The Moments That Make Us Who We Are

Life provides turning points of many kinds, but the most powerful of all may be character-revealing moments. They go right to the heart of who we are.

By Hara Estroff Marano, Anna Yusim M.D., published July 2, 2018 - last reviewed on July 26, 2018

Photo by Peter Hapak

In the middle of a date, her first with Martin, Deirdre* received an urgent phone call. Could she please do an immediate on-air radio interview? She had, after all, just written a well-received book about politics, and there had been big political news breaking all that week. Caught completely off guard, she agreed. She signaled to Martin that she had to take the call and moved to an empty corner of the restaurant to speak.

Fifteen minutes later she looked up and saw that Martin was standing nearby, as if guarding the space. Had he been there all along? Had he heard the whole thing? Before an embarrassed Deirdre could muster an apology for the professional intrusion on what she had hoped would be a romantic interlude—it had taken them two weeks of chitchatting to find an unhurried afternoon to meet face to face—Martin spoke up. "Look," he said, "I heard only your half of the conversation, but I thought you were terrific." "I'm so sorry to have inflicted this on you," she stammered. "No worry," he shot back. "I expect great things of the people I hang around with."

Picking up the phone in the middle of a date or any other meeting was not part of Deirdre's usual repertoire, and in retrospect she isn't even sure why she chose to take the call. But the incident was revelatory, and more than 10 years into their relationship it still shines in her memory. In a totally unforeseeable moment, she got a dazzling glimpse of what Martin was made of. And what Martin was made of, besides quiet confidence, was an abundance of class, compassion, and kindness—in a word, character.

There are moments so packed with meaning that they shimmer through time. Some inspire awe by exposing the splendor of nature. Some deliver a flash of insight to solve what seems like an intractable problem. They are inherently transformative; they instantaneously expand awareness and alter one's sense of self. Psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term peak experiences to suggest the inner magnificence of such rare and distinctive events.

But there are also moments of great meaning that are more social in nature, that arise spontaneously in the space between people. Such moments can shed an illuminating light on the deepest dimensions of a person's being. Arriving unheralded, they may accurately reveal a person's strengths, expose vulnerabilities, unveil core convictions, divulge life values. They beget a profound state of knowing with searing speed.

In an instant, Deirdre apprehended that Martin was trustworthy—on her side, already a teammate, looking out for her, protecting her interests. Instead of taking offense that Deirdre's work intruded on their personal time or feeling intimidated by her professional stature, he acted with generosity and took it upon himself to put her at ease. And she knew the information revealed was completely authentic: It came totally unscripted. Martin stepped into an opportunity that would never have existed had he not summoned the courage and kindness to carve it out.

Such moments carry credibility precisely because they are not anticipated or prescribed. They are, however, transformative. With their mix of insight and intensity, they give life new direction, forever altering the connection people have with each other and, often enough, with themselves. Of the various kinds of turning points life presents, the most powerful of all may be character-defining moments. They go to the heart of who we are.

Character has not been having an especially good run lately. In short supply on the national political stage, it has long been out of favor in the very field of knowledge dedicated to delineating human nature. Overshadowed by flashier parts of personality, character has, to a large degree, been left to philosophers and theologians.

"Character is a subset of personality traits, but there's been a longstanding neglect of character in personality psychology," says Geoffrey Goodwin, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. "That's been changing with the development of a new model of personality."

Photo by Peter Hapak

For decades, psychologists have subscribed to a five-factor model of personality, a product of research in which myriad personal characteristics seem to naturally cluster into five broad traits—openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, or the tendency to experience negative emotions and react poorly to stress. But in the early 2000s, Canadian psychologists Kibeom Lee and Michael Ashton identified a sixth major trait. They call it the H factor, for honesty-humility—two qualities that, their research shows, travel together.

The H factor, say Lee and Ashton in their 2012 book, The H Factor of Personality: Why Some People Are Manipulative, Self-Entitled, Materialistic, and Exploitive—And Why It Matters for Everyone, underlies people's "approaches to money, power, and sex. It governs their inclination to commit crimes or obey the law. It orients them toward certain attitudes about society, politics, and religion. It influences their choice of friends and spouse." In short, it captures something fundamental about a person's adaptation to a shared world:  The H factor sums up a person's willingness to exploit others. Or not.

Notably, Lee and Aston report, "your level of H doesn't depend just on your genes and on your childhood—it also depends on your own free will." While their work has made character scientifically admissible, it has also opened the door to consideration of personal responsibility—at least for some aspects of human behavior—a concept de facto discredited by decades of biologic determinism. Until now, says Goodwin, "studying moral aspects of personality was deemed too subjective and value-laden." So alien was the topic that psychologists long considered morally relevant behavior strictly a response to situations, not a quality arising from anything within, certainly not from something as stable as a personality trait. Research now suggests it's the confluence of both.

Like other traits, character is seen as a disposition that drives a person to behave in consistent ways, but its specific mission is to allow us to evaluate the world and other people, to judge them. Character has an inherently moral cast. There are some fuzzy borders between moral attributes and the personality traits of conscientiousness and agreeableness, but moral features extend beyond self-interests to interpersonal and societal interests.

According to Penn's Goodwin, character is king in social cognition: It is the first and the most important thing people actually perceive in others. They are rapidly gathering information about a person's kindness, fairness, honesty, trustworthiness, and loyalty.

How could it be that no one was onto such prominent psychic players before? That's because, in the world of psych research, many of the components of character were discounted as features of  situations, not people. And others were hidden behind theories of warmth and outgoing behavior.

Contemporary psychology holds that the impressions we form of others are snapped together from quick estimations of two features—their warmth and their competence. But warmth is a nebulous notion, Goodwin says. And when he analyzed just what characteristics people identify behind warmth—he asked subjects to think of individuals they knew close up and those they knew from afar, such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama—he found kindness, humility, compassion, fairness, gratitude, and empathy. They were the traits that most powerfully predicted the overall impressions subjects had of individuals. "We can mistake social skills for character," observes Goodwin. "We mistake the social for the prosocial."

Despite having been discounted as products of specific situations, honesty, trustworthiness, loyalty, justness, and courage contributed most of all to the impressions subjects formed of others. "Moral character is indeed the predominant determinant of global impressions," Goodwin concludes from his studies. It actually "drives how impressions are formed."

What's more, character traits are negatively dominant: A negative or immoral trait outweighs the presence of a positive moral trait on the impressions we form. One failure to recognize an injustice overshadows any number of good deeds. When it comes to moral character, says Goodwin, "people are judged by their weakest link." And a transgression in the moral domain may be less subject to forgiveness than slip-ups in other realms.

Of all the elements of moral character he studied, the ones that carry the most weight are the "pure" moral traits—honesty, justness, fairness, trustworthiness, courage—which have nothing to do with warmth. In our judgment of others, honesty outranks even kindness, a moral trait that canoodles with warmth. Absent honesty, no information about a person can be trusted.

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What makes character the dominant factor in social cognition, swiftly shaping the impression we form of others in our daily lives?  Character reveals a person's deepest intentions toward you: Will a person be helpful or inflict harm? "Knowing someone's character provides important information about how that person is likely to treat you—including in situations in which you are unable to monitor the person's behavior," says Goodwin. Trustworthiness, for example, influences the likelihood someone will cooperate with you—as essential to business relationships as to romantic ones, in which personal vulnerability is the gateway to intimacy.

Goodwin and his colleagues asked subjects to provide their impressions of people engaged in a dozen different social roles—the surgeon about to operate on you, your daughter's fiancé, a judge, a parent, a teacher, a romantic partner, and more—while the researchers varied the traits assigned to the people. The more subjects valued a social role, the greater the weight they gave to moral character traits in forming their impression of a person in that role. Moral character traits proved critically important in assessing romantic partners—because so much is at stake. "Especially in romantic situations," Goodwin says, "we're on the lookout for people who might harm us" in any way.

"The strength of a person's character also determines how well he or she will follow through on plans, goals, commitments, and values," Goodwin reports—which may explain why his team found that obituaries are especially rich in information about character. When it comes to summing up a life, character counts most of all. It not only shapes a lifetime's worth of behavior, it's what we seek as others' legacy, why we even bother to read about them.

Goodwin argues for a three-dimensional model of impression formation. We care about the warmth a person generates and quickly absorb information about it. We care about the individual's competence. But above all we want to know about moral character. It is our best guarantee of safety on the social axis on which we spin.

"Character is so fundamental because we interact with people all the time," says psychologist Taya Cohen, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University. "Our moral character helps us balance our own interests with those of others. Morality, by definition, is about regulating social relationships."

One set of her studies spotlights an element of moral character known as guilt proneness—the degree to which a person takes others' perspectives into account and feels responsibility for not harming them. It endows people with concern for the impact of their actions: They consider the behavioral consequences of what they do on others' welfare. Guilt-proneness, Cohen finds, steers people away from relationships in which they might get a free ride and into more equitable relationships.

The importance of character, however, is not limited to social life; it also matters intrapsychically. Character information is crucial to a person's identity and sense of self-worth; those who are highest in moral character regard it as important to be and be seen as moral.

And yet, moral people may not even know they're acting in a manner deemed moral. In studies Cohen has conducted of character in the workplace, coworkers rate the behavior of moral individuals more highly than do the moral persons themselves! It's simply the water they swim in—and likely a source of humility. "If you know a person's morality," says Goodwin, "you not only know how they will act toward you but who that person is. You know something about their core identity."

Photo by Peter Hapak

Looking at moral character from the inside, Cohen sees two additional components besides one's identity as a good or not-so-good person. There's a motivational element—the desire to do good and avoid doing harm, which does the heavy lifting in treating others fairly. It's required not only for regulating close relationships but also for sustaining living in any size group.

Having the desire to do good is necessary, but it is not sufficient. One must also have the capacity to do good and avoid doing harm. Here's where the cognitive capacity to consider future consequences, as in guilt-proneness, comes into play. It's a sine qua non for self-regulation, inhibiting impulses for immediate gratification and overriding temptations. Should internal mechanisms fall short of the challenge, there are informal cultural mechanisms to shore up self-control—the primary function of gossip. The court of last resort is formal mechanisms—namely, laws.

People high in the H factor actually see the world differently from those who lack it. They look through what Cohen calls "a moral lens." Most notably in her studies of whistleblowers, she finds that the lens "shines a cognitive spotlight on the moral implications of the choices" people face when making decisions. In life's typically ambiguous reality, the lens fixes on the human consequences of actions—whether there will be harm to others.

The lens allows those who have it to remain steadfast in their moral awareness. For everyone else, moral considerations disappear from view—what's called ethical fading. Other concerns—financial or strategic, for instance—loom larger, says Cohen.

The problem with character, though, is that it can be hard to discern. As much as it matters in first impressions, it's usually hard to gauge in such situations. Character typically takes time to reveal itself. Self-reports of character, of course, are thoroughly unreliable, prone to self-enhancement.

Character can be inferred only from behavior. The situations that draw it forth from people— ones that pitch values into sharp competition—tend to be reasonably rare in daily life. Moral character shows itself only when some kind of choice is required. Most everyday circumstances do not present a test of loyalty, for example. Or offer an opening for a display of courage. On the other hand, there may be far more everyday opportunities for showing kindness and compassion.

And highly public displays of moral behavior are subject to scheming, arising less from selfless motives than a concern with buffing one's reputation. Since moral behavior is judged by its weakest performance, it takes exposure to a variety of situations to get a full picture of someone's character.

Here's where it gets interesting. Moral character is not a passive trait. Character actually steers people into some situations, out of others, Cohen finds. Those with high moral character especially avoid environments that could lead to others being harmed. But they do more: They even shape situations. Martin might be Exhibit A. Instead of brooding about a date gone off track, he saw an opportunity to facilitate Deirdre's various goals and allay her concerns about disappointing him.

Photo by Peter Hapak

When the unforeseen erupted in Deirdre's and Martin's date, Martin saw an array of choices nobody else might have even noticed. That there were so many of them, and that she was the beneficiary of them all and all at once, ultimately made their meeting highly memorable for her. First off: Engage or disengage? Had Martin focused on feeling marginalized or minimized by the interview interruption, he could have reacted with annoyance and cut his losses quickly. But, overriding any immediate discomfort, he was able to hold onto his interest in a long-term relationship and see possibility in Deirdre.

Tend to his needs or hers? See the interview as an opportunity to gather information about Deirdre or as dead time? Recognize her discomfort or not? Remedy it or ignore it? Help or stay uninvolved? Speak up or say nothing? Offer support, encouragement, even admiration, or let the moment pass?

Everything that unfolded inspired Deirdre's trust in Martin. Instantly, he placed himself squarely on her team—he was already acting as a partner—and was looking after her interests when there was no certain payoff for doing so. Trust has to be well-placed, invested only in those who are trustworthy, not someone who might exploit one's confidences. That's why, Cohen finds, we are most likely to place our trust in those who show competence, benevolence, and integrity. Trust, researchers know, is what creates the willingness to be vulnerable in social interactions. It is the single most important ingredient in rewarding and healthy relationships.

Transformational moments sit somewhere on the boundary between logic and emotion. Research on psychotherapy shows that insight alone, no matter how brilliant, rarely leads to profound and sustainable behavioral change if it is not accompanied by some level of emotional understanding.

For Deirdre, the experience was loaded with emotionality even before Martin arrived. Weeks of correspondence and banter had raised her hopes that she was about to meet a person worthy of her desires. The phone interruption, however, pitched everything into high emotional relief: the sudden anxiety about which opportunity to pursue, the professional or the romantic? The call's end brought a flash flood of embarrassment about its effect—until Martin acted. His behavior was totally spontaneous, not preordained, but the ground was prepared for its high impact.

Like other peak moments, those that illuminate character admit no game plan. Surprise is part of their power; it also guarantees that they are untainted by egoistic concerns. The disequilibrium such moments create leaves the self undefended. They are memorable not just for the insights they deliver with great impact but also for their psychic purity.

Rare openings in time, character-defining moments are transformative because they guide us into the future. They distill the complexities of life, and the crystalline reliability of the information revealed allows us to make strong inferences about what we can expect ahead from the people in our lives.

*name has been changed

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