Blog #54 – Character strengths – Part 2
Last time, we began talking about positive psychology and the formal study of character strengths, with specific reference to the VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues.
We described how Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman took on the challenge of creating this classification, and over a period of several years led its development from the ground up, beginning the research process with one key initial guiding question: What does ‘good character’ mean?
Their attempts to answer that question led them on a journey through the history of human philosophy and religious tradition. Arising from that forensic trawl, they identified six core virtues that appear to be held up and respected more or less equally on a universal level around the world – wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.
However, as we finished up with last time, this did not represent the end of their work, merely the conclusion of a necessary stage. They decided that these six virtues taken on their own were too abstract, but would be best utilised as umbrella terms, under which they would then group the strengths that would make it into the classification.
The next step was to decide which specific character strengths belonged in the classification. Again, this demanded a lengthy period of consideration, as opposed to allocating random strengths to the various headings as they came to mind.
Remember, as pointed out last time, part of the purpose here was to create a classification that would be just as relevant to people in all parts of the world, not merely one specific pocket of individuals in one specific part of the world. Again, this meant engaging in a conscious effort not to fall prey to some kind of pro-Western bias in creating a classification applicable to the part of the world Peterson and Seligman came from, but perhaps less relevant to other regions.
Partly with that in mind, they considered each individual candidate strength being looked at against the backdrop of a number of key criteria, and any that failed to tick all the boxes were set aside.
As outlined in Peterson’s A Primer in Positive Psychology, in order to be deemed suitable for inclusion, each candidate strength needed to be:
- Ubiquitous, i.e., widely recognised across cultures (thus speaking to the overriding concern about universality).
- Fulfilling, i.e., that exercising the strength contributes to individual fulfillment, satisfaction, and happiness.
- Morally valued, i.e., valued first and foremost for what it is and encapsulates, as opposed to linking its value to whatever tangible outcomes it may produce.
- Trait-like, i.e., that it can be regarded as an individual difference with demonstrable generality and stability.
- Measurable, i.e., from the research perspective, that it can be successfully measured as an individual difference.
- Distinct, i.e. that it not be redundant with other character strengths (in other words, that any one candidate would stand alone to an acceptable degree, as opposed to overlapping with other strengths in the classification).
It was also deemed important that each strength under consideration needed to manifest in particular ways, that is to say that there needed to be:
7. Paragons, i.e., that the strength be strikingly embodied in some individuals.
8. Prodigies, i.e., that the strength be precociously demonstrated by some children and young people.
But, on the flip side of this, they also wanted to see that candidate strengths be:
9. Selectively absent, i.e., that it be entirely absent in some individuals.
The other criteria were:
- That it would not diminish others, i.e., seeing it used by others would have an elevating effect, producing admiration as opposed to jealousy.
- That it have a nonfelicitous opposite, i.e., just as the strength itself would be fundamentally positive, it should have obvious negative counterpoints.
- That there be enabling institutions, i.e., that the strength in question would be the deliberate target of societal practices and rituals seeking to cultivate it.
At the end of this process, having tested all candidate strengths against these criteria, the researchers were left with 24 deemed eligible for inclusion in the classification, and each of these were then grouped with the core virtues already identified.
Next time, we will move on to detailing the character strengths that were deemed to have made the cut.=
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.