Finding the Virtuous Among Us

A lot of psychological research is based upon self-report questionnaires. And for a lot of things, more things than you'd imagine, this methodology totally works. There are many things that people can accurately share via self-report. For example, if they are an introvert or an extrovert. If they are politically liberal or conservative. If they are anxious or depressed. In addition, there are many cases where perception is reality. For example, can you have a good sense of humor if no one thinks you are funny? The perception that you aren't funny is what makes you not funny. Same goes for a lot of spiritual variables. If you think God is angry with you and is wanting to damn you to hell that perception is going to be spiritually determinative.

That said, there are many things that don't lend themselves to self-report. Many things we'd like to assess have issues with what psychologists call social desirability. Some things are so socially toxic we can't admit them to ourselves or others. You can't walk up to people and ask, "Are you a racist?" Hard to get a straight answer on that. For the two reasons I noted. Few people would own the label racist even though, well, they are a racist. And even if the person were a proud and self-identified racist they might not want you to know this. Either way, you're not going to get a straight answer.

But there are also problems on the virtuous end of the spectrum.

With the rise of what has been dubbed positive psychology many psychological researchers have taken an interest in the psychology of virtue. An obvious research question to ask about virtue has to do with the correlates of virtuous people. What are loving people like? Grateful people? Courageous people? Wise people?

Well, to get a start on this question you need to identify these virtuous people in relation to the general population. But how do you assess virtue? Can it be done with self-report? Some virtues might be assessed this way. But think about a virtue like humility. Can you ask a person "On a scale from 1 to 10 rate how humble you are."? How's a humble person supposed to answer that question? With a ten? A one? Something in the middle?

But humble people do exist and psychologists are interested in finding them. We have some questions we'd like to answer about them. How'd they get to be that way? What are they like, these humble people?

The point is, research into virtue is interesting and potentially important. But assessing virtue is pretty tricky.

One way to crack this nut is to use a peer nominating procedure. One of my thesis students, Grace, used this technique in her research about wisdom. As a part of her research Grace had members of a church identify people within their congregation who were exemplars of wisdom. Who are, Grace asked, the wise among you? Gathering these names Grace identified people who were nominated many times. These individuals were pulled to make a "wisdom group" which could be compared with the rest of the congregation. The goal was to see if there were any personality differences between the wise group and the others.

I wonder if churches might benefit from techniques like this?

We all know that an important facet of spiritual formation is imitation, following a model. As St. Paul said, "imitate me as I imitate Christ." But most churches can't get a start on this process because they don't know who to point to as models. Nomination procedures like the one Grace used might help here. Such procedures might identify virtue coaches, people who we might set before the church as resources for those wanting to acquire particular virtues.

At the very least, by pointing these people out we can simply watch them and do as they do.


  1. Well, if you want to know if someone is racist - you frame the question appropriately. you don't just ask "are you racist". you ask something more benign: 
    1 Do you think that the hard earned rights of those born in country X should be extended to those who have moved here?
    2 Are there some positions on the football field that are more suited to African american players?
    3 Is it important to maintain the strength of our local culture by taking measures to prevent its dilution?
    4 Are people from other countries less likely to contribute to the "xx" way of life?

    You can even try to frame the "racist" answers in positive language. After all, much racism is justified in this manner, as a virtuous activity. 

  2. It's hard. One thing to consider is the difference between prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is a negative stereotype. Discrimination is treating people unequally/unfairly. Sometimes discrimination is easier to assess as it is more behavioral. For example, you might look at salaries of men and women doing the same job. If you find a difference you have evidence, all things being equal, of discrimination.

    But prejudice, being a mental state, is harder to get at for social desirability reasons. I've seen two approaches. The first is to try to bypass conscious attributions to assess implicit bias. Check out the Implicit Association Test in this regard. The caution, though, is that having an implicit bias that, say, black = bad and white = good doesn't mean one is racist.

    As far as self-report goes, see point #2 in this post of mind for an example of how researchers have effectively gotten at ethnocentrism: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2010/04/us-against-them-part-5-some-notes-on.html

  3. Yes, that's the way psychologists go about assessing it.

  4. To poll for socially undesirable *behaviors*, you can use math.

    Give people a survey form and a quarter.  The form asks "Have you smoked pot in the last twelve months?," but you instruct all participants to answer truthfully only if they get heads on a coin flip that you the questioner don't observe, and you tell them to answer "yes" if they get tails.  You can even let them keep the quarter.

    If they trust their privacy and follow directions, then you have your result: in a survey of 2n people with k yes responses, your true yes response rate is (k-n)/n.

    Hooray for math!

  5. How does a church go about pointing out the 'virtuous' of a group without divisiveness? 

  6.  The saints are sort of a historical precedent to this from before there was any study of psychology.

    It's going to be hard to make this idea fly in Protestant churches, where in theory everyone is supposed to be a saint.

  7. Dr. Beck - Isn't this at least part of the wisdom within the Restoration Movement's ecclesiology?  Not that it is perfect by any means, but when at its best? A body of believers identifying those members within the community who embody wisdom, humility, the fruit of the spirit, and then lifting them up as examples (elders/deacons/ministry leaders) for the rest of the community to imitate and follow. It seems like more often than not, our ecclesiology lends itself more to power plays and politics as usual.  But at it's best - there is something of value here.  Anyways, I am rambling.  Thanks for the insightful post as usual.

  8. Richard - would Grace be willing to share her research when it's done? I could use this in my Ethics classes.

  9. I'm sure she would. She's wrapping up the thesis this semester.

  10. Yes, I'd agree, when we are at our best.

  11. Well, in the Catholic church we used to have these guys called *priests* we all used to look up to but then they kept getting thrown in jail for buggering children.  Of course we had nuns we admired too but little by little most of them quit and moved into hippie communes in Northern California or else became professors or else married some of the few priests the church had left and moved to Nicaragua.  But all of that doesn’t really depress me as much as the thought that the church has to contract social science experts for us to figure out who among us just might be (statistically speaking) wise enough to model the christian life for me.  Maybe the only thing more disturbing would be voting on my smart phone in something like “America’s Top Christian.”   obliged.      


  12. But that's a a red flag--one must identify when a group is at its best before the results are trustworthy. But presumably it takes wisdom to make that judgement. I think what the study would be valuable for is identifying people who are good at carrying out conventional wisdom. That's a pragmatic question--a skill. 

    Jesus and Socrates advocated points of view that were contrary to conventional wisdom--and famously difficult to carry out in their respective ways. The study can be very valuable--but might need to define its goal...

  13. Well. I'm so humble I envy the people that know me.  :)

  14. That would be fantastic. I'm going to be at AAR and plan to come to your session.

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