Where Does "Character" Come From?

(Photo: rafael-castillo)

(Photo: rafael-castillo)

A new working paper (abstract; PDF) by James Heckman and Tim Kautz looks at the relationship between “character” and student achievement as measured by test scores. Long story short: achievement tests don’t necessarily measure what will often matter most once students hit the real world.

This paper reviews the recent literature on measuring and boosting cognitive and noncognitive skills.  The literature establishes that achievement tests do not adequately capture character skills–personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences–that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains. Their predictive power rivals that of cognitive skills.  Reliable measures of character have been developed.  All measures of character and cognition are measures of performance on some task.  In order to reliably estimate skills from tasks, it is necessary to standardize for incentives, effort, and other skills when measuring any particular skill.

Character is a skill, not a trait.  At any age, character skills are stable across different tasks, but skills can change over the life cycle. Character is shaped by families, schools, and social environments.  Skill development is a dynamic process, in which the early years lay the foundation for successful investment in later years.

High-quality early childhood and elementary school programs improve character skills in a lasting and cost-effective way.  Many of them beneficially affect later-life outcomes without improving cognition. There are fewer long-term evaluations of adolescent interventions, but workplace-based programs that teach character skills are promising.  The common feature of successful interventions across all stages of the life cycle through adulthood is that they promote attachment and provide a secure base for exploration and learning for the child.  Successful interventions emulate the mentoring environments offered by successful families.

Most important sentence, in my opinion: “Character is shaped by families, schools, and social environments.” Obvious perhaps, but important. Do we look too much to schools to influence character? With two kids in middle school, I hear increasingly from teachers, administrators, and other parents that middle-school age is when the kids’ “true character” emerges — by which they mean that kids powerfully reflect the values of their parents (for better or worse). 


Very interesting to hear someone else's perspective on this. Paul Tough recently wrote a really good book on the topic, looking at character development in schools in a variety of settings (public, private, elmentary, middle, high school, high poverty, wealthy, etc.). Definitely worth checking out http://www.amazon.com/How-Children-Succeed-Curiosity-Character/dp/0544104404

A person's character is most often revealed by how they handle failure or setbacks. Most successful people (kids included) have mechanisms that they employ to become resilient. I'm of the belief that these mechanisms can be learned and developed - either through explicit or accidental experiences.


I teach jr high. Weird that the we call it an "honor roll" for good grades. Should we also call rich ppl "honorable?"

steve cebalt

Hi Derrick: Perhaps you lost people with your second sentence, which drifts from the well-stated point in your first sentence. Rewarding grades but not rewarding character (your first point) seems to synthesize the thesis of the authors nicely.


The problem, though, is to think of a way in which you could accurately measure "character". Algebra is simple to grade, English not that much worse, but how can you even start to measure character without putting people in situations, natural or contrived, where those traits would be displayed? And how do you ethically contrive realistic situations?

Still, it's an interesting question: do I refrain from stealing because I have an honest character, or because I can make a lot more money with less effort by writing software rather than sticking up convenience stores?


I would say no, we do not look to schools "too much" to shape character.

We always hear that exact phrase - "for better or worse" - in connection with upbringing and home environment. You didn't just throw that in there; it's an important phrase. A child gets the luck of the draw where family is concerned.

Having one organized group charged with providing an environment for building and reinforcing character "skills" is far from a bad thing.


Well said. You may have just changed my opinion on the proper role of public education.

Enter your name...

Or perhaps we should change your idea of who ought to be doing education. Perhaps we should have one institution for academic education and others for character education. Specialization has benefits in efficiency and maintaining focus.


Is it really the case that "kids powerfully reflect the values of their parents"? Certainly I see a lot of the opposite: kids rejecting some or all of the values of their parents.

Enter your name...

Even a rejection is a reflection—just in opposite.

For example, in a family that strongly values money (or relaxing in front of the television, or spending every free moment with extended family members, or whatever), you are very likely to have children who also value money (or whatever), and somewhat likely to have children who take an anti-money position, but you are less likely to have children who are really indifferent to it.


While I agree with most of the points on how and where character is formed/influenced, I'm not too comfortable with the stulation that "character is a skill, not a trait". This might mainly be an ontological thing, but this definition of "character" is not really what I'd say most people mean when they use the word. I only did some quick searches in databa used for corpus linguistic studies, and I can only speak for my native language German here, but "character" is almost never used in a context where it qualifies as a "skill", "skill" describing a function to actively interact with the world (broadly speaking). I propose that "character" is neither a skill nor a trait, but rather a kind of "meta-trait" that is attributed to a person, and is subjective to the "observer". "Character" as meta-trait is formed in our mind from observing someone using skills, expressing views, etc., and both interpolating this data and judging it before our personal morals, beliefs, etc. Following this argumentation (and as I said this is based mostly on some quick research with limited scope), being an "external meta-trait", character doesn't really fit the finition of a skill. Feel free to argue, I'd be quite happy about feedback from a non-linguistic perspective on this.


Enter your name...

Does your character improve over time? Can you deliberately set out to improve it? If so, then it's a learnable skill. "Trait" implies that you have no control over it.

steve cebalt

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Tolstoy.

I wonder which structure builds character more effectively: "successful" families as the authors indicate, or unhappy dysfunctional ones. Perhaps pain, chaos and emotional trauma cause some children to rely on character traits to survive and thrive, despite their unstable families. History, biographies, and observation would lend support to what I'm saying. But if I am right (and I'm willing to be wrong), there would be no way to institutionalize character in schools.

Enter your name...

History actually shows the opposite: people who grow up in dysfunctional families have a much, much higher rate of ending up in prison than people who grow up in successful families.

The main reason that adversity seems to produce winners is that it helps develop character skills like perseverance. You could learn that by studying algebra or learning to play soccer just as easily as you could learn that by growing up dirt-poor, having a parent die while you're young, or otherwise in an at-risk situation. (Remember, "at-risk" is "at-risk" for negative outcomes like incarceration, drug addiction, and premature death, not "at-risk" for having a cool story to tell if you're the one-in-a-million exception.)

But in all of those cases, you're more likely to learn perseverance and resilience if your struggle is accompanied by a mostly positive, secure, loving home environment.

steve Cebalt

Hi Enter Your Name:

Your points are good, but you drift from the topic and from what I wrote. The article, and my comment, focus on character skills, not prison, dirt-poor, dead parents, incarceration, drug addiction, premature death or other conditions that you label at risk. Dysfunction -- my term -- crosses all socioeconomic boundaries.

"You could learn {perseverance} by studying algebra or learning to play soccer just as easily ..."

I don't think so. Try applying for college when your greatest adversity was losing a soccer game or getting a B in algebra. Perseverence is only learned by persevering.


Articles like this is why I keep reading the freakonomics site.

Jeff Jimenez

Character is really the sum of virtues minus vices...and I mean that from a philosophical perspective. For example, the classical virtues or cardinal virtues were the "hinges" upon which all virtues rest: Prudence, Temperance, Jutice, and Courage.

I think that is what families should aim for...to answer on behalf of their growing children to answer the better question, Where does GOOD character come from?"

Rob Lewis

To the extent that "character" is synonymous with "personality", parents shouldn't flatter themselves too much about their ability to mold it into their kids. In her landmark book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris showed that one's upbringing has very little influence on adult personality. Her exhaustive meta-analysis of the child development research (which included discarding the large number of poorly-designed studies) showed conclusively that about half of adult personality variation can be attributed to genes, and most of the rest is due to something else which is emphatically not parenting and the home environment. Her best guess is that the "something else" is largely the child's peer group, which leads to her assertion that the single best thing a parent can do for a child is arrange for it to have high-quality peers.

Of course no one believes this, but if you are open-minded enough to actually read her book (second edition), you might have your eyes opened.


Eric M. Jones

It seems clear that only non-academic activities build character. Schools might not be the right place to build character. Conventional schools might not be the right place for anything at all, except raising an army or ranks factory workers.

There's gotta be a better way.

Matt Davidson

Grateful for this article on the power of character and the impact of culture. In our work at the Institute for Excellence & Ethics (excellenceandethics.org) we talk about moral character and performance character, two interconnected dimensions of character. Performance character is the work ethic, perseverance, positive attitude, other related character attributes needed for excellence. Moral character are those interpersonal and ethical values like respect, honesty, and caring and justice. We need BOTH moral character and performance character. We need to feel safe and respected to be able to take the risks needed for learning; we need communication and collaboration skills, we need to be able to give and receive constructive criticism; we continue trying in the face of difficulties, especially around things we don't like or that don't come easy. These character skills are essential for learning.

How does character develop? In our work culture shapes character, which is what the above also asserts. The habits of home, school, extra-curricular, and work shape our individual habits. As Aristotle put it, "we are what we are repeatedly lead to do." In this regard the habits we learn at home are critically important. Schools are being asked to form (and reform) many bad or altogether missing habits that come from home--and this is not just in poor or struggling families; in fact, many of the weakest character skills come from middle to upper class parents who don't want their kids to work, struggle, or experience any adversity. And yet, it is often in and through adversity that both moral and performance character are developed.