KeywordsCharacter Strength Virtuous Behavior Ancient Greek Philosophy Lexical Approach International Personality Item
The lay understanding of virtue is generally one that relates to morally good behavior or character. However, to date there remains a lack of consensus and clarity among researchers regarding how virtue should be defined and conceptualized as a psychological concept (Fowers 2005). Moreover, only during the previous two decades has personality psychology begun attempting to empirically measure and study virtue – a process which has been met with varied theoretical and empirical criticisms. The current article aims to provide a broad overview of the personality and individual differences literature’s recent attempts at: (1) defining virtue, (2) empirically measuring virtue, and (3) addressing the limitations of studying virtue in personality and individual differences psychology.
The concept of virtue has been studied as far back as Aristotle and Ancient Greek philosophy (Fowers 2005). Virtue originally derives from the Greek concept of arête, which means possessing the life skills needed to achieve one’s highest human potentials (Cawley et al. 2000). Consequently many researchers have incorporated this concept into their definition of virtue (i.e., defining virtue as any psychological process that enables a person to think and act so as to benefit themselves and society; McCullough and Snyder 2000; Shryack et al. 2010). In a similar vein, Fowers (2005) also draws on Aristotle’s work, Nicomachean Ethics, by arguing that virtue is a multifaceted construct, encompassing a range of stable, psychological concepts that enable us to achieve worthwhile goals and pursuits.
However, these definitions are problematic for a number of reasons. First, while similar in nature, they remain inconsistent in their criteria of what virtue is. Additionally, such definitions lack clarity with respect to (a) how such definitions of virtue can be operationalized for scientific study; and (b) how one is to determine what is a “beneficial” outcome for society, or what is a “worthwhile” pursuit (i.e., arguably the nature of what is beneficial or worthwhile is dependent on cultural, sociological, and historical context). However, one conceptualization which attempts to challenge these limitations is that of Peterson and Seligman (2004).
Virtues are posited as six broad, “core characteristics” which (based on an in-depth historical content analysis) Peterson and Seligman (2004) argue are universally valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers across cultures, religions, and time. Given their ubiquitous value, Peterson and Seligman (2004) suggest that these virtues may be evolutionarily adaptive to humankind’s survival and hence inherently grounded in our biology. In addition to being ubiquitous, these virtues are also morally valued in their own right (rather than valued because of tangible outcomes they may produce). The six core virtues include wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence (definitions for the six core virtues can be found in Peterson and Seligman 2004).
At the level below virtues in the VIA classification system is character strengths. Character strengths are psychological mechanisms that allow the six core virtues to be displayed through thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Peterson and Seligman 2004). For example, the virtue of wisdom can be achieved through character strengths such as creativity, curiosity, love of learning, and open-mindedness. Conceptually character strengths are similar to personality traits in that they are thought to exist in degrees and can be measured as individual differences (Noftle et al. 2011).
Each character strength is then thought to encompass a group of related traits which populate the next level down in the VIA taxonomy. For example, the character strength of curiosity encompasses traits of novelty-seeking and openness to experience (see Fig. 1). Peterson and Seligman (2004) classified 24 character strengths and their related traits (for full list see Peterson and Seligman 2004); however, they note that this list is neither exclusive nor exhaustive.
This theoretical VIA classification system then enabled Peterson and Seligman (2004) to develop an instrument to measure virtue by examining degrees of differences in traits related to specific character strengths (discussed below).
Studying Virtue in Personality and Individual Difference Psychology
Given the field’s lack of a universally accepted theoretical conceptualization of virtue, this has also resulted in varied methods of empirically measuring virtue. Below are some notable attempts.
Cawley et al. (2000) aimed to develop a Virtue Scale (VS) which not only empirically measured virtue as a psychological construct but could provide a structure for virtue. Adopting a lexical approach, Cawley et al. (2000) reviewed the dictionary for words displaying qualities that one “ought” to embody or display. This procedure yielded 140 virtue terms. For each term participants then used a Likert scale to rate the extent to which the virtue term was “really like who [they] were.” These 140 virtuous items were then compiled and factor-analyzed which yielded four factors: empathy, order, resourcefulness, and serenity (Cawley et al. 2000).
Whilst the VS is still used as an empirical measure of virtue in current research, Noftle et al. (2011) note that Cawley et al.’s (2000) virtue factors are moderately to highly correlated with the Big Five dimensions (correlations ranging between .45–.63), thereby suggesting that the Big Five dimensions already capture these aspects of virtue.
Alternatively, in line with their theoretically derived VIA classification system, Peterson and Seligman (2004) developed the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS). The VIA-IS uses 48 Likert-style items in which participants self-assess how likely they are to participate in certain behaviors which reflect a particular character strength from the VIA classification. Note that the VIA-IS does not directly measure the six virtues but rather measures the character strengths to which the virtues are conceptually linked.
However, there are some inherent limitations in the VIA-IS. First, previous research using the VIA-IS has resulted in little success in empirically replicating the theoretical structure of traits, character strengths, and virtues set out in Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) VIA classification system (for review, see Noftle et al. 2011). Peterson and Seligman (2004) note that an exploratory analysis of the VIA-IS scores suggests the 24 character strengths fit under five factors (rather than their posited six “core virtues” outlined above). Similarly, Macdonald et al. (2008) found that when using an IPIP (International Personality Item Pool) version of the VIA-IS, a four-factor solution (positivity, intellect, conscientiousness and niceness) provided the best fit as opposed to the theoretical six core virtues. Moreover, Macdonald et al. (2008) also found that these four factors showed substantial overlap with four of the Big Five dimensions (correlations ranged from 0.57 to 0.71). Thus, as with Cawley et al.’s (2000) VS, it remains unclear whether the VIA-IS is simply reconfiguring and relabeling normal dimensions of personality traits (Noftle et al. 2011).
Criticisms of Studying Virtue
In addition to the psychometric limitations of virtue scales outline previously, a variety of other theoretical and empirical criticisms have been posited in regards to the study virtue.
Social Desirability. Current empirical measures of virtue rely on participants self-assessing the extent to which they have certain character strengths or other positive virtue-related constructs. Hence, a common criticism of virtue research is that participants may engage in response-bias whereby they believe that they perform socially desirable behaviors more frequently and socially undesirable behaviors less frequently than others. However, a recent study by Meindl et al. (2015) found that self-reports of moral behavior and moral thoughts were highly consistent even after controlling for social desirability.
Situationist Criticism. Situationists posit two claims: (1) situations exert powerful influences on virtuous behavior and (2) personality variables are weak predictors of behavior (Jayawickreme et al. 2014). Consequently, situationists question the viability of the existence of virtue and the purpose of studying it. That is, if situations are so powerful (assumption 1) and personality traits are weak (assumption 2) then character traits that make up virtue must be nonexistent or extremely weak.
Situationist critics of virtue often cite studies such as Latane and Rodin (1969) in which 70% of participants investigated a cry for help in an adjoining room when they were alone yet only 7% investigated the cry for help when they were in the presence of a confederate who ignored the cries for help. Given that such a minor change in situation results in a powerful change to an individual’s virtuous behavior, this could arguably call into question the viability of virtues and their associated character traits in shaping behavior.
However, Jayawickreme et al. (2014) argue that studies such as Latane and Rodin’s (1969) cannot truly reveal whether individual differences in virtuous behavior exist as such findings are based on averaging effects across people in order to show how the average person responds to the situation. However, by averaging out across people, this provides no evidence regarding the consistency of differences between people. That is, such studies do not reveal whether people who are more virtuous than average in one situation are also more virtuous than average in another situation. Instead, Jayawickreme et al. (2014) suggest that researchers should aim to examine whether people who were virtuous in one specific experimental condition or situation tend to be virtuous in other experimental conditions or situations (i.e., examine the stability of differences between people from situation-to-situation).
Jayawickreme et al. (2014) also argue that there are clear individual differences within the experimental conditions of Latane and Rodin's (1969) study (i.e., some participants helped when they were alone and some did not. Similarly, some helped when there was a bystander and some did not). Consequently, instead of examining behavior based on a one-off observation, conclusions regarding virtues and their influences on behavior should be made based on aggregations of observations. Indeed, Bleidorn and Denissen (2015) implemented just such a methodology by conducting an experience sampling study in which they assessed virtues using the VIA-IS over a 10-day period. Overall it was found that participants showed a range of virtue states in their day-to-day lives and that within-person changes on virtue states were contingent on the individual’s current role context and their affect levels. Moreover, participant’s average level and their degree of variation in virtue states were found to be stable, trait-like, individual difference characteristics (Bleidorn and Denissen 2015).
Personality and individual difference literature dedicated to virtue is still relatively in its infancy (particularly with regard to empirical studies). A lack of consensus and clarity in how the field conceptualizes virtue as a psychological construct, as well as mixed results in the psychometric validity of empirical measures of virtue, indicates that further efforts are still needed in order to effectively conduct empirical psychological research on virtue. To address such shortcomings, future research should endeavor to establish a conceptualization and accompanying measure of virtue that is grounded in both strong theoretical and empirical evidence.
- Jayawickreme, E., Meindl, P., Helzer, E. G., Furr, R. M., & Fleeson, W. (2014). Virtuous states and virtuous traits: How the empirical evidence regarding the existence of broad traits saves virtue ethics from the situationist critique. Theory and Research in Education, 12, 1–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar