Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Is Character Real?


Christopher Peterson, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, where he has been the director of clinical training and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, an award given to honor his contributions to teaching. Together with Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., Peterson wrote Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. The book looks at twenty-four specific strengths under six broad virtues that consistently emerge across history and culture: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. In the article below Peterson gives us some insight to the resistance he received while researching this book. Be sure to check back later today for an excerpt from the book.

I embarked with hesitation on the projection that resulted in Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Its goals—to identify consensually recognized strengths of character and to devise ways of measuring these positive traits—had little precedent within recent psychology. Many psychologists today endorse extreme cultural relativism and may further doubt that “character” exists except in the eye of the beholder.

Some of my colleagues rolled their eyes when I told them of my plan to go off and work with Martin Seligman on 9780195167016.jpgcharacter. Didn’t I know that character—good, bad, or indifferent—was but a social construction, revealing the observer’s values but shedding no light whatsoever on who or what was observed? And sometimes their criticism became more pointed, accusing me of selling out to the “man” (there are still people who talk like that, bless them). They told me that I was participating in a repressive political process, and they feared that I would describe character in terms that privileged White people or males or people with big bank accounts or Ivy League degrees. I do not think that any of this happened, although you may judge for yourself.

But here let me address these worries. I have come close to caricaturing them, or rather I should say that they come close to caricaturing themselves because I have relayed them verbatim. It is of course legitimate to worry about politics and prejudices masquerading as science, but it is just as legitimate to worry about politics and prejudices stifling science. In effect, my colleagues were saying that there was no such thing as good character to be studied, and hence that any study of this nonexistent topic would be filled with the unacknowledged biases of the researcher. Accordingly, character should not be studied.

Okay. I agree that there is no such thing as value-free science, or if there were, it would be pretty boring. At the same time, science is more than just a language game and a tool of those in power. Antibiotics really do work, and so do antilock brakes. I invite the most fervent deconstructionist to forego either. What a researcher can (and must) do is to make his or her values as explicit as possible. That is what we tried to do in our book. So, we assume that good character exists. I have seen its components in my parents and in my friends and—yes—even in my critical colleagues.

More to the point, we have devised ways to measure these components of character, and we have validated them in the ways that social scientists have agreed are useful. If someone still wishes to say that there is no such thing as character, I suppose they could. And they could use the same arguments to doubt the existence of gravity, radio waves, and viruses. And I could use them to doubt that I was really overweight, no matter what my scales, my doctors, and my ill-fitting clothes say.

One of the measures of character strengths that we created is the Values in Action Signature Strengths and for several years it has been available on-line at www.authentichapppiness.org. People can log on to the website, take the survey, and receive immediate feedback on their signature (top) strengths. To date, more than 500,000 individuals have taken the test, mostly from the United States but also from some 200 other countries around the world, including Pitcairn Island and Vatican City.

The topic of “character” resonates with everyday people, if not always with academic psychologists, and the feedback I have received from people who have taken the test has been uniformly positive. And with my colleagues, I have been systematically investigating the relationship of character strengths as we measure them to a variety of positive outcomes that matter: happiness, achievement, physical health, and successful coping with adversity. What I want to emphasize here is that our results invariably hold across nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, educational attainment, and so on—all the demographic contrasts that one might expect to qualify any empirical facts about character.

So, I still believe that character, at least as we have studied it, indeed exists. I also believe that is not culture-bound and that it is often more than its own reward.

Recent Comments

  1. Scott Belyea

    Interesting. Just the other day, someone who knew them asked me what I remembered best and admired most about my late parents (now gone for 21 and 10 years). Everything I mentioned would come under the heading of “character.”

    Does it exist? No doubt in my mind …

  2. […] examine good character across history and culture. To read Peterson’s original piece click here. In the excerpt below, which is from the beginning of Character Strengths and Virtues, the authors […]

Comments are closed.