Character

General term in psychology used to describe behavior motivations and traits that make each person an individual.

Character is most often used in reference to a set of basic innate, developed, and acquired motivations that shape an individual's behavior. These qualities of an individual's motivation are shaped during all stages of childhood. By late adolescence, around age 17, the traits that make up individual's character are normally integrated into a unique and distinctive whole. The term character is sometimes used as roughly synonymous with the term personality. Some psychologists believe that differences in character among individuals largely reflect affective or emotional differences that are the result of biochemical or other organic variations.

Many psychologists believe that character, to some extent, is a function of experience. As the early behavior of an individual directed toward a primary, instinctive goal is modified by environmental circumstances, the motivational system of the individual is also modified, and the character of the individual is affected. There is some dispute among psychologists about whether, or to what extent, character may be controlled by conscious or rational decisions, and about whether, or to what extent, character may be dominated by unconscious or irrational forces. At the same time, there is widespread agreement among psychologists that, while much research remains to be done to delineate the genetic, instinctive, organic, cognitive, and other aspects of character, the development of a reasonably stable and harmonious character is an essential part of a psychologically healthy existence. No one is born with good character; it is not a hereditary trait. And it is not determined by a single noble act. Character is established by conscientious adherence to moral values, not by lofty rhetoric or good intentions. Character is simply, ethics in action.

KEY TERMS

Autonomy
—Self-control; the right to make decisions on one's own.
Character trait
—An ethical value that enables individuals to form personal standards of conduct.
Ethics
—One's sense of right and wrong, one's internal values and rules to guide behavior.
Honesty
—Telling the truth and living the truth; being straightforward and trustworthy in all of one's interactions, relationships, and thoughts.
Integrity
—The ability to follow one's beliefs and values.

It is easy to confuse personality with character, however, they are quite different. Personality is easy to read and most individuals use personality traits to judge others. People are judged as funny, extroverted, energetic, optimistic, confident—as well as overly serious, lazy, negative, or shy, usually on the first meeting and thereafter first impressions are developed. Although it may take more than one interaction to confirm the presence of these sorts of traits, by the time one decides they are present, enough data is amassed to justify conclusions about the individual. Personality includes the traits with which you were born. People tend to be either analytical in nature or socially outgoing. Most people fall into the realm of being either extroverted or introverted. Other common distinctions are dominant, influencing, steady, or compliant personalities.

Character takes much longer to identify, as it includes traits that reveal themselves only in specific–and often uncommon–circumstances; traits like honesty, virtue, and kindliness. Research has shown that personality traits are determined largely by heredity and are mostly immutable. However, character traits are more malleable. Character traits, as opposed to personality traits, are also mostly based on beliefs. Character is often used to define a person's integrity, such as he has “upstanding character.” Character is a set of behavior traits that define what type of person you are.

Character education, a periodic but recurring theme for schools to teach basic values and moral reasoning to primary and secondary students, attracted renewed popularity in the 1990s. Character education initiatives have developed at the local and state levels, but reflect a national trend. In 1995, then-President Bill Clinton and the U.S. Congress declared October 16-22 “National Character Counts Week.” In character education, teachers confront students with moral dilemmas and ask them to formulate and defend courses of action.

Many prominent educators, politicians, and academics support character education. Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, object to character education because it could lead to teaching religious beliefs. Some religious groups oppose it as well, since public school teachers must avoid teaching religion and could make character a virtue that is anti-religious.

See also Personality development .

Resources

BOOKS

Brooks, David. The Road to Character. Random House, 2015.

Eaude, Tony. New Perspectives on Young Children's Moral Education: Developing Character through a Virtue Ethics Approach. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Robertson, Korie. Strong and Kind: And Other Important Character Traits Your Child Needs to Succeed. Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Sciortino, Rhonda. Successful Survivors: The 8 Character Traits of Survivors and How You Can Attain Them. Hatherleigh Press, 2016.

Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

PERIODICALS

Bleidorn, W., and J. J. Denissen. “Virtues in action–the new look of character traits.” British Journal of Psychology. January 3, 2015.

Helzer, E.G., et al. “Agreement on the perception of moral character.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40, no. 12 (December 2014): 1698–710.

Moreira, P.A., et al. “Personality and well-being in adolescents.” Frontiers in Psychology 5 (January 7, 2015): 1494.

Nilsson, A. “A non-reductive science of personality, character, and well-being must take the person's worldview into account.” Frontiers in Psychology 5 (August 28, 2014): 961.

Wagner, L., and W. Ruch. “Good character at school: positive classroom behavior mediates the link between character strengths and school achievement.” Frontiers in Psychology 6 (May 15, 2015): 610.