Overuse And Underuse Of Strengths

Summary of Research Findings

The dynamics of character strengths remains a new area of study. One model for looking at the dimensionality of character strengths is to place each strength on a continuum in which too much of a strength in a particular context becomes overuse, too little is underuse, and the center area is the “strengths zone” or optimal expression (i.e., golden mean) of the strength.

Research Articles

  • Discusses the strengths as syndromes and strengths as symptoms models for conceptualizing clinical diagnoses and introduces the strengths as moderators model which offers a complement to traditional diagnostic formulation (Hall-Simmonds & McGrath, 2017).
    Hall-Simmonds, A., & McGrath, R. E. (2017). Character strengths and clinical presentation. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2017.1365160
  • The first empirical study to examine overuse, underuse, and optimal-use of character strengths. Several findings: First, it reveals that these constructs do indeed exist for the 24 character strengths; second, overuse and underuse were significantly related to higher depression, less flourishing, and less life satisfaction (with underuse of character strengths doing worse) while the optimal-use (i.e., golden mean) of character strengths was significantly related to higher flourishing and life satisfaction and less depression; third, 87.5% of individuals with or without a clinical diagnosis of social anxiety disorder (social phobia) were able to be correctly sorted to having or not having the condition based on a combination of several overuses and underuses of character strengths. Finally, the study introduces a new research assessment measure called Overuse, Underuse, Optimal-Use (OUOU) of Character Strengths (Freidlin, Littman-Ovadia, & Niemiec, 2017). The instrument is available free to researchers on the VIA site.
    Freidlin, P., Littman-Ovadia, H., & Niemiec, R. M. (2017). Positive psychopathology: Social anxiety via character strengths underuse and overuse. Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 50-54. DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.12.003  
  • Seligman (2015) champions the work of Peterson (2006) who began to explore the connection between each of the 24 character strengths and differing types of psychopathology. Peterson framed each of the 24 around excess, absence, and opposite of the strength. This model was then made more practical and consistent with “golden mean” methodology of strengths use dating back to Aristotle by describing each character strength in terms of a continuum of overuse and underuse where optimal-use lies in the center (Niemiec, 2014). The first empirical study with psychopathology was then published examining this revised framework in individuals with social anxiety disorder (Freidlin et al., 2017).
    Seligman, M. E. P. (2015). Chris Peterson’s unfinished masterwork: The real mental illnesses. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(1), 3-6. DOI:  http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2014.888582 Peterson, C. (2006). The values in action (VIA) classification of strengths. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), A life worth living: Contributions to positive psychology (pp. 29–48). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Boston: Hogrefe.  
  • Virtue theorist reviews elements of human striving and what could be viewed as different forms of character strengths overuse, including forcing, impulsivity, overthinking, and too high of standards (Snow, 2016).
    Snow, N. (2016). Virtue acquisition: The paradox of striving. Journal of Moral Education, 45(2), 179-191. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03057240.2016.1181617
  • Offers a practical conceptual framework for discussing and understanding the overuse of character strengths through 10 guiding principles, for example, “when a strength is overused, it is no longer a strength,” “any of the 24 character strengths can be overused,” “overuse can be managed by bringing forth other strengths,” and “despite the benefits of reframing, overuse remains a deficit-based approach because it emphasizes what is wrong” (Niemiec, 2014).
    Niemiec, R. M. (2014). The overuse of strengths: 10 principles. [Review of the motion picture Divergent]. PsycCRITIQUES, 59(33). NP. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0037734
  • Too much (overuse) and too little (underuse) of character strengths use can have a negative impact on well-being and other important factors (for a review, see Grant and Schwartz, 2011).
    Grant, A. M., & Schwartz, B. (2011). Too much of a good thing: The challenge and opportunity of the inverted u. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 61-76.
  • Support was found that managers/leaders tend to overdo their talents (not character strengths) and to a lesser degree underuse their talents (Kaiser & Overfield, 2011).
    Kaiser, R. B., & Overfield, D. V. (2011). Strengths, strengths overused, and lopsided leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 63 (2), 89-109.
  • Philosophical article offering insights for the science of character around the types of character, plurality of character, and the concept of unity of character (Fowers, 2008).
    Fowers, B. J. (2008). From continence to virtue: Recovering goodness, character unity, and character types for positive psychology. Theory & Psychology, 18 (5), 629-653.
  • In a theoretical paper, the argument is made that the VIA character strengths should not be treated independently from one another, should be cautioned from overuse, and that a “master” strength of practical wisdom is needed in order to effectively deploy strengths (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006).
    Schwartz, B., & Sharpe, K. E. (2006). Practical wisdom: Aristotle meets positive psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 377-395.
  • Emphasizes the importance of all 24 strength and development and balance among the range of virtues referred to as the “unity of character” (Fowers, 2008).
    Fowers, B. J. (2008). From continence to virtue: Recovering goodness, character unity, and character types for positive psychology. Theory & Psychology, 18(5), 629-653.



 Updated 9/15/2017








Discover the Good in You

Take the Free VIA Survey