Are Status Emotions Defensible as Character Judgments?

One major defense of status emotions like deference and disdain is that they count as judgments of a person’s character. We defer to experts because they have a history of being right; we disdain scoundrels because they have a history of cheating or misleading us. In this sense, status emotions are akin to other reactive attitudes like blame and praise, only generalized. Rather than blaming someone for the acts that have harmed me, I attribute that act to a set of character traits or habits that suggest that the person is likely to harm me in the future.

It seems that this view might contain the following assumptions:

  1. People have stable characters.
  2. Our judgments about that character have a good chance of predicting future actions.
  3. Our judgments about a person’s character will not be hindered or prejudiced by irrelevant information.

So stated, I do not believe that there is much justification for this view. For one thing, there is ample evidence that stable character traits are a fiction: under importantly varying circumstances, human beings are quite malleable. Context matters much more than history, and our belief to the contary is due to a “fundamental attribution error.” At best, we can make judgments about a person’s reactions only ceteris paribus, with the recognition that the ceteris will never be paribus when the correctness of my judgments matters most, i.e. when the situation is relevantly and importantly different and I am deprived of other kinds of verification.

Even if there is such a thing as stable character, there is ample evidence that we will tend to misjudge it. This is because we tend to assume that character traits will cluster together, and to confuse physical attractiveness with good character, and physical unattractiveness with bad character. This is definitely a component of own-race bias and the various species of gender biases, but it underlies much less commented-upon biases like the bias against obesity and the bias in favor of people with symmetrical facial features. If you catch yourself thinking that the people who you respect and to whom you defer are handsome or beautiful, then you ought to be worried.

This is why status emotions cannot be defended as character judgments based on generalized evaluations of a person’s historical actions.

18 thoughts on “Are Status Emotions Defensible as Character Judgments?”

  1. I think your analysis of status emotions as character judgments is right, but your repudiation of them seems overblown. Your arguments foreclose the possibility of forming any character judgments at all. (Note that premises 1-3 are not at all particular to status emotions — to the extent that they are required, they are required by any attempt to understand character. So if the attacks on them are right, we should give up on understanding character.) If we ought to behave as though we have no knowledge of character, that has radical consequences for how we should conduct ourselves.

    Perhaps you could say that considered, deliberative, relatively conscious character judgments are acceptable. Those mediated by status emotions, OTOH, should be eschewed because their bases are (relatively) uninspectable, which makes it harder to sniff out biases and errors like the ones you discuss. I find this unpersuasive, though. Too much information is assimilated at subliminal or preconscious levels; if we limit ourselves to conclusions that can be derived from fully explicit data, we "know" only a fraction of what we actually know.

    I think at bottom my objection is that a noisy signal is still a signal, and we have access to some informative signals of character, even if we know they're error-prone. It is hard to reach both reliable and deep judgments of character, but it's very useful to have even a jerry-rigged internal model of how the people around you differ from the generic. And it seems to me very possible, notwithstanding everything I know about cognitive biases.

    I think there may be more to be said about the specifics of status emotions. For example, the particular content of disdain may simply have more to do with social position than character. It may encode a social conclusion instead of particularized data. (Status is not the same thing as character, after all.) But these shotgun attacks on understanding character are unpersuasive.

  2. A noisy signal is like a round square: at some point, the signal is lost in the noise, just as the square is lost in the rounding of its corners. All the situationist social psychology and quite a bit of the metaphysics suggests that we're simply wrong about character traits being stable and broadly relevant to future actions. (You probably know the famous Darley and Batson experiment involving seminarians sent to give a sermon on the Good Samaritan and ignoring someone injured and in need of assistance on their route.)

    I think you should look at the Harman piece I linked above as "stable character traits are a fiction." The title is "Skepticism about Character Traits," and it supports the claim that there's very little rigorous empirical evidence for broad stable character traits.

    1. Well I'm glad that I found the locus of our disagreement: if you think there's no such thing as character, of course you think status emotions can't work as character judgments. (Odd that you should pose the question that way, though.)

      I'm going to go read Harman, but my inclination is that you (and others, presumably) are overreading the evidence. There is a body of evidence that says, The folk conception of personality contains many errors. It simply does not follow that there is no such thing as a character or personality or interior nature.


      (Is a noisy signal like a round square? No, and this is a robust fact of information theory. If you listen long enough, you can extract an arbitrary length message from a noisy signal no matter how noisy. Even the noisiest evidence should in principle cause us to update our beliefs, though only by the tiniest amount. In practice, we face computational and architectural constraints that force us to throw out evidence that is very noisy. But this is a sensitive matter of degree; we can't simply say, "Noisy!", and ignore evidence.)

      1. Well, I appreciate the pushback. I've been working on status emotions for a while, and this is one of the defenses out there in the literature. I'm mostly taking up a cognitivist framework for emotions, and trying to extend criticisms of disgust as a moral emotion.

        Certainly, the weak (in the sense of modest) attack on status-based character judgments you suggest is what I'm ultimately aimed at, but the papers I've been reading are suggesting that there's a pretty firm body of evidence in favor of the stronger claim.

        I'd certainly be willing to revise my attack on character traits in light of a better reading of the evidence. The difference between folk psychological accounts of character and personality and a robust and empirical account of those same phenomenon, however, seems to leave little room for useful judgments about another's or one's own character *even though* a folk theory of mind seems to require some kind of attribution of regularity. Then it's just a question of how to deal wit h this "even though" effectively. Right now, I lean towards a typology of emotions as truth-tracking reactive attitudes (praise and blame) and an error theory of other reactive attitudes that follows the bias and heuristics model.

  3. How stable are character traits when you approach people as a dynamic transaction between organism and environment? I mean, sure, "unitary self is not unified", but don't we already include context considerations in our character judgments, especially when transmitting them to other people? "A more generous man you'll never meet, but a mean drunk", etc.

    1. I like to think that even a mean drunk can change, if conditions are right. So in that sense, I'd say this dynamic transaction is exactly what we mean when we talk about character traits and personality being less than stable. I think that skepticism about character traits is actually a subset of the problem of ceteris paribus. On the other hand, anyone willing to defend character traits stands to collect a big sum working on The Character Project funded by the Templeton Foundation.

  4. It still seems that your argument uses 'stable' to mean 'perfectly consistent' or 'completely static' rather than only 'able to resist change'. I guess I need to give Templeton a call.

    In addition, are we to take the refutations of putative assumptions 1 and 3 to also impugn assumption 2? Or is that where your own preference for a truth-tracking attitudes approach have some traction? In other words, assumption 2 seems the most important given your characterization of this defense of status emotions, but you fail to mention it again. I can see an argument where the instability of character and the prejudice of irrelevant information still supports the good chance of future predictions for some perhaps small, but non-zero, value of 'good'. For example, given limited information, treating others as if they had (very) stable characters could prove a weakly dominate strategy in the prevention of exploitation.

    1. Yeah, well, I'd like to work out what might distinguish the stable from the precarious in this arena, but what we commonly think of as character traits don't seem to fit the bill. This goes to your point about 2: in order for a trait to be able to resist change, it must in some sense have predictive power. But when the chips are down, people don't seem to demonstrate anything like predictable virtues and vices. In other words, people surprise us. A lot.

      I like your game theory read, here, but it's notable that the poor have been show to have expanded empathic abilities (they read emotions much better than the rich and middle-class) which suggests that the better strategy is to figure out what someone is feeling and intending right now, rather than predicting it only on the basis of past actions.

  5. People surprise us, but certainly not all the time – your argument implies that people are never reliable, but this is belayed by references like 'the chips are down'.

    I am unclear as to the relevance of the linked article – the depressed are more accurate as well, but are you suggesting that depression and poverty are preferable strategies overall?

    1. I was suggesting that the people who most need to make judgments about people (the poor) are most attuned to present emotional states, rather than to generic character judgments. The doer is a fiction tacked on to the deed: if you're poor, it's the deed that matters most. In general, I'm looking to advance the claim that authenticity, individuality, and personality are things that the middle class and rich cultivate as signals of their status, not so that they can actually predict future actions.

  6. It still seems that you have dozens of interactions with other people that go pretty much as you expect every day. So, people surprise us, even a lot, but not often? Also, I am not sure how the this study bears on the point, as the difference between "better strategy when poor" and "better strategy overall" is quite unclear.

    1. I guess I do have fairly predictable interactions with people, but I wouldn't describe those as due to character. They tend to be due to the fairly rote nature of those interactions, or to the roles that I and those others play in work or life. So again, I want to say that character isn't lawlike enough or intrinsic enough to justify using it to predict future actions.

      Of course, you know that I, "anotherpanacea," believe that character is largely illusory. So you can probably correctly predict my response to a range of arguments and claims you might make. But I don't think that's the same thing as looking into my eyes, knowing my soul, and attributing to me a character trait like courage or extraversion.

      You might simply think I'm a disagreeable cuss. Will it surprise you if I agree? 🙂

  7. So 'character' is not predictive, but roles are? I suppose that follows from the contextualism you find appealing. Are signals predictive, even though that is not their primary purpose? Would a functionalist conception of 'soul' ease some of your worries about character?

  8. I think that signals are weakly predictive, yes. Or rather, one needs to perform an evaluation of one's own ability to discern honest and dishonest signaling, and adopt strategies accordingly. Nerds, for instance, may be less good at detecting dishonest signals.

    I'm not sure how functionalism would help us here. How does phenomenal consciousness figure into our evaluation of status or character? Qualia aren't the same thing as free will: just because you don't know what anything's "like" doesn't mean you're more or less predictable, right? If it did, then we could test people to determine whether they're phenomenal zombies.

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