Making Sense of Character Strengths

Here's a case for integrating positive psychology work into personality science.

Posted Oct 17, 2018

A surge of attention has emerged on this concept called character strengths, a phrase that implies a special, potent form of personality. In 2004, Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson edited a book titled Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. In separate situations, this book has been called the bible of positive psychology and the "Un-DSM." Howard Gardner, Senior Director of Harvard Zero and best-selling author of multiple intelligence books, says character strengths is “One of the most important initiatives in psychology of the past half-century." With hyperbolic fury, the book launched a thousand studies on character strengths.

Here is the odd thing: If you read articles, book chapters, and practitioner guides that focus on character strengths, you rarely find a definition of what they are, and if you do, it is vague enough to be questionable. Consider these definitions of character strengths by leading scientists:

"A combination of talents (naturally recurring patterns of thoughts, feeling and behavior), knowledge (facts and lessons learned), and skills (the steps of an activity.)" (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001).

"The psychological ingredients – processes or mechanisms – that define morally valued virtues." (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

"Positive traits reflected in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors." (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).

"Understood to be natural capacities that we yearn to use, that enable authentic expression, and that energise us." (Govindji & Linley, 2007).

"Positive traits/capacities that are personally fulfilling, do not diminish others, ubiquitous and valued across cultures, and aligned with numerous positive outcomes for oneself and others." (Niemiec, 2017).

After reading these five definitions, you will be excused if at this moment cannabinoid oil on the tongue seems warranted to understand what the hell a character strength is. With this backdrop, my colleagues Fallon R. Goodman, David J. Disabato, and I wrote an article suggesting that scientists resist the temptation to derive new terms when there are decades of knowledge in personality to draw from. 

[Download the paper here: Goodman, F.R., Disabato, D.J., & Kashdan, T.B., (in press). Integrating psychological strengths under the umbrella of personality science: Rethinking the definition, measurement, and modification of strengths. Journal of Positive Psychology]

Defining and Re-Defining Personality Strengths

We argue that strengths are adaptive endpoints of normal personality traits — a contrast to the idea that character strengths are something foreign to what is known. A recent study, for instance, developed the “High 5” of positivity (analogous to the Big 5 of personality) and ended up with these candidates — erudition, peace, cheerfulness, honesty, and tenacity (Cosentino & Solano, 2017). Rather than rely on existing personality terminology, psychologists often coin new terms and models to underscore the uniqueness of their approach to humanity. The term character strengths returns attention back to the empirical study of constructs such as moral virtue, which had fallen out of favor in psychological science. One drawback is that new terms and models of human behavior run the risk of creating the “jangle fallacy” in which existing concepts are given a new name. For example, curiosity is a lower-order facet of the Big Five under openness to experience (DeYoung, 2015; John & Srivastava, 1999), now reframed as a character strength under the core value of wisdom (see Peterson & Seligman, 2004 for their taxonomy). Proponents of the character strength model argue that the presence of moral virtue differentiates a character strength from a traditional personality trait.

But here's the problem: Moral virtue is highly subjective. Although many conceptual frameworks in psychological science contain blurry lines and subjectivity (e.g., the difference between a normative grief reaction and the diagnosis of major depressive disorder), the subjectivity involved in classifying character strengths seems particularly problematic. Some researchers have attempted to identify a universal set of virtues that are shared across history and culture. For example, one study identified six “core virtues”—courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, transcendence. This approach to classifying personality traits as moral virtues involved reviewing and synthesizing philosophical and theological texts from Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Athenian philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Despite the comprehensiveness of this review, one challenge is that religious texts often lack clear interpretations that readers agree on.

It is plausible (and perhaps likely) that a different set of equally knowledgeable authors would land on a different set of core values for defining character strengths. Alternative authors might have included different philosophical and theological texts, such as Native American spiritual texts and various African religious texts, rather than those from the popular canon. Moral psychology has taught us that there is large variability in moral beliefs across cultures. For example, cultures vary how much they view the environment as central to moral virtue, and scientists have argued that environmental stewardship is considered a character strength. Some cultures include plants and animals within core aspects of morality, while others consider them less important. Moreover, within each culture, there is vast heterogeneity in how much people value a single characteristic. In the broader United States culture, Northwestern states such as Oregon arguably value environmental stewardship more than Southern states such as Alabama. Yet most conceptualizations of strengths do not reference environmental stewardship, perhaps because the scientists creating them do not live in a culture where environmental stewardship is valued or because they personally do not give this quality ample consideration.

Indigenous psychologists have argued that a behavior is deemed moral based on the interpretation of the event in the context of the given culture, not the objective event itself. From this perspective, whether a personality trait is classified as a strength would depend on the culture being studied. This high level of subjectivity leaves room for wide variability in interpreting sets of virtues across cultures. To illustrate an alternative criterion, morality often centers on prosocial behavior, altruism, and kindness. Instead of defining strengths by vague illusions to morals and virtues, strengths could be in reference to prosocial phenomena. Researchers do not need to debate whether prosocial behaviors are moral or not, because prosociality serves as a more objective quality. Of course, personality science has been studying these constructs for years and research on strengths would be adding to this work, rather than introducing novel ideas.

We offer a different approach to defining strengths. Strengths can be defined as dispositional qualities people possess that enable or promote well-being. Researchers and practitioners can use the term “personality strengths” rather than character strengths to illustrate that positive psychology is simply building upon basic personality science. No mention of morality or virtue is needed. The overarching category of personality traits includes Big Five traits, self-regulatory capacities, goal system orientations, and other individual differences. A subset of these personality traits, or scores on a particular pole of a personality trait (for Neuroticism, lower scores reflect emotional stability), can then be classified as personality strengths. With our approach, personality strengths are grounded with an empirical, rather than subjective, definition. In general, personality strengths would represent some combination of acquired knowledge and dispositional tendencies that act in ways to promote adjustment, adaptation, and excellence.

There is an important caveat about using the promotion of well-being as the criterion for classifying personality strengths: Although a personality trait can be adaptive on average, there can be people and contexts for which the trait is maladaptive. For instance, people who are very optimistic are less likely to stop gambling, even after repeated losses. People who are more forgiving are more likely to return to abusive romantic partners, and among people married to hostile spouses, forgiveness is associated with sharper declines in marital satisfaction. Jail inmates high in mindfulness, particularly those with an attitude of nonjudgmental acceptance towards themselves, endorse more criminal thinking (e.g., negative attitudes towards authority). Self-injuring young adults high on grit are more likely to exhibit suicidal behaviors. Highly curious people are not viewed as universally healthy by strangers observing them socialize or the reports by close friends and parents. In addition to variation across people and situations, strengths may have a tipping point at which they become too elevated: An excess of fairness can lead to rigid decision-making devoid of emotional attachment. An excess of bravery can lead to foolish, risky behaviors. An excess of humility can lead to self-deprecation and self-handicapping. These excesses can serve as risk factors for certain mental health disorders. An excess in kindness, for example, can be a risk factor for depression because the person “may feel used by others” or “has difficulty confronting others when needed." An excess in curiosity can be a risk factor for anxiety because “exploration takes the place of directed action." There is an interesting line of research yet to be pursued that identifies the boundary conditions for when strengths become maladaptive.

Concluding thoughts

The study of human strengths is critically important. With psychology historically focused on deficits, weaknesses, and syndromes, there is great value in shifting to qualities that help people function well. In our new work, we delineate the complexity of personality strengths and awkward attempts to divorce this work from decades of personality psychology research. We conceptualize personality strengths as a type of personality trait and suggest that researchers rely on less subjective criteria to classify characteristics as personality strengths. By converging on a definition, researchers can move to more complex issues, such as disentangling the components of strengths (e.g., possession, awareness, use, costs) and analyzing how strengths develop over time.

Todd Kashdan is a professor of psychology at George Mason University and the author of Curious? and The Upside of Your Dark Side.