The Character Gap - A Review

Sometimes psychological findings are presented as if they are deterministic: Murderers kill because they have a particular personality. Thieves steal because their minds work a certain way. Mothers love their children because of predetermined evolutionary conditions of our ancestors’ ancestors. Those who are obese have something their chemical makeup that makes them eat too much. Thus it has always been, and thus it shall ever be.


When information is presented this way, it often leaves readers under the impression there is no path toward forming character. Behaviorally, our DNA is our destiny. This puts Christians, among others, in a spot of trying to argue against the trends of science because we believe that people can and do change. Thankfully, there are ongoing discussions in moral psychology and cognate fields that seem to point toward the possibility of real change and not simply coping strategies.

Christian Miller’s recent book, The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, is a prime example of using the empirical data from psychological research to show how humans can become better people. His presentation indicates that there are certain character traits tied to particular vices and virtues, but he also extends hope that character can be formed through purposeful effort.

The book is broken into three distinct parts. Part One contains two chapters and offers an introduction into the ongoing research on character and its importance. Chapter One deals with a basic overview of character. Chapter Two describes why character is so important.

Part Two consists of five chapters; it describes the shape of character in the modern world. In the third chapter, Miller shows the conditions that encourage people to help others. Chapter Four delves into the character that enables some people to harm others spontaneously and other people to be willing to harm with only minor encouragement. This chapter explains some of the results from the infamous Milgram experiment, and more recent research that continues to support those earlier conclusions. The fifth chapter surveys the psychological roots of lying, especially the motivations that undergird it. Interestingly, people tend to lie more to those to whom they are closer. Chapter Six explores the foundations of cheating. He shows that we are all likely to cheat at times, but rarely cheat as often as we have opportunity. In the seventh chapter Miller ties these elements together. The results of his research indicate that most of us believe we are good and virtuous, but very few of us are. We are not typically as bad or as good as we have the opportunity to be.

Had Miller left the book at that point, it would have been very unsatisfying. However, Part Three of the book is an explanation of how humans can improve their character. Chapter Eight gives several examples of ways that character can be shaped, like doing nothing, labeling people as virtuous, and “nudging.” These techniques have been shown to have some effect in some cases in resulting in better behavior, but they rarely result in exemplary moral character. The ninth chapter offers multiple stronger methods for shaping character. Having (and being) role models, choosing better situations (aka, avoiding temptation, and being self-aware are three of the more promising means of shaping character positively.  Chapter Ten works through character formation in a Christian context, where Miller shows how a healthy Christian community, informed theologically, can engender improved character in people. It is encouraging that he allows space for sanctification through the Spirit, though, understandably, he does not delve into the mechanics of that process.

The Character Gap is an encouraging book in several ways. It takes the evil in the world seriously, recognizes the bentness of humans, and unveils the reality of our own inconsistencies. Thankfully, however, he does not leave the reader in the muck and mire, but offers legitimate ways to improve. For non-religious readers, this will focus on structuring life toward community or self-chosen goals. For religious readers, the norms are already provided, but the empirical data he provides can inform the selection of behaviors. For example, the reluctance to help is often driven by others not helping. The logical response (if we want to be helpers) is to seek to always be the first to offer help or actually help and to surround ourselves with people who are helpers. Miller highlights the importance of creating structures that encourage good behavior, which is why our Bibles should be placed in prominent places: not so that we show off the Word to others, but so that we are more likely to partake of the divine revelation ourselves. There are dozens of other examples of ways that empirical data can shape how we structure our lives to help form us for good in this volume.

One of the more interesting aspects of this volume--which I’ve discovered to be consistent within the fields of organizational, behavioral, and moral psychology--is the promotion of a three-part character. According to Miller, someone who is virtuous, (1) does good actions, (2) does those actions in the right circumstances, and (3) does good actions for the right reason. True virtue is founded on a pattern of behaviors with these three elements. This is particular interesting as this formulation echoes the triperspectivalism of John Frame and the ethical framework of David W. Jones. The names for the aspects are different, but the parts correspond. This may be empirical evidence for the validity of these ethical schemas.

The limitations of this volume are caused by its format. The Character Gap is a popular level book that summarizes and makes accessible some of Miller’s more academic research. As such, there are times where the reader has to take Miller at his word, because the evidence is buried in a source called out in an endnote, and that source is barricaded behind a pricy paywall. However, it seems that Miller is arguing in good faith and so many of his conclusions are so commonsensical that there is little reason to doubt his findings. This is a helpful book that will inform the casual reader and can point the more engaged student toward further study.

Christian Miller has produced an excellent, accessible volume on human character. His arguments are well-supported, lucid, and offer hope for progress in character formation. Miller’s book should inform future discussions in Christian ethics and, perhaps, raise interest in the psychological study of character among moral theologians.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.