of Character Strengths
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Human achievements cannot be measured simply
in terms of wealth, power or fame. Such accomplishments belong to
a small group of elites who are blessed with special talents and
good fortunes. Basking in the glory of success and wielding immense
influence, they are idolized, envied or feared, but not trusted.
According to Viktor Frankl, great human achievements
can also come from great suffering. Ordinary people can become extraordinary
heroes when they maintain their spiritual freedom, human dignity,
and compassionate heart in the midst of unimaginable horrors. They
witness to us that the defiant human spirit and character strength
can carry us through impossible circumstances. They achieve greatness
not through talents but through perseverance. Overcomers like Dr.
Frankl evoke our affection and trust, because they inspire us to
live with greater courage and optimism.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from
a troubled parent. After reading my article on the pervasive problem
of terror and violence, he asked: "What can I do to protect my children
and bring them up in such a dark and dangerous world?" I have been
wrestling with this haunting question ever since.
After much reflection, I can think of only one
answer - character. Nothing can be compared with character in terms
of lasting values. If we can instill in our children the kind of
unassailable character and moral fortitude exemplified by Viktor
Frankl in Nazi concentration camps, we have given them what is needed
to survive the worst of adversities.
In praise of character
At the end of one's journey, when the applauses
or jeers become distant memories, when victories and defeats no
longer matter, all we possess is our character. In spite of our
flaws and failures, if we are able to keep our integrity intact
throughout the bruising battles, we can die with a smile on our
lips and peace in our hearts.
Good character is like a rare pearl, a precious
diamond - it takes years to form and develop. According to a Chinese
proverb, pure gold fears no fire; character is gold. Character cannot
be overrated, because as individuals and as a species, our survival
and success depend on it.
The price of character
is high, but the cost of failure in character is even higher.
Character defies the odds, sets us free from all the deterministic
forces, protects civil society against all the corrupting influences
and assures that good will triumph over evil. It is character that
steers us through troubled waters and deadly minefields. Character
is the foundation for all virtues, and the basis for all enduring
and caring relationships. Character is the pinnacle of spiritual
achievement and it defines the best of humanity. Above all, character
is priceless - it is the only property that cannot be acquired by
money or force; it can only be developed through a lifetime of cultivating
spiritual and moral habits.
The greatest need for every generation
In every generation and every nation, our greatest
need is men and women of good character, who dare to do what is
right, choose the road least traveled and follow a higher calling.
They are the light and salt of the world; for without them, there
would be no way to stop those with unbridled ambitions, insatiable
greed and unmatched intellect for evil. Only character is capable
of opposing wholesale degradation. Only character can transform
an open sewage into a fountain of life-sustaining water.
What kind of quality do you want to see in your
president, pastor, partner, physician, or any person of significance
in your life? Who do you want to trust with your life and children?
People with character!
The real character difference
Character makes all the difference in real life
situations. Without it, intelligence, competence, courage, creativity,
resourcefulness, even love could all be used to exploit others and
perpetrate evil. For example, one can be an intelligent crook, a
loving seducer or a courageous murderer.
Often, we have to devise defensive strategies
and plan for the worst, because we have been betrayed and burnt
far too many times. We can relax and enjoy the relationship, only
when we are working with someone with sterling character. The quality
of life for both individuals and society depends on the character
of its citizens.
But what is character anyway?
But what is character anyway? If we don't know
how to define it, how can we tell whether someone is an honest man
or a con? Often, we require a character reference or a letter of
introduction, but we can never be sure that it is not just hogwash.
There are serious obstacles when we attempt to identify the touchstones.
How do we define character?
Broadly speaking, character refers to some trait
or personal quality that distinguishes one person from another.
It is similar to personality, except that character has moral connotations,
such as good character or bad character.
There is considerable agreement regarding the
cluster of virtues that make up good character. Dictionary
definition tends to emphasize strength of mind, resolution,
independence, and moral quality of individuals. National
Character Education Center has chosen seven core ethical values
for character education: positive mental attitude, respect, integrity,
compassion, cooperation, perseverance, and initiative. Similarly,
Josephson (2002) identifies six pillars of character: trustworthiness,
respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. He believes
that these are universal values that can improve the ethical quality
of our decisions and lives.
From the perspective of positive psychology
rather than character education, Peterson and Seligman (2004) provide
a complete list of 6 key virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, humanity,
temperance, and spirituality. These general virtues appear to be
universal. There are 24 subcomponents of character strengths, which
can be grouped according to the six virtues. They believe that these
virtues and character strengths can be measured scientifically and
enhanced through interventions.
Does character exist?
But many psychologists even question the usefulness
of the concept of character or personality trait. They think that
it is just some sort of imaginary attribute of folk psychology.
They believe that it is more helpful both scientifically and practically
to identify the situations which are conducive to ethical behaviors.
In her book "Lack of Character", Doris
(2002) documents research findings regarding the inconsistency and
fragmentation of character. Kunda (1999) in his social psychology
textbook also concludes that there is no empirical evidence to support
the idea that broad and stable personality traits manifest themselves
in a variety of situations. In other words, honest people may lie
in some situations, and generous people can behave selfishly under
My rejoinder is that we need to take the findings
of social psychology experiments with a grain of salt. When I was
teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, my colleague Dr.
Elliot Aronson, a prominent social psychologist, used to say that
if the cover story and the manipulation were very clear and compelling,
social psychologist could get just about any result they wanted
from their subjects.
Since how people behave in a psychology experiment
in most cases do not have serious consequences on their lives, they
may act out of character and yield to the perceived demand characteristics
of the experimental situation (i.e., behaving according to what
they think the researchers want them to do). Therefore, experiments
which demonstrate the lack of consistency in character traits do
not necessarily prove that these traits do not exist in real life.
Dr. Jackyll and Mr. Hyde
Another common argument is that there is really
no such thing as good character or bad character, because everyone
has both a good side and a dark side. Given the same set of circumstances
everyone can become a Hitler, serial killer, or an abusive prison
guard. Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority
Research and Philip G. Zimbardo's Stanford
Milgram's research demonstrates that most college
students (serving as experimental subjects) were willing to obey
orders from an authority figures (researchers in white lab coats)
and delivered harmful electric shock (up to 450 volts) to a "learner"
strapped in a chair with an electrode placed on his arm. The cover
story was that it was a study about the effect of punishment on
learning, and the subject was to deliver a shock in increasing levels
of voltage for every mistake the "learner" made in a memory-learning
task. Even when the "leaner" (who is actually an actor) appeared
to be in great distress, the subject continued to deliver shock
even when the level of voltage is labeled "danger: severe shock".
The findings show that about 65% of all of
the subjects punished the "learners" to the maximum level of 450
volts. The moral of Milgram's obedience experiments is that the
average person can do horrible things to another human being in
obedience to authority.
In Zimbardo's simulated prison experiment, college
students who played the role of prison guards who were to keep order
of their "prisoners", who were paid volunteers. Within less than
a week, students became increasingly aggressive and abusive towards
the "prisoners". Their dehumanizing and degrading treatments of
prisoners included forcing them to clean out toilet bowls with their
bare hands and acting out degrading scenarios, similar to the recent
abuse of Iraqi
The experiment had to be aborted prematurely
because the prison guards quickly descended into depravity and the
prisoners showed signs of extreme stress. The lesson from the Stanford
Prison Experiment was that given a situation that allows dehumanization,
depersonalization, and abuse of power, an average college student
can become a sadistic monster.
These two lines of research demonstrate again
the power of demand characteristics of social experiments I have
just described. But more importantly, they also demonstrate the
dangerous potential for abuse inherent in authority and power. However,
these findings do not prove that given similar life circumstances,
everyone could become a Hitler or sadistic murderer. In fact, not
every student in Milgram's study fully obeyed the researcher's order,
and someone involved in Zimbardo's study actually stopped the experiment
by protesting against it.
Viktor Frankl has demonstrated that circumstances
do not determine people; they only disclose their character.
The average individual may indeed fall prey to the oppressive situational
demands, but there are always some brave souls who shine in the
midst of darkness. It is precisely the kind of situations simulated
by Milgram and Zimbardo that would separate out real precious stones
from gravel. The amazing thing is that often those who consider
themselves the paragon of morality actually fall apart under pressure,
while some "little guys" may be surprised to discover their own
moral fortitude in times of crisis. It is trial by fire that reveals
whether one life foundation is made of wood
and straw or gold and silver.
How is character formed?
By and large, character is not something that
just happens by decree or happenstance. Nor is it acquired through
instructions of moral precepts. Like an oak tree, it takes time
and weathering through the storms to grow character. Helen Keller
says it well: "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.
Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be
strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved."
Many have bemoaned the death of character in
today's school systems and society at large (e.g., Hunter, 2000;
Krasko, 2004). Recognizing the importance of character and virtue
in a democratic society, Sir
John Templeton Foundation supports a wide range of programs
and publications to promote character education. Today, there are
several organizations dedicated to character development, such as
The general philosophy of character education
is that students need to understand
a set of core values, such as empathy and caring; practice
these pro-social behaviors, live
according to these core values. Thus, whether they are making decisions,
and resolving problems, their actions and reactions follow their
core values. If children begin to learn and practice positive values
through instructions, modeling and daily practice, they will grow
Character education will work only when both
home and school support the practice of ethical core values. It
requires that both parents and teachers to model moral character.
Unfortunately, in a free market society of cut-throat competition,
where expedience is more important than principles and short-term
gains are valued more than long-term relationships, it is very difficult
to find individuals with character.
Bitter experiences of betrayal
I believe that all of us have tasted the bitter
experiences of betrayal by best friends, business partners or even
spouse. How can we be sure that someone is trustworthy? Where can
we find individuals with sterling character?
A friend of mine trusts his partner and best
friend to invest large sums of money overseas only to learn later
on that the money has disappeared together with his partner. I know
of many similar cases where people sell their souls for money.
Years ago, I was very impressed with one young
man, who appeared to possess both competence and character. I invested
many years mentoring him and grooming him for leadership positions.
At the end, when he thinks that he is strong enough to be on his
own, he turns on me and acts in a very mean and unethical manner.
This remains one of my most painful experiences. I regret that I
did not listen to my wife who warned me from the very beginning
that this young man was arrogant, stubborn and self-centered; she
has a much better track record than I in judging a person's character!
How do we identify character
Is there a way to identify individuals with
character? Perhaps, we can develop valid and reliable instruments
to measure various character strengths. However, I have two major
concerns with the self-report questionnaire approach. First, people
may simply fake good and give socially desirable responses. Second,
character strengths typically manifest themselves in trying circumstances.
Therefore, questions about how individuals typically react in normal
situations may not capture the essence of character.
Here are a few behavioral tests which may serve
as touchstones of character strengths. Assuming that the best way
to define character as integrity tried
by fire, we need to focus on how individuals behave and react
to situations that contain elements of adversity or temptation.
I propose that following tests of character strengths.
What is their track record of overcoming setbacks
and obstacles to get the job done? How many times have they quit
a job when it became difficult? What is their track record of remaining
true to their prior commitments even when the situation turns unfavorable?
Are they able to perform their tasks faithfully in obscurity and
without any reward? Are they willing to go through the necessary
stages of drudgery without complaint, without quitting? Do they
have the patience to master the small tasks first before taking
on the big task? Do they have a high frustration tolerance threshold?
Do they lie to get out of a jam or to gain personal
advantages? Do they alter what they have just said, when they sense
that their statement is not well received? Do they often say, "I
didn't really mean that" or "You have misunderstood what I have
just said"? Do they steal other people's credits for success but
blame others for failures? Are they willing to admit their mistakes
and apologize? Do they practice deception and ingratiation in order
to get what they want? Do they keep on shifting their positions
like the weather vane?
When no one is watching, do they act contrary
to their own professed values? What TV programs do they watch and
what websites do they visit when they are shielded by the privacy
of their own room? What secret deals do they cut behind the back
of their partners? Do they secretly pursue their personal agenda
using company time?
When their friends are in trouble, do they distant
themselves so that they won't be implicated? Do they betray their
friends for personal gains? Do they sell out to the highest bidder?
Do they risk their own necks to defend a friend who has been unfairly
treated? Do they value friendship and maintain good relationship
for long periods of time?
When they are in position of authority, how
do they treat their subordinates and their superiors? Do they blindly
obey their boss and demand blind obedience from their own subordinates?
How do they treat those who have the courage and integrity to disagree
with their bad decisions?
Given a value-conflict situation, do they behave
according to their professed core ethical values and get demoted,
or do they endorse unethical practices in order to get promoted?
Do their make decisions that according to cores values or according
to expediency? Are their behaviors consistent with their mission
Do they make time to care for other people who
need help? Do they demonstrate empathy when a colleague is in trouble
with the boss? Do they care about other people's feelings and sensitivities?
Are they mean to people? Do they simply use people as instruments
and stepping stones? Do they contribute regularly to charity? Are
they concerned about social issues such as poverty, discrimination,
It should not be too difficult to conduct the
above seven tests of character strengths through "behavioral" interviews,
observations or "candid camera" setups. If we pay attention to how
people behave in trying situations, we have a better chance of identifying
individuals with character.
Even Jesus had to pass three temptations before
his public ministry: He was tempted to turn stones into bread, jump
down from the highest point of the temple, and finally worship
the devil to gain power and wealth. He was tempted like we are
in all three areas: physical needs, spiritual pride, and worldly
ambition, but he did not sin. Temptation reveals our true nature.
How do you fare in coping with temptations? Do you have the character
to withstand the endless barrage of trial and tribulation?
Character is essentially a collection of habits.
What matters most in character formation is not religious belief,
nor head knowledge of moral precepts, but the consistent habit of
doing the right thing in difficult situations. What really counts
is the consistent discipline of making ethical decisions in good
times and bad times. It is through
consistent moral and spiritual habits that we develop and reveal
Doris, J. (2002). Lack of character: Personality
and moral behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Krasko, G.L. (2004). This unbearable boredom
of being: A crisis of meaning in America. New York: iUniverse,
Hunter, J. (2001). The death of character:
On the moral education of American children. New York: Basic
Josephson, M. (2002). Making ethical decisions.
Marina del Rey, CA: Josephson Institute of Ethics. Retrieved on
October 11, 2005 from
Kunda, Z. (1999). Social cognition; Making
sense of people. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character
strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Wellington
Square, UK: Oxford University Press.