The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Character Is Sexy

Character is sexy, and there is a reason why.

I have been a college professor for more than thirty years, and an important part of my job is working individually with graduate students who are writing doctoral dissertations. Over the years, I have supervised about fifty of these, learning to be one part cheerleader and two parts crossing guard: Bring it on, but look both ways. Dissertations are difficult, if only because the first one a student writes is usually the last one. Doctoral students cannot learn from experience they do not have, and it falls to me to warn them of pitfalls along the way.

Without doubt, procrastination is the biggest threat, and there are lots of ways for a student to procrastinate. One can always alphabetize one's spice rack. Or clean one's apartment. Or sharpen one's pencils. Or update one's computer software. Or read everything ever written about anything remotely related to the topic of one's dissertation. And a dissertating student can always check out the personal ads in the newspaper and dream about a "real life" when the "unreal life" of graduate school is finally over.

One of my best students at the University of Michigan was Tracy Steen, who never procrastinated while completing her dissertation, even though she spent a huge amount of time reading personal ads. The secret was that she was researching the ads for her dissertation to see how people described themselves to potential mates and to learn what they in turn wanted.

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Other psychologists have studied personal ads, often from an evolutionary perspective that expects differences between males and females. Males presumably seek females who can successfully bear children -- accordingly, women should be young and attractive; females presumably seek males who can successfully protect and provide for children -- accordingly, men should be ambitious and successful. The data usually support these predictions.

However, the research findings also show a pattern even more striking than the "looks and a whole lot of money" exchange highlighted by evolutionary theorists. Character is sexy, and if we can judge by what the personal ads say, good character actually trumps physical attractiveness and occupational achievement, both in what the advertisers proclaim about themselves and in what they are seeking in a romantic partner. These results hold for men and women.

What Dr. Steen did was simple. She read hundreds of personal ads in a local Ann Arbor newspaper and coded what each said, about the person placing the ad and about what that person wanted. She used a positive psychology perspective and was especially interested in the mention of character strengths.

The language of good character figured in almost every ad. Even within the severe word limits imposed by these ads, it was notable that the young adults who placed them explicitly mentioned character as often as they did. The following positive traits were frequently sought in others: capacity to love (36%), a sense of humor (30%), enthusiasm (25%), kindness (24%), and curiosity (19%). When describing themselves, those seeking romance used similar character language: humor (39%), capacity to love (36%), enthusiasm (29%), curiosity (25%), and kindness (23%).

These findings are interesting in their own right, but I mention them to make a point about character. It is not a concern of fuddy-duddies. Character is sexy, and there is a reason why it is sexy. Good character makes relationships of all sorts possible, including romance but also friendship and the relationships that matter at school or at work, around the neighborhood, and of course in the family. Bad boys and mean girls are celebrated by the media, but they should be avoided like the plagues they are.

Steen, T. A. (2002). Is character sexy? The desirability of character strengths in romantic partners. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan.

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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