How Even The Best Of Us Can Act 'Out Of Character' We're often taken aback when a respected governor, political candidate, husband or wife is caught cheating. In Out of Character, David DeSteno argues for the growing body of evidence that shows how everyone — even the most respected among us — has the capacity to act out of character.
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How Even The Best Of Us Can Act 'Out Of Character'

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How Even The Best Of Us Can Act 'Out Of Character'

How Even The Best Of Us Can Act 'Out Of Character'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Marshall Clement Sanford led what appeared to be a charmed life, built on rock-solid family values: Eagle Scout, loving husband and father, deeply religious, devoted to public service, a straight shooter after being elected to Congress. And when he and his family moved into the South Carolina governor's mansion, his wife recalls falling deeply in love with him all over again.

Well, by now you know where this is going. Two years ago, Marshall - better known as Mark - Sanford flew secretly to meet his soulmate in Argentina - better known as the Appalachian Trail. Many who knew Sanford well said, this is completely out of character.

But was it? There's a growing body of scientific evidence that shows why and how temptation can trump the moral rectitude and discipline most of us associate with that term - character.

Well, how about you? Was there an out-of-character moment in your life? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, France learns that New York's perp walk takes place even when the suspect is the head of the International Monetary Fund.

But first, David DeSteno, an associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University, co-author with Piercarlo Valdelsolo of "Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us." And he joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Nice to have you with us today.

Professor DAVID DeSTENO (Northeastern University): Hi, Neal, nice to be here.

CONAN: And there's an experiment that lies at the heart of what I think are your most interesting conclusions. How do you set out to measure character?

Prof. DeSTENO: Well, it's a good question. The way that we set out to measure character is by putting people in situations that compel them, in some ways, to face challenges that are an inherent part of social life.

You really can't ask people what they think they would do because people don't always know. Or even if they do, they're not going to admit to it. And so we spend a lot of time constructing situations that pose challenges to people in the ways of moral dilemmas to see ultimately, when push comes to shove, what they'll do.

CONAN: And there was an experiment where people were brought in, and these are randomly selected - and so all the stuff is, you know, sorted out; they're random people - so they're brought in and told here's - you need to do one of two tasks at this computer.

One of them is going to take five minutes and be a little bit of fun, and the other one is going to take an hour and be really boring. Just flip a you know, flip a coin, decide which one you want to do, and whoever comes after you, the next guy, well, he'll have to do the one you didn't do.

Prof. DeSTENO: That's exactly right. These were experiments centered on hypocrisy. And just picking up on the Mark Sanford example you were saying, and the Eliot Spitzer example, how common is it?

And if you do this, what people will typically do when we leave them alone is 90 percent of them will not flip the coin, which is somewhat dispiriting in and of itself.

But if you ask them afterward, how fairly did you act, they'll say, you know, you know, it was OK. It wasn't terrible.

If you then take the same people, and you have them watch someone else do the same thing - so we constructed the experiment where they would see someone who worked for us, but who they believed was a true participant, come in, and he would be given the instructions. And he would shake his head, not flip the coin, and give himself the task. And you asked them, how upstanding was this? And they would, you know, universally condemn the person, even though they themselves had just, you know, thought it wasn't so bad.

CONAN: Pretty much done the same thing.

Prof. DeSTENO: Exactly.

CONAN: Thought it was OK when they did it, which suggests that we are really good at rationalizing hypocrisy.

Prof. DeSTENO: We are good at rationalizing it. And the interesting thing, though - and the point that we raise in this book - is there's really an inherent tension in our minds between what we refer to as short-term goals and long-term ones - what's good for me in the here and now, and what's good for me in the long term.

If you're a hypocrite too often, well, it's not going to be very beneficial for your long-term relationships. But once in a while, if you can get away with it, people will often try to do so and rationalize it away.

CONAN: And this...

Prof. DeSTENO: The interesting - I'm sorry, go ahead.

CONAN: I was going to say, you tie this, basically, to evolutionary biology - that there are different parts of our brain that operate on very different systems.

Prof. DeSTENO: We do. We argue that character is a much more dynamic process than most people think. You know, most of us assume that character is pretty well fixed; it's kind of indelibly stamped on our soul. In fact, the term itself comes from an ancient Greek term meaning the indelible mark stamped on coins.

But if you look at the scientific data, what we see over and over again is that people's moral behavior, for ill and for good, is much more variable than we would ever expect, which when we put these boundaries around people as good or bad, it means that we're always continually going to be surprised when their behavior falls outside of those bounds.

CONAN: So not just the Mark Sanford or Eliot Spitzer who violated what we thought were deeply held beliefs - elements of their character, if you will - but you also point to the case of a homeless drug addict who, for reasons known best to himself, jumped into freezing cold water to save a child from drowning.

Prof. DeSTENO: That's right. Well, here you can see part of the logical inconsistencies in the way we think about character. If somebody that we consider good does one thing wrong - like Mark Sanford - we assume that, you know, he or she must have been a wolf in sheep's clothing all along. If we had looked carefully enough, we could have seen the clue.

But if you have a person like this individual you're talking about - named Faron Hall(ph), who lives under a bridge in Winnipeg; who, you know, is universally regarded not as a great guy because of his drug addiction - if he jumps in the river to save someone, one amazing act of altruism, we don't suddenly assume that, you know, he was a sheep in wolf's clothing.

CONAN: So that he'd been a good man all along...

Prof. DeSTENO: All along.

CONAN: ...who may have made a few mistakes but when push came to shove, would always do the right thing.

Prof. DeSTENO: That's right. And the reason why is - what we argue is character is a dynamic state, and it's affected by mechanisms that are looking out for what's good for me in the short term, in the here and now, and what's good for me in the long term - the inherent conflict of social living.

And they operate both above and below our conscious radar. And so some of character is really affected by the situations that we are in. And what we argue is we're not out to tell people what their morality should be - unlike Sam Harris and other individuals. I don't think that's the role of science.

Our goal is to tell you how the system really works so that once you decide what your morality should be based on your religion or principles, you can gain better control in guiding it.

CONAN: You can gain - yet you say, in your examples, that a lot of this is really sort of beyond our control - or to use an outmoded expression, our reptile brain decides it's a really good thing for us to wolf down that chocolate, even though our - you know, we know we're supposed to be on a diet.

Prof. DeSTENO: Well, kind of, except here's the mistake that most people make. Most people assume that, you know, our conscious mind is where virtue lives, and our older mind isn't.

But you know, humans have had the problems of social living for a lot longer than we've had the cognitive architecture to be able to plan rationally. And so what we argue - and I think that most people miss - is that this push and pull between short term and long term, between what's selfish and selfless, exists at both levels, both our intuitions and our conscious mind.

And it's when they disagree that some of the most interesting changes in our behavior happen. As you saw with Mark Sanford, it was rationality that - sorry, with Eliot Spitzer, it was rationality that lets hypocrisy happen.

If, in those experiments, we don't let people rationalize, we tie up their ability to engage in rationalization, suddenly hypocrisy goes away. So when they don't flip the coin, they feel that immediate pang of guilt. It's just if you give them 30 seconds, unbeknownst to them their mind will rationalize it away.

CONAN: And so you do that by asking them to recite - play back, effectively - a series of seven digits. That simple mental exercise requires enough time to give your brain a chance to reboot, effectively, and bring in this other, whole moralizing system.

Prof. DeSTENO: Sure. What it does is, it ties up your conscious mind's ability to rationalize what it wants to do, which is to get out of there without doing that long and onerous task.

But we have that initial pang of guilt. And if we have you count backwards while we're asking you to tell us how you did - did you act fairly - hypocrisy goes away. You judge your own actions as harshly as the actions of someone else who didn't flip the coin.

CONAN: We're talking with David DeSteno, the co-author of "Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us."

Has there been an out-of-character moment for you; 800-989-8255. Email us, An email from Cary(ph): I was a pastor, Sunday school teacher, raised in church. Out of character for me is to actually be faithful to my wife. It's just out of sight, out of mind for me; don't know what's wrong with me.

Prof. DeSTENO: It's an interesting issue. And here again, I think, is where we are making a distinction between what is optimal biologically for the mind -being shaped by evolution - and what is, what is, you know, morally correct. And we're talking about the pressures that have shaped the mind biologically.

You know, even if you look at Saint Paul, who I think people would think is a moral and upstanding guy - if you are a Christian - he would say, you know, for the good that I wish I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not wish, which it sounds like our friend here on the line - or on email is facing.

What we see in the research again and again is that subtle characteristics of the situation can increase our odds of engaging in infidelity.

We know that women, for example, as hormonal levels change when they are most fertile, will tend to reveal more skin in choosing the dresses that they wear.

Now, it doesn't mean that you are going out with the intention of finding someone who may not be your spouse. But what it does mean is, you're doing subtle things in changing the environment that increase the odds that that's going to happen, below your conscious radar.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Andy's(ph) on the line, calling from Oakland.

ANDY (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to relate something that I observed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In East Oakland, there was a newspaper article, how a lot of the major drug dealers in that area were seen putting up ladders to rescue people who had been trapped beneath the concrete slabs that had come together.

And these were very dramatic photographs, and the police actually used those same photographs to identify some of them when they were coming into our neighborhoods.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: No good deed goes unpunished.

ANDY: Well, it was - I liked your guest's - notice that, you know, it goes both ways. It goes both ways.

Prof. DeSTENO: It does. And, you know, that phenomenon you're talking about happens again and again. My favorite example, and we talk about it in the book, is from the 1914 Christmas Eve Truce - which I'll tell you briefly, for those of you who don't know it.

The British and the Germans were fighting each other, of course, during the war. But on a Christmas Eve one time, the British looked across, and they saw these lights appearing.

And suddenly they realized that those lights were candles for Christmas. And suddenly, these men who had been trying to kill each other the day before came out of their trenches and began celebrating together. And it - by their own words, it was unbelievable to experience.

But really, the reason why it happens is because they changed their notion of who they were. Suddenly, it wasn't the British versus the Germans. It was, we have some similarity between us; we were both celebrating Christmas.

And I think that's what's happening here in the earthquake - is that suddenly, individuals weren't seeing themselves as out for their own selfish needs, but suddenly the needs of the group became much more relevant. And you had, you know, amazing acts of compassion and altruism.

And we have an experiment, if we have time, that I can tell you about that shows exactly that.

CONAN: We'll talk about it after a short break. Also worth noting: Those same soldiers, many of them, looked at each other across the trenches three subsequent Christmases, and passed up the opportunity to muck in together and celebrate the holiday as one.

In any case, we're talking about the out-of-character concept, "Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in Us All." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the new book "Out of Character." When somebody we trust does something out of character, we assume we've been dealing with a wolf in sheep's clothing. When the reverse happens, the bad apple does something wonderful, the wolf is still a wolf.

It's a clear double standard. You can learn more about how that works in an excerpt from "Out of Character" on our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

David DeSteno co-wrote the book with Piercarlo Valdelsolo. How about you? Was there an out-of-character moment in your life? Tell us your personal story, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And just before the break, David DeSteno, you were talking about another variation on your experiment.

Prof. DeSTENO: Yeah, exactly. We were making the point that, again, people can act out of character for the better. And in this one, it was a similar variant to the experiment we had just described, although this time we had people simply, before they engaged in the experiment where they saw somebody basically cheat someone else, we had them sit at a table, and we had them put on earphones, and we had them tap their hands.

And they were either tapping their hands across from the person on the other side of the table in rhythm, or out of synchrony with them. And the idea here is that synchrony is a very ancient marker of joint purpose in terms of the animal literature.

And so the idea being that we're much more likely to help individuals if we feel that we are similar to them - that is, compassion isn't just a function of what we see someone suffering, but it's being computed online in real time, based on how much I'm likely to benefit from it.

And so what we saw, to make a long story short, is we staged an interaction where one person basically was cheated by another such that he had to do this long and onerous task. And what we simply did is recorded how many people came up to us and said: You know, can I go help that person? And it was amazing.

If they had just simply tapped their hands in time with that person who they saw victimized, it increased by double the number who would come and ask us to go help, and it increased dramatically the time they spent working on these onerous tasks to help this person.

And again, it's just a marker of how subtle things in the environment can make anyone, in this case, much more of a saint than they probably would have predicted.

CONAN: And reactions varied as to if you saw a funny skit from "Saturday Night Live" beforehand, or if you saw a boring travelogue.

Prof. DeSTENO: Yeah, that was another study, exactly. The idea here is, you know, most people like to imagine that they have, you know, a very consistent moral philosophy. And what we wanted to show is that the power of these kind of under-the-radar moral intuitions really drive what we're doing.

And so we would simply manipulate the feeling state people were in when we confronted them with moral dilemmas, and it would change dramatically what was going on.

So for example, work by Simone Schnall(ph) shows that if you bring people into a room, and you kind of make their surroundings a little disgusting - that is, you put dirty tissues and other things around that are rather disgusting, and you ask them for their judgments about how acceptable certain behaviors are, they will judge everything much more morally objectionable because what they're doing is doing a gut check. And they're feeling disgusted in their gut because of the dirty tissue on the floor. But they'll just use that as a signal that whatever they're considering must be morally reprehensible.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is John(ph), John with us from Gainesville in Florida.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. My wife is deceased - died about a year ago, had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. And I was just so fraught and just beside myself.

And I took this leaf blower to this big home-improvement store and I said, I want to return it. And they said: Well, you've got to talk to the and the manager finally came out and I said, I want to return this. He said: No, no, we're going to send it out for repair.

And I said: You know, your life as you know it is over. I'm going to destroy your career with this company if you don't take this thing back. And I'm so enraged about my wife with this horrible disease, I'm looking for somewhere to place all that rage, and I picked you.

And the guy went back and told the manager. The manager came running out. He said: Of course we'll return it. And the next day, I came back, and I said: I was such a jerk. I'm so ashamed of myself for, you know, stepping out like that. And anyway, it was just, it wasn't like me to be that little Hitler.

CONAN: And yet you got some benefit out of it, didn't you?

JOHN: Oh, yeah, yeah, and I learned in the months leading up to her death to touch that rage in me that was watching my best friend just melt away a piece at a time. It was terrible, and yet I was aware of this rage inside, sorrow about losing her.

Prof. DeSTENO: Yeah, first, I'm sorry that you had to go through that. But it raises two interesting points. You know, one is once you have that kind of emotional response in you, it can be misapplied very easily to other instances.

But what you're pointing, and I think what Neal is pointing out, is an interesting point, which is sometimes acting in a more selfish or kind of short-term way can lead to benefits for you.

Now, if you do this too often, of course people are going to think that you are, you know, to be avoided.

CONAN: There could be yellow tape around your house, and nobody's going to go there.

Prof. DeSTENO: That's right.

JOHN: I said to the manager, I said: You know, I spent $50,000 in this store, and I've written, actually, letters to the president of your company about what a great store you've had. And now I'm going to - you know, you're dead meat now. Anyway, that was - I can't believe I'm telling this because people are going to know who I am here.

Prof. DeSTENO: Well, but you're raising an interesting point. And again, you know, here's why we make this distinction between what is morally virtuous and good, and what is biologically optimal.

In the short term, doing things like this, even though you're not proud of them, they can serve purposes in terms of you gaining the resources that you need. And I think that's why those mechanisms are there in the mind.

JOHN: And I was - and it was such a horrible, out-of-control, no-power situation, you know, watching my wife die. And I walked in, and suddenly I could do something.

CONAN: You had power over somebody, yeah.

JOHN: Yes, yes, yeah. And when I ever see that manager, I always apologize. He goes: Don't worry about it. Don't worry. Anyway, thanks for your show.

CONAN: Thanks very much, John, for the phone call. And again, condolences on the loss of your wife, appreciate it.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: And it does suggest - the logical conclusion of your findings suggests that all those things we learned in Sunday school, all the time we spent having right and wrong drilled into us - well, we might as well have been spending time out playing football.

Prof. DeSTENO: Well, no, I wouldn't want to say that. I think that risks a fallacy. What we're talking about is what's biologically optimal. I think, you know, we use the metaphor of Aesop's ant and grasshopper, what's good in the long term, what's good in the short term.

Again, you know, the problem is sometimes expediency in the short term can get you the resources you need, and unfortunately, not everybody makes it to the long term. And so it's much more kind of the Aristotle view of virtue - virtue is to be found between two vices, the vices of selflessness and selfishness.

But I think morally speaking, that's a different question. I don't think science has the answer there. Just because that's the way evolution has shaped our mind doesn't mean that that's what we have to morally accept.

Our view is, here's the way evolution has shaped the mind, and here's how it works. And if you want to gain more control over what you're going to do and be able to guide yourself toward your conception of virtue, then you need to give up the idea that it's all about willpower, and just start thinking about how these other factors might be affecting you.

CONAN: Yet these philosophers - and many are interesting people and have written long treatises on how to better your character - if character is that malleable and affected by the fact whether you saw a comedy or a drama, a tragedy before you made a decision, it all seems pretty arbitrary.

Prof. DeSTENO: Well, in some senses. Now, what I want to say is that along this continuum from kind of short-term to long-term behavior, individuals will tend to occupy certain parts of that continuum more often than others.

And so it's not that our learning, our experiences, don't have anything to do with what we're going to do. What I am saying - and what Carlos says with me - is that the boundaries around where we're going to act; that is, how far up and down that continuum any of us will move, are much larger than we would expect, and also much more influenced by the situation.

But to your point, there's an interesting study going on right now by friends of mine at Yale - Peter Salovey's lab - looking at how do we teach moral education in the New York City schools.

And they compare a character education class, which is pretty much what we've got in Sunday school - which is you should do this, you should not do this -versus a more skill-based approach, which teaches individuals about how to recognize the emotions that they're feeling; how not to misapply them, like our last caller did; how to deal with them.

And what they find is a skill-based approach really leads to much better social outcomes than does the simple, this-is-what-you-should-do approach. And so I think that's how we need to move in terms of character education.

CONAN: Here's an email from Quinn(ph): I had an out-of-character experience where I spent thousands of dollars I didn't have. I knew early that morning that I was feeling a little manic, but wow. I betrayed my family, financial responsibility, still don't know how to fix it. Did your research reveal anything like that?

Prof. DeSTENO: Well, in that instance, yeah, what we're looking at is individuals who will do something, in the moment, because the gratification is there, even though long-term if they had stopped to think about it, it would be hugely destructive. And the question is, is why.

And again, I don't know this person's specifics, but what we can see is that oftentimes people's feeling states - whether they're feeling really sad and desperate about something or really happy - can alter their expectations for what's likely to happen.

And so, for example, if you are feeling really happy, the odds of success seem very high, and your expectation that the next roll of the dice is going to go your way is much higher than it normally would be. And if you don't stop to think about it carefully...

CONAN: You'll spend your salary on lottery tickets.

Prof. DeSTENO: Exactly.

CONAN: Yeah. All right. Let's get John on the line, John with us from Columbus.

JOHN (Caller): Yeah. I had a problem that I was going to talk about, but I - is your guest still there?

Prof. DeSTENO: Yeah, I am.

JOHN: I had a question that just came up. I wonder, what does he think about Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a governor over two terms but all during that time, he had a deep, dark secret that just now came out? What do you think about that moral problem?

Prof. DeSTENO: Well, you know, that's an interesting question because the - you know, Arnold, as far as I know - and I don't know that well - seems to have had a past where there were issues around somewhat inappropriate behavior, although maybe not to the level that we're hearing now. So the question really is, is in the instant where this actually occurred and where he did father this child, what was it that in that situation, pushed him over the line to actually engage in the behavior and have a child? But also, interestingly, what made him confess now? He had been holding this secret for a long time. And so one could argue that, well, maybe his character wasn't so great, yet now maybe he's trying to make amends. I don't know enough about the specifics to know, but it is an interesting question to ask.

CONAN: Let's see if we get Maureen with us, Maureen calling from Salisbury, Maryland.

MAUREEN (Caller): Yeah. Hi. Can you hear me OK? I'm sorry. I'm calling from my cell phone.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

MAUREEN: I'm - work for a hospice. And there was a time when a lot of us had a lot going on that was kind of painful, oddly enough, given where we worked. But we were sitting in a meeting, and I had been doing all of this reading of Buddhism, and all this stuff about acceptance and putting other people's sorrows before your own. And we were discussing everybody having trouble. And in fact, I was in a situation - my husband was dying of cancer, like your earlier caller. And I finally just said, well, cry me a river.


MAUREEN: Yeah. Luckily, that's a small group of people who knew me well. And I just, after saying it, threw my head on the desk and said, I don't even know where that came from. And they did - or at least they expressed under the - that made sense to me, which was, you know, we all have this capacity. We hit this breech where we say, I've given all that I can give, and I'm going to do whatever it takes to get through this moment. And I wonder how much is that kind of emotional distress plays in all this. Whether it's reading a happy story or a sad story, how much does the emotional distress play in the thing?

Prof. DeSTENO: Emotions play a lot. In fact, that's kind of the engine of our older intuitive mind. You know, we have these both very selfish and craven and very moralistic emotions that can lead to beautiful things, like compassion and altruism. And that's the currency that the older mind deals in, and that's what comes into conflict with our reason. The big point that we make is it's not that reason or intuition is always right. They're both trying to accomplish the same goals, and you have to decide when to listen to which.

But your point is interesting because it raises the issue that sometimes giving, which we all agree is a wonderful thing - you can give too much, at least biologically. And suddenly you are just depleted, both emotionally and sometimes financially. And that's not an optimal situation to be in.

CONAN: Maureen - sorry. Go ahead.

MAUREEN: No. Go ahead. Go ahead.

CONAN: I was just going to say thanks very much for the call. And again, an awful situation to be in.

MAUREEN: But it's good to be reminded that we all have that moment, always need to be prepared to see it in each other.

CONAN: And see it in each other. Absolutely.

Prof. DeSTENO: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Maureen, thanks very much for the call.

MAUREEN: Thanks. Bye.

CONAN: We're talking with David DeSteno about his book that he published along with Piercarlo Valdesolo, "Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking In All of Us." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email from John in Kansas City: In your guest's experiment, did the fact that the subjects knew it was an experiment come into play in their decision? A person might consider it morally trivial or even irrelevant in the context of an experiment, because it seems more like a game. I imagine they would act differently in, for example, a marriage or in an occupation.

Prof. DeSTENO: Interesting question. In our experiments, people know that they are in an experiment, but they have no idea that they're being set up or what we're looking at. In fact, we go through many rigorous ways to prevent them from knowing. However...

CONAN: Rigorous ways are also known as con games.

Prof. DeSTENO: Yeah, pretty much. We're kind of doing the scientific version of "Candid Camera" many times. But to get to your point, you know, they might think, well, OK, if I flip this coin and this other person is going to get stuck, maybe that's not a terrible thing. It's not like, you know, like cheating on my wife or someone.

But the interesting thing about it is, if you ask - is they'll condemn somebody else for it. And if you ask other people - so we would just take students and we would ask them, if this were to happen and somebody flipped the coin in an experiment, is this a good or a bad thing? Everybody says it's terrible. Everybody said it's morally wrong. And so I really don't think it's the fact that it's an experiment. It's just a way for us to construct a situation that seems real to them, where we can have people commit transgressions that are ethically not terrible, so that we can study them.

CONAN: Let's get Kim on the line, Kim with us from Marin County in California.

KIM (Caller): OK. Thank you for your show. I'm coming out of a period of two years where I was in foreclosure default, going through the, you know, the proverbial snail crawling across a very long, hot griddle. And in that process, in my close-knit neighborhood, my close-knit community, I - neither my behavior out of fear and paranoia and stress for so long, I - it cost me some very valuable friendships. One 40-year friendship - I mean, very long-term friendships just melted away. And now I'm on the other side of it. Fortunately, I got the mortgage modification finally. But I have a - I feel so lost. I don't know where I belong anymore.

Prof. DeSTENO: Well, it's difficult, because one of the things we know from psychological research is that humans, both psychologically and physically, are most healthy when they're ensconced in meaningful relationships. But what you're saying illustrates an important point. When you are in the moment and you are suffering the stress, sometimes you - you know, at least part of you, is going to want to focus on yourself. I need to do everything I can to get through this.

KIM: Right.

Prof. DeSTENO: And later, I'll deal with the social consequences. And finding that balance is really what it's all about. It sounds like, you know, you may have felt like you went too far to the self-focus side. But in every moment, that's what our mind is trying to do. It's trying to find that golden mean that balances, kind of short-term, long-term, selfish versus selfless pressures to help us navigate the social world correctly.

KIM: Well, it was brutal. Just the whole process of surviving that was really, really brutal.

CONAN: The stress is tremendous, Kim, but congratulations on getting the modification.

KIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it and...

KIM: Thank you for your show.

CONAN: Thank you very much. And David DeSteno, I want to thank you very much for your time today.

Prof. DeSTENO: Thank you for having me on. I enjoyed it.

CONAN: And I assure listeners, both of us are going to rush out after the program and have a hot fudge sundae.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The book is "Out of Character: Surprising Truths About The Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us." And he joined us from WBUR, our member station in Boston.

CONAN: Coming up, France gets a very public look at a peculiar tradition of the New York criminal justice system, the perp walk. We'll talk about the legal and cultural differences between the two countries. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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