Accelerating Progress: A New Era of Research on Character Development
Accelerating Progress: A New Era of Research on Character Development
● Richard Bollinger 0
0 John Templeton Foundation , West Conshohocken, PA , USA
Adolescent character development is a high priority for educators, policymakers, and front-line youth workers. To meet this growing demand, and as exemplified in the five articles in this special section, character development scholars are drawing from a range of academic disciplines to push beyond the traditional boundaries of the science of character development. These articles highlight important trends in character research, including the codevelopment of a subset of character strengths, the articulation of developmental trajectories of character, the use of advanced methodological approaches, and the implications for education. Studies such as these are critically important for establishing the research base that will be used to design the character development programs of tomorrow.
Character development ● Character education ●; Character strengths ● Virtue
The science and practice of character needs a change. To
reference one popular idiom, it needs a shot in the arm. The
study of an individual’s character has existed in some form
or another since Aristotle’s writing of Nicomachean Ethics
in 350 BC. Following a pattern of rising and falling interest
over the intervening two millennia, “character” experienced a
bit of a renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s, with scholars
such as Lickona (1993) and Ryan (1989) highlighting the
important role character development plays in schools,
workplaces, communities, and in homes. Coupled with
rising public interest in the topic (e.g. Brooks, 2015;
Duckworth, 2016; Tough, 2012), there has been a tremendous
demand for additional insights into how an individual—or a
group of individuals—can cultivate character. Despite the
early contributions of Lickona, Ryan, and others, character
development and more specifically character education still
suffers from a relative lack of progress. Apart from a select
few, the vast majority of character education programs vary
little in structure and/or function from the programs of the
1980s and 1990s. This pattern will not change unless
scholars engage in research projects, like those in this special
section, that challenge long-standing assumptions about
character development and offer innovative solutions.
In the prototypical model, a character education program
will provide time-limited resources (e.g., readings,
reflection exercises) to teachers in a school, which the teachers
then distribute among their students. After completing the
readings and exercises, the hope is the students will improve
on some—or perhaps many—dimensions of character.
While there may be select instances of effectiveness for this
type of model, there are many underexplored assumptions
that may help explain why a program of this design is likely
not demonstrating larger effects, including:
1. Framing the problem. Is it in fact the case that
students simply don’t know about character
development and with more information they will all succeed
in further cultivating character?
2. Normative development. What should we expect of x character strength at y age?
3. Relational nature of character. If Brooks (2016) is
right, and character is cultivated in the context of
close relationships, should we expect that focusing on
any teacher-student relationship is sufficient for
cultivating character? Are teacher–student
relationships particularly well-suited to the development of
certain kinds of character strengths?
4. Dosage. Is character something that can be cultivated
in one class session? Twelve? Do all character
strengths require the same amount of attention over
5. Community of character—How do people of good
character influence others in the context of social
In addition to these, there are many more unanswered
questions that we have not included here. The point is that
we are at an inflection point for our understanding of how
character develops across the life span. By addressing these
key questions and others, scholars can accelerate our
understanding of both the science and practice of character.
Laying the Foundation for New Research
The five articles in this special section address topics at the
forefront of our understanding, including the
multidimensional nature of character, the relationship between the
development of distinct character strengths, individual
“profiles” of character, the developmental trajectory of
specific strengths, the role of character development in
education, and interventions that capitalize on the motivations that
drive adolescent behavior. In many cases, the research
presented here will lay the foundation for decades of future
inquiry. More provocatively, several of the articles in this
special section highlight the need to rethink the design of
traditional character interventions. We will comment on each
of the above topics in turn, closing with broader implications
for the study of character in youth and adolescence.
The Underlying Structure of Individual Character
One of the fundamental questions within the study of
character development is the nature of one’s individual
character. A robust philosophical literature on the topic
exists, with many scholars following the lead set forth by
Aristotle, who suggested that a person’s character is
comprised of moral and civic virtue (Aristotle 1999).
Psychologists and educationalists, while more recent to the
discussion, have been eager to identify models of character
that are theoretical predicated and supported by empirical
evidence. Many of these scholars can point to Lickona and
Davidson’s (2005) conceptualization of moral and
performance character as a key starting point. In this special
section, Baehr suggests a four-dimensional model of moral,
civic, intellectual, and performance character. According to
Baehr, these four dimensions are not mutually exclusive or
exhaustive, but he does note that performance virtues are
“structurally different” (p. 5) to the others. Whereas the first
three are driven by intrinsic motivation for the good—the
good neighbor, good citizen, and good thinker in Baehr’s
words—performance virtues “lack a univocal underlying
motivation” (p. 3). However, performance virtues remain
valuable for their usefulness, as Baehr claims, in executing
an individual’s intrinsically motivated goals.
Baehr’s theoretical model differs from current
psychological models, which often reflect a 3-dimensional model. The
National Research Council (2012) for example, using the
language of “21st Century skills,” posits three domains:
cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Park and colleagues
(2016) also make the case for this three-factor model,
highlighting intellectual, interpersonal, and intrapersonal
competences as the core components of an individual’s character.
Similarly, using data from the Values in Action (VIA) survey,
McGrath (2015) has identified three factors he labels caring,
inquisitiveness, and self-control. A notable similarity between
these models, along with Baehr’s, is the presence of a
character strengths factor focused on the intellect, one on
interacting with others, and one on self-regulation.
One clear distinction between the above models and
Baehr’s is the collapsing of the moral and civic factors into a
single, other-focused factor. This difference highlights the
failure of the psychological models to adequately address
moral and civic virtue, and motivations more broadly. In
part, at least for the NRC, the omission of language around
moral virtue is likely because educators have grown wary of
using the terminology of morals or mortality in public
schools (Lickona 2014). However, even if a three-factor
model is indeed the model best supported by empirical data,
the question of motivation should not be ignored, and is
likely of vital importance. As Lickona (2014) noted in a
recent talk, “Attention to performance character gives
achievement a moral purpose: We develop our talents in
order to contribute to society.” Specifically, how individuals
and communities internalize that moral motivation is still an
open empirical question.
Relationships among Character Strengths
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (trans. 1999) proposed the
concept of the “unity of the virtues,” to excel in one requires
excellence in all. While not making a claim as sweeping as
Aristotle’s, several of the articles included in this special
section address how character strengths may relate to each
other. In his article’s conclusion, Baehr alludes to this
conceptualization when he argues that directly forming
intellectual virtues like humility, thoroughness, and
openmindedness “better equips” students for forming moral
virtue. Baehr notes that a student equipped with intellectual
virtue cares deeply about knowledge, truth, and
understanding, and is honest and open about his limitations
and her duties to others. Each of these disposes a student
towards moral virtues like compassion, gratitude, and
forgiveness. Here, Baehr is making a theoretical assertion, one
that is ripe for empirical exploration.
While the relationship between the intellectual and moral
character strengths has not been explored empirically,
studies examining the relationship between other character
strengths are beginning to emerge. Malin et al. (2017, in this
special section) directly address how purpose may relate to
gratitude and compassion. The authors note that all three
virtues are other-oriented, have empathy and sympathy as
likely prerequisites, and result in prosocial behavior of some
sort. Using cross-sectional analyses, the authors found a
small but significant relationship between purpose and the
other three strengths of interest: gratitude, compassion, and
grit. Like Froh et al. (2010), who identified that gratitude
may motivate students towards contributing to their
communities, Malin et al. (2017, in this special section)
identified that “qualitative differences in gratitude and
compassion between those with full purpose and those who
are not yet realizing their purposeful aspirations” (p. 12).
With their qualitative work, Malin and colleagues
identified two findings with broader implications for the character
development field. First, they identified three primary profiles
of purpose/gratitude interactions with their sample (active
purpose/dispositional gratitude; non-active
purpose/conditional gratitude, and little purpose/little gratitude). Second,
despite a small but significant correlation between grit and
purpose in the quantitative data, qualitative findings in Malin
et al.’s study did not indicate that purposeful students were
grittier than non-purposeful students. The authors note that
differences in life stage (early adolescence vs. adult) may help
explain the divergent findings. These are intriguing results
that begin to frame important future questions regarding how
different strengths co-develop across the life span.
Interestingly, rigorous scientific studies on character
development are recent enough that scholars are still
working to identify not only how each character strength
relates to the others on a meta-level, but also the individual
trajectories of specific character strengths (e.g., Callina et al.
2017, in this special section). Perhaps even more significant
than their discussion of the relationship between character
strengths, Malin et al. (2017, in this special section) note,
For most people during most of development,
character is far from unitary. Feelings, thoughts, and
actions related to virtues may be frequently
misaligned; and the virtues (or “character strengths”)
themselves may develop at an uneven pace, with some
maturing while others grow slowly or not at all. Thus
at every phase of development an individual has a
distinct profile of virtues… (p. 2).
This idea of a “distinct profile of virtues,” is significant
for at least two reasons. First, the concept of a distinct
profile aligns well with the dynamic nature of character
development represented by relational developmental
systems frameworks (e.g., Lerner and Callina 2014). This
framework, which stands in contrast to formerly held
notions of character traits as stable and immutable (e.g.,
Costa and McCrea 1980; 2006), emphasizes the relationship
between the individual and his context, which will vary
across time and place. It has become increasingly clear over
the past decade that successful models of character
development incorporate this dynamic perspective, with a focus
on both the individual and his or her context.
Second, and relatedly, if individuals have a distinct profile
of virtues at every phase of development, there are profound
implications for the design and implementation of character
interventions. Looking across fields, other disciplines have
already made the transition from solutions based on
population averages to individually-tailored approaches; this
includes, but is in no way limited to precision medicine
(Hudson et al. 2015), precision public health (Koury et al.
2016), and online marketing (Gilmore and Erdem 2008).
These approaches seek to maximize benefit for each
individual, rather than for the incredibly small proportion of the
population that fit within the parameters of “average” (Rose
2016). We explore this issue in more detail below.
Specifying Developmental Trajectories
In addition to their call for a much-needed line of research
that focuses on the study of the integration of character
strengths, Malin et al. (2017, in this special section) agree
that further research is also needed on the specification of
developmental trajectories and unique contributions of
specific strengths. Unfortunately, the majority of studies on
character development are relatively limited in either sample
size and/or the number of waves of data collection. One
might think that some of the well-known longitudinal studies
of development (e.g., NICHD Early Child Care Research
Network 2005) could contain variables relevant to the
measurement of character. While some of these large
datasets do have some character-related variables (primarily as
they relate to executive function and self-control), none of
them contain robust assessments of an individual’s character.
As one potential solution to this challenge, Callina et al.
(2017, in this special section) discuss the applicability of
integrative data analysis (cf. Curran and Hussong 2009) to
the articulation of developmental trajectories for specific
character strengths. Using data from four studies with
independent samples, the team was able to identify shared
items for the assessment of hopeful future expectations.
They then used these shared items as “anchors” to create a
new, integrated dataset and, after fitting growth curve
models to the data, established a developmental trajectory
from age 7 to 26 of hopeful future expectations. As the
authors note, this method provides a cost-effective means to
integrate a substantial number of datasets with robust
assessments of character, but limited sample size.
The dual importance of understanding both individual
character development profiles and the broader
developmental trajectories of specific character strengths is
demonstrated in Jayawickreme, Brocato, and Blackie’s
study in this special section. They examine the popular
maxim that adversity is a prerequisite to the formation of
wisdom. They cite the popular quote “That which doesn’t
kill me makes me stronger” in justifying the relevance of an
analysis on how particular personality characteristics relate
to well-being and how, following adversity, they may
contribute to the formation of growth-inducing
(characterforming) vs. stagnating personal narratives. Although the
researchers found primarily null results, the article identifies
the centrality of the unique person-experience interaction in
forming character. Even if the broad developmental
trajectory of certain character strengths, like wisdom, identify
certain experiential contexts, like adversity, as key
components for development, Jayawickreme et al.’s (2017, in
this special issue) findings identify that a large variance
exists in whether and how that character strength
manifested. This variance is due to the multitude of outcomes
that can occur in an interaction involving the unique
characteristics of the individual and the unique nature of the
adverse experience (amongst many other factors). This
finding emphasizes the importance of identifying both
specific development trajectories of the virtues (to identify
general trends) while also drawing out distinct personal
profiles of virtue development (to identify meaningful
Moving beyond Traditional “Character Education”
As Baehr (2017, in this special section) notes in the opening
to the second part of his article, “[t]here is…a growing sense
that education should be aimed at more than the
transmission of knowledge, the honing of cognitive skills, or the
achievement of high scores on standardized tests” (p. 5).
Baehr outlines a compelling argument for organizing the
educational experience around intellectual virtues such as
curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual autonomy, and
intellectual humility. In his words, these “virtues have clear
and central importance to academic learning” (p. 6).
Critically, this model moves beyond an exclusive focus on
performance character to include aspects of character
development that are vital to the development of students
who will contribute positively to society. “Intellectual
character,” Baehr writes, “is that dimension of the self or
human psychology in which cognitive functioning
intersects with positive character” (p. 6). As other models of
character education continue to struggle with documenting
effectiveness (e.g., Social & Character Development
Research Consortium 2010), scholars and practitioners alike
need to reconsider the ways in which character can be
seamlessly infused into the culture and curriculum of
schools. Baehr’s work on intellectual virtues represents an
exciting potential way forward.
Demand-driven Character Programs
While some critics of character education point to the
“addon” nature of the programming as a weakness in the design,
and others are concerned with identifying the “right”
combination of character strengths, what is often lost in the
consideration is the strengths the adolescents themselves
already bring to the table. In their qualitative work, Malin
et al. (2017, in this special section) found that adolescents in
their sample are “driven by love, respect, and worry for their
families; by concern for people suffering at their schools
and in their communities; by outrage at injustice; and by
problems in the environment and society that they wanted to
fix” (p. 12). These concerns are what motivate adolescents
to cultivate character by contributing to others. Why not use
these issues as a starting point?
Seider et al. (2017, in this special section) use a character
lens to understand how Freire’s (1970, 1973) concept of critical
consciousness is cultivated across different high school models.
Critical consciousness uses adolescents’ sense of injustice as a
motivating driver that leads students to engage in their
communities in an effort to improve them. This perspective aligns
well with what Malin et al. (2017, in this special section)
identified in their own sample of students. Seider et al. (2017,
in this special section) found that “the programming and
practices associated with different schooling models foster
particular strengths associated with critical consciousness, but
simultaneously deemphasize or even weaken others” (p. 13).
While the authors note that this is a preliminary conclusion,
there is already an interesting follow-up question, “Is a specific
focus on leveraging adolescents’ sense of injustice and
motivation to improve their communities more effective in
cultivating character than traditional character education programs
which focus on transmission of knowledge?”
Each of the articles in this special section offer to lay the
groundwork for exciting new lines of research in character
development. There is still much to be discovered about the
nature of character development and how it is cultivated. As
we noted at the outset of this article, we are at an inflection
point in our understanding of character; the research in this
special section are excellent examples of the ways in which
we can accelerate discovery and positively influence the
lives of others.
Author Contributions S.C. conceived of the initial outline of the
commentary, wrote the initial draft, and oversaw final revisions. R.B.
provided feedback on the initial outline, expanded the thinking and
writing of several of the sections, and commented on the revisions.
Both S.C. and R.B. have read the manuscript and approved its
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflicts of Interest Both authors are employed by the John Tem
pleton Foundation, which has provided financial support for the
empirical research presented by lead authors Callina, Seider, and
Malin. The Foundation has also supported theoretical work and related
empirical research conducted by lead authors Baehr and
Sarah Clement is the Director of Character Virtue Development at the
John Templeton Foundation. Her major research interests include:
character development, positive youth development, systems
evaluation, stress, and health.
Richard Bollinger is the Program Officer for Character Virtue
Development at the John Templeton Foundation. His major research
interests include: character development, positive psychology, religion
and spirituality, and evidence-informed psychotherapy practices.
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