Character Contests

July 18, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, has been accused of sexual harassment by Gretchen Carlson, a Fox on-screen performer. Neil Cavuto, a Fox editor and anchor defends Ailes in an article at Business Insider.

. . . about a quarter-century getting to know a guy, so I think I'm a pretty good judge of character. . . .all this stuff I've been reading about Roger is a lot of clutter and a lot of nonsense. None of it remotely matches the man I've come to know over these recent decades.

Kimberly Guilfoyle, another Fox News anchor, tells the conservative website Breitbart (here), “in terms of Roger’s character, integrity, and credibility, I cannot stand up enough for Roger.”

Character is such an appealing concept. It allows us to think that we know someone to the very core. It gives us the illusion of prediction; if we know someone’s character, we know how they will act. It allows us to know, even without any real knowledge or evidence, how someone did act.

The problem is that character is often an illusion – a consistency that we paint onto people. It’s hard to for us to realize how much their character is something that we ourselves construct. For one thing, when we think about someone, we focus on that person, not on our own thinking. Second, we choose not to notice things that don’t fit with our portrait (confirmation bias). And third, we see the person in only a few different situations. The person’s behavior and reactions may be fairly consistent in those situations but very different in other situations we have not seen. Several times I have walked past the open door of a classroom where a colleague is teaching only to hear a professor who is not at all like the colleague I know. J. Edgar Hoover liked to dress up in women’s clothes.

I expect that people with some stake in the case on either side will be making conflicting testimonials about Ailes’s character, and Carlson’s. Cavuto, for example, not only defends Ailes’s character but attacks Carlson’s “Take it from a guy with an illness:* These accusations that don’t remotely resemble the Roger that I know — that WE know — are just ... sick.”

That settles it: Ailes – “tough but kind. . . disciplined but discerning”; the accusations (and presumably the accusers) “sick.”

If we know what a man is like as a boss of a news network, can we know how he will act when he is alone with an attractive young woman employee? If we could, life would be simpler. Sexual harassment lawsuits would be simpler. It would be nice if the Bill Cosby we came to know on TV, the Cosby many of the people he worked with came to know, had been the total Cosby in all situations.

I have no idea whether Ailes did and said what Carlson accuses him of. I’m just saying that character assessment and character assassination do not provide the answer. Character is our prediction about what someone would do. It is not evidence of what someone did.**       

* Cavuto says that his comments are more believable because of his recent health problems. “Seeing as I've just had open-heart surgery and deal with my share of illnesses, I'm free to speak my mind in a way and from a unique perspective others cannot.” Apparently, the pre-bypass Cavuto could not be trusted to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

** After writing this post, I remembered that I had posted something similar nearly five years ago, here, in connection with the reaction to fallen heroes (e.g., Joe Paterno). It’s worth looking at if only for the quote from Nabokov.


Caleb said...

Great post.

Andrew Gelman said...


The relevant term from the psychology literature is "the fundamental attribution error."

Jay Livingston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Livingston said...

I did a post about the fundamental attribution error just a couple of months ago ("Who's Smarter?" April 16). It didn’t occur to me in connection with this one, maybe because the situational causes of Ailes’s (alleged) behavior are so much less evident. Cavuto does attribute all of Ailes’s behavior to his character, hence his conclusion that behavior that is not consistent with that character could not possibly have happened. But it’s hard for me to come up with a situational explanation of his sexual harassment, especially since I know nothing about those situations.

Andrew Gelman said...


The simplest situational story is just that Ailes did his sexual harassment at times and places where Cavuto wasn't around!