Periodic table of character strengths - The Science of Character

The six core virtues (listed at the top of each column), and the 24 secondary character traits which help us cultivate them. Click on the image to see a slightly larger view.

The idea that people have distinct and differing character traits is definitely not a new one. It can be traced back to the theory of the four bodily humours developed by Hippocrates, a Greek physician who lived between 460 and 377 BC. Of course, there’s also the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which was based on the work of Carl Jung and was also a jumping-off point for psychologist David Keirsey’s four temperament types, featured in his 1998 book Please Understand Me II. These examples represent only a small selection of the temperament theories that have come into existence over the last hundred or so years.

However, the 2014 short film The Science of Character by Tiffany Shlain, released on March 20, delves into a fairly new idea within the field of temperament and character theory. This is the idea that we can change our characters by adopting a “growth mindset” as opposed to a “fixed mindset,” two terms originally introduced by Carol Dweck, Ph.D., in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Featured psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin E.P. Seligman went all the way back in time to the era of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle to identify virtues that have been universally accepted, throughout various time periods and cultures, as leading to a fulfilling life. These include wisdom, courage, benevolence and a sense of justice. They then identified 24 character traits we can practice to grow and develop universally valued virtues.

According to the film, the way to ensure we’re practicing these traits to the best of our abilities is through mindfulness. We must pay mindful attention to our behaviour within each moment—when we’re about to do or say something, we must ask ourselves, “Is this consistent with the type of person I am, or the type of person I strive to be?” If not, we must reject that particular course of action. This activity takes place in the prefrontal cortex, a sort of executive centre in the brain that helps us regulate our behaviour. Once we train the prefrontal cortex to function mindfully, our actions and words will automatically be more beneficial to ourselves and everyone around us.

As part of the filmmaker’s journey, Shlain conducted interviews with others, asking them what traits they admire in a person and which ones they would like to possess. She received answers that are compatible with Peterson and Seligman’s earlier findings: for example, people said they both admire and desire to possess goodwill, courage and the drive to pursue goals. Shlain asks us to imagine a world where we all strive to improve ourselves as much as possible, and consequently infuse the world with these valued traits. This may sound like a pipe dream, but we can take inspiration from the young boy at the film’s end who says, “Everybody’s a star. They just need to learn how to shine.”

View all of the interviewees’ comments, and the rest of the short film here: 

For more information

“FAIL and EPIC FAIL have become Internet memes. How is failing on the Internet different from failing in real life? Can you learn and develop character strengths from Internet fails, too?”

This is just one example of the kind of questions you’ll find in The Science of Character‘s Discussion Guide, which contains 22 questions you can explore on your own or within a group to discover more about your character. The guide also provides lists of websites, books, television shows and apps which will help you or those you know develop each of the 24 character traits (there are options for both adults and children).

To learn more about how mindfulness can affect the workings of the brain, read BUDDHA’S BRAIN: Interview with Dr. Rick Hanson on the science and spirituality of the brain and REWIRING THE BRAIN: Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in 8  weeks>>

image 1: The Science of Character; image 2: Sebastian Voortman from Pexels