Background Note | HBS Case Collection | January 2004 (Revised February 2011)

Note on Human Behavior: Character and Situation

by Nitin Nohria, Sandra J. Sucher and Bridget Gurtler


When we think of human behavior, especially from a moral perspective, we are often drawn to explanations that rest on character. In simple terms, we conclude that virtuous behavior stems from a person of integrity with strong character and immoral behavior from a person of little integrity with weak character. Discussions of character typically hinge on the extent to which an individual believes in and adheres to the basic moral tenets of honesty, fairness, fidelity to commitments, respect for others and their property, no unjustified harm to others, no theft, and no violation of accepted legal codes. The ability to identify empathetically with others is sometimes seen as a necessary component to understanding and complying with such moral precepts. Character is presumed to influence predictably any individual's behavior across different situations and over time (in the language of rational choice, character can be thought of as a stable system of preferences that informs the tradeoffs and choices an individual is likely to make in different circumstances). Teaching Purpose: To provide background on human behavior.

Keywords: Decision Choices and Conditions; Ethics; Behavior; Personal Characteristics; Power and Influence;


Nohria, Nitin, Sandra J. Sucher, and Bridget Gurtler. "Note on Human Behavior: Character and Situation." Harvard Business School Background Note 404-091, January 2004. (Revised February 2011.)