Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Character?

The topic of character has been of longstanding interest to philosophers, educators, political leaders, religious leaders, and the general public. Until recently, the study of character had not undergone rigorous scientific efforts thus was relegated to the experiences and programming of character educators, personal opinions of experts, and commentary by self-help gurus.

The word “character” conjures up a number of meanings for people such as one’s reputation (“his character is being attacked), one’s level of morality (“she’s a woman of good character”), or pigeonholing character into one construct such as honesty or integrity (“he's very honest so is a person of strong character”). People tend to think of character as something permanent and unchanging in people. This is further complicated by traditional views of character that widely manifest today – as championed by many character education programs found in schools, religious groups, athletic programs, etc. – that identify a small number of positive traits (e.g. usually four to seven) and claim that this grouping of qualities represents “good character.” Typically, these programs and organizations then train people to build up this select number of traits. Common character education focus areas in these programs include responsibility, respect, kindness, honesty, fairness, teamwork, persistence, and courage.

What is often missing from these views of character is akin to the actual meaning of the word. The word “character” refers to those qualities that are distinctive to the individual.

In the early 2000s, scientists began to bring character to the laboratory to study it. A 3-year project involving 55 distinguished scientists devoted to studying character traits throughout time was launched. This resulted in the VIA Classification of character strengths and virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), a classification of positive traits in human beings. Since then, hundreds of peer-reviewed articles have been published across many cultures. One of the key findings about character is that each human being has a constellation of character traits (character strengths) that make him or her distinct or unique. Character strengths cannot be boiled down to one trait or a handful of traits; in addition character strengths are idiosyncratic and expressed in degrees and combinations based on the context one is in. Said in another way: character is plural.

Click here for a newly published article describing a practical “descriptive” approach (involving exploration) to working with character strengths that offers a paradigm shift to the popular, prescriptive approach (involving instilling specific traits) mentioned earlier.


Further questions?

Contact the VIA Institute: 

The VIA Institute on Character
312 Walnut Street, Suite 3600
Cincinnati, OH 45202
VIA's Communications Specialist Kelly Aluise: