate how inspiring, moral, and admirable the character was (among other, related features), as well as how much he seemed to have struggled.

Characters who had improved their lives were rated more positively than those who had remained consistently good—likely because, the researchers suggest, their comeback appeared to require more work. "Because we're not privy to other people's internal state, we don't see the struggle that it takes to always be good," says University of Chicago psychologist Nadav Klein, a co-author of the study. There was a key exception to the pattern, however: A character whose past behavior clearly harmed other people was no more inspiring than others, even if he ultimately reformed.