What’s the difference between character and personality?

The recent Sutton Trust report on character education, A Winning Personality, concludes that extroversion correlates strongly with career success. It recommends that schools focus their efforts on improving “less advantaged students” knowledge and awareness of professional careers, using “good feedback to improve pupils’ social skills,” providing “suitable training in employability skills and interview techniques” and on ensuring that attempts to improve outcomes for less advantaged students are “broad-based – focusing on wider skills as well as academic attainment”.

Like others, I feel appalled at the idea of extroversion being preached as a gospel of success. To the extent that career success might correlate with such personality traits, this is more an indictment of the shallowness of our society than a reason to force quieter, more introspective children to be as loud and brash as their more extrovert peers. Maybe instead we should do more to consider why we value such superficialities rather than rushing to lionise those who shout the loudest.

But that’s something of an aside. Amidst the noise and confusion surrounding this report, the Jubilee Centre, an organisation which exists to further the aims character education released a response subtitled, Some Curious Ideas about the Shaping of Personality as ‘Character Education’. Interestingly, Professor Kristján Kristjánsson, the author of this response, is at pains to distance the Jubilee Centre from the Sutton Trust report. The thrust of his objection seems to be that Robert de Vries and Jason Rentfrow, the authors of A Winning Personality have failed to understand that personality and character are not the same thing.

An elementary distinction is circumvented by both the report and its discontents between personality and character … Personality traits, such as extraversion and conscientiousness and others posited and measured via the proverbial Five-Factor Model, are mostly non-malleable after an early age. They are genetic up to at least 50% and otherwise shaped in early childhood. In academic parlance, those traits would be described as content-thin, non-morally evaluable, non-reason-responsive and mostly non-educable. No amount of rational dissuasion or character education is ever going to turn an introvert into an extrovert. And even categorising persons as ‘conscientious’, on the Big-Five understanding, says nothing about their moral worth (or virtue), for someone could be a conscientious member of the Hitler Youth. Character traits, in contrast, are content-thick, morally evaluable, reason-responsive and highly educable.

Now, I’m well aware that most so-called personality traits are between 50-80% heritable, although I’m less sure of the claim that the remaining factors are “shaped in early childhood”. There’s compelling evidence to suggest that peer effects in early to late adolescence are much more powerful that early childhood factors. (See Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption for details.) What was new to me was the idea that the ‘Big Five’ personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism might be distinct from ‘character traits’.

In The Cult of Personality, Annie Murphy Paul casts doubt on the idea that personality traits are stable. Whatever they’re named and however they’re tested, personality traits seem to be highly contextual. Openness to experience depends on mood, how conscientious we are depends greatly on how we feel about what we’re doing, we are agreeable in some situations and not others; we’re all different depending upon the context in which we find ourselves. So, what about the idea that character traits, or virtues, might be “content-thick, morally evaluable, reason-responsive and highly educable”? Can we really educate children to be virtuous? And what virtues should we educate them in?

In this publication, The Jubilee Centre say, “Character is a set of personal traits or dispositions that produce specific moral emotions, inform motivation and guide conduct.” They have decided the virtues we should value are courage, justice, honesty, compassion for others, self-discipline, gratitude and humility. These seem like pretty good things to be, but can we teach them? I’ve argued here that perhaps we can, by example and through asking children to persevere with challenging content, but not as a set of bolt-on lessons. But, I might be wrong. I’d love to see some evidence for the claim that character traits are “highly educable” – if anyone has any, please send it on.

14 Responses to What’s the difference between character and personality?

  1. thom gething says:

    David thanks for linking to the Jubilee Centre report. If you are interested I would suggest taking a look at “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification” edited by Seligmann & Peterson for a broader look at this. The book is interesting because it attempts to look at the strengths and virtues historically, across cultures and explore some of the research that has been carried out over the years.

    Seligmann is one of those people that really divides opinion and I have mixed feelings about positive psychology, but this is a really interesting read, particularly if you are a school that is trying to develop traits/virtues/dispositions in your students.

  2. heatherfblog says:

    My current conclusion is that you can’t really change personality but you can teach/build habits and perhaps those habits can sometimes become so generalised that they could be described as changes to character or even personality. That includes habits based on moral precepts in so far as the child is able to realise how those precepts apply in different contexts.
    However, while I do see personality traits affecting peoples’ behaviour in a broad range of contexts that is not the case of habits which seem to apply in a limited context and won’t necessarily transfer between contexts. To me, like skills are mistakenly seen as transferable in different contexts, so are the habits we are able to inculcate in our children.

  3. Good to see your comments on my article. A lot of the empirical evidence on character is reviewed in my book Aristotelian Character Education (Routledge, 2015), esp. chaps. 1-3. However, this is an extremely complex area. Each trait of character (e.g. honesty) comprises a number of components (cognitive, perceptual, motivational, emotional, behavioural), and although some of them are fairly easy to measure, others are fiendishly difficult to get a handle on (e.g. the behavioural one which resists measurements for various methodological and ethical reasons). You seem to agree that character can be educated through exemplarity or role-modelling. Indeed, this is the most powerful and historically most widely discussed method of character education. In any case, if you accept the “Power of Ideals” (witness the title of Damon and Colby’s recent book on the topic), then you accept that character is in principle educable. Whether or not that is best done at school through discrete classes or through general osmosis during the school day (or both) is quite a distinct debate which adds further layers of complexity to the whole issue of educating character.

  4. […] and to thus apportion worth, by considering their economic output is, as David Dudau writes here, shallow and superficial. It reduces us to what Douglas Adams called little green pieces of paper. […]

  5. Pique Boo says:

    I’m considering writing “No amount of rational dissuasion or character education is ever going to turn an introvert into an extrovert” on Sprogette’s forehead at the next parents’ evening in hope of deterring some must-be-more-hands-up comments.

    My amateur perspective is based on my sample of one, but if these character traits are highly educable then I’d guess that together with intelligence the Big5 are a significant factor in progress, much like they are for exam achievement. Then of course educable does not preclude heritable.

  6. When I was a kid my school was trying to give us ‘character building’ exercises so I asked my dad what the difference was between character and personality. The message from school seemed to be I was ‘wrong’ somehow and needed ‘improving’ so my dad said;

    our character is who we are, who we really are, and our personality is just the part others see and we can control what others see, but our character is deeper and is revealed over our whole lifetime.

    This chilled me out from thinking I was wrong and I realized that pretending to be more extroverted was what other people generally meant when they talk about character education. I played along with my personality until my character was so strained I couldn’t pretend any more – breaking point was my final year if university.

    Now I’m a prod introvert running ecourses e.g. this latest one on Politics in Education: http://leahkstewart.com/welcome/ and interviewing people I want to learn from, like Dara from the Virtues Project which, if your interested in character education, is worth exploring too – it’s on my blog under ‘character’

    • Dorastar says:

      I agree, my character is deeply Eeyore but the personality I choose to use at school is more Winnie the Pooh. As an introvert I am rarely a Tigger (apart from at school discos) but I will be if the need arises. Our pupils have loads of personality and grit which gets them through their often tough little lives, but when they are too stressed their true characters come out and we have to sometimes pick up the pieces. We can be as positive as we like but we don’t truly know how bad some of their home lives are and we do the a huge disservice if we belittle their daily struggles with positive statements.

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