Toward the end of the 1995 movie The American President, President Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas) responds to attacks from a political opponent by saying "[He] ... has suggested that being president of this country [is] ... to a certain extent about character ... I've been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation that being president of this country is entirely about character."
Character does matter, all would agree, whether it is the character of our nation's leaders or the character of ourselves, our family members, our friends, our colleagues, and our fellow citizens. Election 2008 has seen no shortage of discussion of character and no lack of strong opinions and pronouncements.
Much of this discourse has been at odds with what positive psychologists have learned about character. Since 2000, we have been involved in a research project that identifies, assesses, and studies such strengths of character as bravery, hope, honesty, perseverance, and teamwork. This project is political in the original sense of the word, meaning that it is necessarily concerned with community life, but it is not partisan. Good character resides at no particular address. It is not a red-blue, left-right, rich-poor, young-old, male-female, or Black-White issue. Good character is a human issue, and it behooves us all to approach the topic with appropriate nuance.
For several years, we read widely to identify strengths of character recognized and celebrated by philosophers East and West, theologians, psychologists, and educators. We gathered and analyzed hundreds of virtue catalogues: for example, the virtues enumerated by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography, by the Girls Scouts of America in their Girl Scout Law, and by the moral rationales of Japanese and Korean martial arts. Our goal was to identify strengths of character that were consensually valued across time and place. We approached character strengths as a family of positive traits reflected in thoughts, feelings and actions. Character as we see it is plural and not singular.
Our final list of character strengths included 24 positive traits which we grouped into six larger categories: (1) strengths of wisdom and knowledge (creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective); (2) strengths of courage and fortitude (bravery, honesty, perseverance, zest); (3) strengths of humanity (kindness, love, social intelligence); (4) strengths of justice and community (fairness, leadership, teamwork); (5) strengths of temperance and restraint (forgiveness, modesty, prudence, self-regulation); and (6) strengths of transcendence (appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality).
We devised various ways to measure these strengths. We developed interviews and ways of assessing character strengths from written and spoken material. We also created surveys for youth and for adults that asked respondents to indicate how characteristic of themselves were various thoughts, feelings, and actions that reflected each of the strengths in our classification. We asked friends, family members, and teachers to describe the character strengths of our survey respondents, and we found sufficient convergence to conclude that character strengths as we were measuring them were not pleasant self-fictions. Indeed, people's character strengths are no mystery to those in their vicinity.
To date, more than 1,000,000 people from around the world have completed our surveys. We have looked at the relationships between character strengths scores and a variety of other characteristics of our respondents: happiness and depression, physical health, occupation, work satisfaction, achievement, where they lived, how they have responded to illness and trauma, and so on.
Here is what have we learned so far about character that is relevant to Election 2008.
First, good character is not bad character negated, and it is not evident simply by what one has not done. Psychologists often focus on what is wrong with the human condition, but sole attention to defect, disease, and distress tells us very little about what is right with the human condition. Sports teams nowadays are interested in recruiting or drafting "character" guys, but this seems to mean avoiding potential players who have been arrested. This is probably a prudent strategy - if there is one truism in psychology, it is that past behavior often predicts future behavior - but a clean rap sheet is hardly a strong indicator of good character. Good character must be ascertained and understood in its own right, in politics no less than in sports.
Second, good character is not a singular thing, a piece of furniture that can be moved in or out of the White House. Rather, character has different and distinguishable components, all of which exist in degrees. Our research has shown over and over again that the different strengths of character we study indeed are different and further that no given strength cleaves people into discrete groups, those who have the characteristic versus those who do not. A relative deficiency in one component of good character may have little relevance to other components, despite assertions by politicians about their opponents and by pundits about everyone (except themselves).
Third, along these lines, a single misstep does not veto an entire life. We may choose, for reason, to regard certain missteps as mortal sins and refuse to traffic with the sinner. Or In voting for our leaders, we may choose, again for reason, to apply litmus tests. But we should be very clear about what we are doing and not think we are passing judgment on the totality of anyone's character.
Fourth, like many psychological characteristics, the components of character are moderately stable over time but not set in stone. Character strengths can and do change, for better or for worse, in response to specific events or as the result of maturation. It is of course interesting to learn about the childhood of a Presidential candidate, but if we want to understand someone's character as it exists in the here and now, we should not focus on the there and then.
Fifth, no one can have it all in terms of the components of good character. There are always soft tradeoffs, if only because there are but 24 hours in a day. In our research, we find that some folks have notable strengths of the head (creativity, curiosity, love of learning), and these are usually not the same folks who have notable strengths of the heart (forgiveness, kindness, love). Why should we expect our political leaders to be any different?
Sixth, our research shows that character has important consequences but that its different components matter for different things. Among everyday people, we find that zest and enthusiasm foreshadow satisfaction at work and with life; that perseverance predicts success and achievement; that hope and optimism lead to good health and a long life; that spirituality and humor enable resilience in the wake of trauma; and so on. Furthermore, the consequences of character in which we are most interested are often associated with several strengths of character, implying considerable complexity. For example, good leaders possess not only social intelligence but also the capacity to form close emotional relationships with others. Medal of Honor winners are not only brave but also capable of exceptional self-regulation.
So, the way to choose our next President on the basis of character is to ask what we want our next President to accomplish - we would not presume to tell anyone whether national security is more important than health care or energy independence - and then work backwards to ask which strengths of character should matter most for these goals. That is a difficult enough question without the distraction of what is irrelevant.
How are to we to judge the components of good character, especially those of Presidential candidates known to us at best from second-, third-, or fourth-hand sources? Character strengths are obviously not to be found only in what a candidate says, although what someone says - or does not say - and how it is said are good places to start if we want to understand anyone's strengths of character. But we really need to look at what a candidate has done, especially in times of challenge or crisis. Has someone risen to the occasion with the character strength of concern to us?
In some quarters, Hillary Clinton is criticized as calculating, Barack Obama as messianic, and John McCain as a maverick. These are not good traits. But when reframed as astute, as inspiring, and as independent, these attributions become not only palatable but desirable. What is the right frame? It is the one afforded by a candidate's habitual actions and the consequences of these actions.
We are open to the possibility that someone may be completely devoid of any and all the components of good character-our friends sometimes cite the boyfriends of their teenage daughters as examples-but in our more sober research we find that virtually everyone has some laudable strengths of character that make them who they are. To repeat, no one has it all. And no one lacks it all, even if he or she is a member of the "other" political party.
We happen to believe that all of our Presidential candidates are remarkable people, but each in his or her own way. Not one of them is across the board remarkable, and we are doing no one a service-especially ourselves and our country-if we approach character in monolithic terms.
Let us return to President Andrew Shepherd, still speaking to his political opponent: "If you want to talk about character ... you'd better come at me with more than [you have] ... This is a time for serious people ... and your fifteen minutes are up." We the people need to be serious about character, too, because our fifteen minutes will never be up.
Christopher Peterson & Nansook Park