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Does character change following adversity?

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What do we currently know about how character changes following trauma, adversity or life challenge? Much theorizing on the role of life events in shaping personality focuses on the importance of significant life events in shaping personality. These events have the potential to modify, interrupt or redirect people’s lives by impacting their thoughts, feelings and behaviors (Bleidorn et al., 2017; Orth & Robins, 2014). Now that we know that personality is much more malleable than previously thought (Jayawickreme & Blackie, 2014), the impact of live events on the Big Five personality traits has been examined in recent years (e.g. Allemand, Hill, & Lehmann, 2015; Specht, Egloff, & Schmukle, 2011). However, less is known about how traits other than the Big Five may change in response to adversity and trauma.

One set of traits that may be particularly susceptible to the experience of adversity are character strengths.  Definitions vary about what constitute a character strength, but a strength may be said to broadly encompass a characteristic that is right about a person and specifically a characteristic that enables the “good life”. According to Peterson and Seligman (2004), character strengths are core traits that are ubiquitously recognized and valued across individuals, communities, and societies.

There has already been a lot of high-quality work done on the measurement of character strengths in recent years (e.g. McGrath, 2015), but more research needs to be done on understanding both the developmental trajectory of character strengths, and specifically the possible role that adversity, trauma and life challenges may have in acting as a catalyst for change. Specific character strengths may be more likely to be sensitive to the experience of adversity, challenge and failure (Jayawickreme & Blackie, 2016; Tiberius, 2008). For example, theoretical work has speculated that increased altruism may result from the experience of suffering (Vollhardt, 2009). Additionally, in a longitudinal study, Frazier and colleagues (2009) observed that a subset of individuals exhibited growth in a number of dimensions relevant to character (e.g. open-mindedness) over a 2-month period following a clinical trauma.

One widely used framework for understanding character strengths is the Classification of Strengths and Virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), a model intended to serve as a comprehensive multidimensional framework for inquiries into positive social and personal functioning. The VIA Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) was developed to measure the 24 character strengths included in this model (for more information, see http://www.viacharacter.org).

The VIA has been used in studies assessing group-level patterns of response with implications for understanding character change following adversity and trauma. Peterson and Seligman (2003) compared participants’ responses on the VIA-IS before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They found that some of the character strengths changed in the months after September 11th in a predominantly U.S. sample. In particular, they found that seven character strengths (gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, love, spirituality, and teamwork) were consistently elevated at two and ten months after the attacks. Peterson, Park, Prol, D’Andrea, and Seligman (2008) examined the relationship between the character strengths and number of traumatic events, again using a predominantly U.S. sample. They found that reporting more traumatic events was associated with higher levels in 11 strengths, including, kindness, leadership, and spirituality. In a similar study to that of Peterson’s findings (Peterson & Seligman, 2003; Peterson et al., 2008), Schueller, Jayawickreme, Blackie, Forgeard, & Roepke (2015) examined prospective changes in character strengths among individuals living within a 100-mile radius of three shooting tragedies that occurred in the USA: the shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (2007), a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado (2012), and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (2012). Schueller et al. (2015) found significant changes in the average levels of strengths in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting but not for the Virginia Tech and Aurora, Colorado shootings. Prudence, self-control, social intelligence, spirituality, teamwork, bravery, gratitude, honesty, hope, humor, kindness, leadership, love, modesty, perseverance, perspective, and zest in fact decreased significantly one month post- event at Sandy Hook, while love of learning increased significantly one month following the event. Two months following the event, however, hope, kindness, leadership, love, modesty, fairness, gratitude, honesty, and perseverance had increased. Love of learning had however decreased during this time.

In summary, while the extant studies have converged on some common findings (kindness, leadership, and spirituality were shown to be susceptible to growth across all three studies), there were also inconsistent findings in the studies (e.g. the limited findings for the Virginia Tech and Aurora, Colorado shootings; Schueller et al., 2015). In other words, while these studies offer some preliminary insights into whether and how character strengths and virtues can change following adversity, many unanswered questions remain.

Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the John Templeton Foundation.