Character strengths are not separate from you personality, they are an important component. This knowledge can be a game changer. Some refer to character as “personality evaluated” because character is about bringing our personality forward in a way that contributes to the social good.
Therefore, you can think of strengths of character as positive parts of your personality. It’s generally (though not always) a positive quality to be kind, to be fair, humble, and curious. In contrast, qualities traits like extraversion and introversion are more neutral elements of our personality.
The Two Dominant Personality Models
The two biggest models of personality in today's world are the Big Five Personality model and the VIA Classification of character strengths. The Big Five refers to five broad domains of personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (under the acronym, OCEAN). The VIA Classification refers to the 24 character strengths of personality, such as fairness, gratitude, curiosity, self-regulation, and bravery, that reflect core identity and contribute to the collective good. Each model has measurement tools and a host of research studies supporting the model.
I’ll focus on ways to think about these two models in a practical way and then turn to what the science has found when it has looked at the two together. But first, see the following chart for a snapshot overview comparing the Big Five and VIA Classification.
Source: VIA Institute
Getting Practical (If you’re a practitioner or client)
Practitioners familiar with the VIA Classification view it as highly practical in terms of the application of strengths for clients, especially when it comes to supporting self-development, building positive relationships, increasing resilience to problems, and achieving goals.
Clients tend to immediately “get it” when they see their results on the VIA Survey. If a client learns they are high in perseverance, kindness, and gratitude, there is a level of self-understanding and personal insight that is immediate. They might then begin to think of what they’ll do to bring their strengths forward more deliberately in their life or ways they will boost up a lower strength. There’s often an impulse to act in a way that supports themselves and/or others.
As the Big Five are broad traits, it’s less unlikely for clients to have a similar call to action. A person learns they are high in extraversion and openness to experience. These are important insights but the work – generally speaking – ends there.
The good news is that if a person wants to make changes in their personality – resulting from insights from measures from the VIA Classification or the Big Five – they can. Recent research in personality shows that we are not destined to have the same personality traits locked in stone over the years but that we can make meaningful changes to our personality (Hudson & Fraley, 2015; Roberts et al., 2017). If you want to become more extraverted or introverted, more prudent and conscientious, more kind and grateful, you can.
Practically speaking, it's not especially common to use both models side-by-side, however, those wanting to explore ways the Big Five and the VIA Classification come together, can consider the following ideas:
1. Create a character strength path
How might one or more of your character strengths support your understanding or boosting of a Big Five trait you are interested in developing?
For example, Gene was interested in understanding and bolstering his agreeableness trait (his highest Big Five trait). He used his love of learning strength to read about this strength and the research on it. He then used his judgment strength to reflect on situations and people in his life with whom he is most agreeable to and are simultaneously energizing for him.
2. Boost resilience
How might one or more character strengths help you manage a Big Five trait you’re unhappy with?
For example, Debbie is highly anxious (high neuroticism on the Big Five) and decided to use her character strengths to manage her anxiety. She turned to bravery to muster up the confidence to confront her anxiety. She then challenged herself to experiment by going into situations that brought about her fear. She also reflected on her highest character strengths, which are typically the best sources of energy and empowerment, for further support and coping when she was in those anxious situations. article continues after advertisement
3. Act “as-if”
Research has shown that we can indeed “fake it till we make it.” After all, who among us does not fake a laugh sometimes in social situations (e.g., feigning the strength of humor) and that turns into some level of joy and perhaps even genuine laughter? Who hasn’t acted kind or nice to someone when you really didn’t feel like it? Then that kindness turned into a positive benefit for the recipient.
For any personality trait you are wanting to improve upon, set up a plan to use it as best you can. Think of a particular situation where you will try it out. Review the Big Five and VIA Classification traits to see the many resources you have and to help you take thorough and complete action.
Getting Scientific (If you’re a scientist/researcher)
As any researcher in the field of personality knows, the litmus test for any new personality trait that comes along is always the Big Five. Nothing “new” can be given true credence without showing it provides something substantive over and above the Big Five. Many constructs touted as “new” have failed this test. The latest victim was grit, which researchers showed is basically “conscientiousness repackaged” (Crede, Tynan, & Harms, 2017). Many other interesting personality qualities have been shown to be submerged within Big Five. It is only natural that the VIA Classification and VIA Survey would be put to the same test.
Remarkably, the VIA Classification passed this nearly-impossible test. Study after study has shown VIA character strengths provide incremental validity over and above the Big Five. The largest of these was conducted as a collaboration of the leading Big Five scientist, Lew Goldberg, and character strengths scientist, Robert McGrath (McGrath, Hall-Simmonds, & Goldberg, 2020). They found that in addition to the overlap of character strengths and Big Five, there were significant contributions to positive outcomes by character strengths not accounted for by the Big Five.
Both the Big Five and the VIA Classification predict life satisfaction and are equally strong in that regard. If one is interested in moving beyond general functioning, the measures of character strengths would be the preferred path for providing the fuller picture.
I won’t summarize every study I’ve listed below for researchers, but I will mention two new large studies (that will soon be published), one in the workplace and one in the education space. Each of these showed the character strengths provided significant predictions over and above the Big Five across a number of outcomes such as job performance, work satisfaction, school satisfaction, and positive school relationships.
In addition, the benefit of these character strengths has also been shown to predict outcomes above the Big Five in multiple studies at the individual strength level, for example, kindness (Lefevor & Fowers, 2016), creativity (Grohman et al., 2017), humility (Exline & Hill, 2012), and gratitude and forgiveness (Hill & Mathias, 2011).
Personality is complex. Existing models do a good job at capturing personality in broad brushstrokes. New models exploring character strengths appear to be a significant value-add for personality scientists. As for practitioners and general consumers, the value of the VIA Classification in helping us understand and improve ourselves is enormous (Niemiec & McGrath, 2019).
Curious readers can learn more by reviewing short summaries of over 600 recent publications on the science of character strengths here.
Credé, M., Tynan, M. C., & Harms, P. D. (2017). Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(3), 492–511. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000102
Exline, J. J., & & Hill, P. (2012). Humility: A consistent and robust predictor of generosity. Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(3), 45-56.
Grohman, M. G., Ivcevic, Z., Silvia, P., & Kaufman, S. B. (2017). The role of passion and persistence in creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(4), 376-385. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000121
Hill, P. L., & Mathias, A. (2011). Gratitude, forgivingness, and well-being in adulthood: Tests of moderation and incremental prediction. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(5), 397-407.
Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 490–507 http://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000021
Lefevor, G. T., & Fowers, B. J. (2016). Traits, situational factors, and their interactions as explanations of helping behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 92, 159–163. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.12.042
McGrath, R. E., Hall-Simmonds, A., & Goldberg, L. R. (2020). Are measures of character and personality distinct? Evidence from observed-score and true-score analyses. Assessment, 27(1), 117-135. https://doi.org/10.1177/1073191117738047
Niemiec, R. M. (2019). Finding the golden mean: the overuse, underuse, and optimal use of character strengths. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 32, 453-471. DOI: 10.1080/09515070.2019.1617674
Roberts, B. W., Luo, J., Briley, D. A., Chow, P. I., Su, R., & Hill, P. L. (2017). A systematic review of personality trait change through intervention. Psychological Bulletin, 143(2), 117–141.
Ruch, W., Bruntsch, R., & Wagner, L. (2017). The role of character traits in economic games. Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 186-190. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2016.12.007