Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On Character-Based Assessments; Or, how a goldfish assesses character

Character, we think, is destiny. I don’t know if this is true, because I’m not sure if the ways we assess character are all that reliable. I mean, let’s consider the Obama-and-Wall-Street article I posted earlier:
Today, it’s hard to find anyone on Wall Street who doesn’t speak of Obama as if he were an unholy hybrid of Bernie Sanders and Eldridge Cleaver. One night not long ago, over dinner with ten executives in the finance industry, I heard the president described as “hostile to business,” “anti-wealth,” and “anti-capitalism”; as a “redistributionist,” a “vilifier,” and a “thug.” A few days later, I recounted this experience to the same Wall Street CEO who’d called the Volcker Rule a testicular blow, and mentioned I’d been told that one of the most prominent megabank chiefs, who once boasted to friends of voting for Obama, now refers to him privately as a “Chicago mob guy.” Do all your brethren feel this way? I asked. “Oh, not everybody—just most of them,” he replied. “Jamie [Dimon]? Lloyd [Blankfein]? They might not say Obama’s a socialist, but they come pretty close.”
Later we’re told that Wall Street wishes the “adults” would come out to deal with the economy.

If you’d like the equal and opposite section, go up to the very progressive precincts of the internet and look into the threads accusing Obama of being in the pocket of big business, too cautious, a wimp etc. etc. etc. The point of this post, I’ll warn, isn’t to adjudicate the relative truth of these two assessments but note that they’re each funnily off from reality. The peculiar funhouse quality of these assessments—we think we’re looking through a window but instead what we see reflects our particular needs and wishes of the moment. Clearly Wall Street would prefer a thug in the White House; it’s easier to feel OK about yourself then…because conceding that Obama is a responsible adult means that you have to come to some very unpleasant conclusions about yourself. And if we’re bad at assessing other people’s character, we’re certainly worse at self-assessment.

I remember a time when John Edwards was considered a lightweight, maybe a little too nice, certainly not intelligent…and now he’s a shady figure. I remember a time when Tiger Woods’s chief personal flaw was that he was perhaps too boring and domestic…there’s clearly no need to supply a punchline to that.

One of the greatest media mistakes of relying overmuch on character is in sports, often in basketball. We’re told, implausibly, that basketball is always and everywhere a test of character when it is as much a test of skills. These are the people who suddenly decided LeBron James was a narcissist, when earlier we were told that one of his great virtues was his unselfish and team-oriented play. The two can’t be true at the same time (or requires some serious explication). These are people who disregard mechanistic explanations for character explanations, and it fails when, well, talking about someone’s skill is appropriate.

But the spectacular misses aren’t enough to convince, I suspect.

Most methods of living your life, however flexible they are, will have their overloads and failures. Think about your own life: how often does someone, someone you’ve known well, has surprised you? I think it happens pretty often to most of us. A special variety, I think, happens between children and parents, oh around college time: kids change so much in those years (and feel that they’ve changed even more than they have) and parents often have a fixed image of what their kid is that the two can change…People’s character is too slippery to grasp firmly.

The trouble isn’t in assessing character, or even relying on it. It’s impossible to enter into any sort of long-term relationship without assessing someone’s character and relying on it. It isn’t merely mechanistic. The problem is that there’s a tyranny of a goldfish’s assessment: we form our opinions based on small moments, and we will either freeze that opinion of someone forever (e.g. Derek Fisher, or how distant family members believe you’re still very interested in chemistry because you once had a chemistry set) or gyrate wildly between conflicting character assessments, without any consideration of how circumstance or our own biases might affect those assessments. Slow down, you’ve got time.

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