What is Character, Can It Peak and How Is It Measured?

UPDATED: June 5, 2023
PUBLISHED: August 7, 2017
woman of good character smiling outside

Robert D. Ray, former Iowa governor and humanitarian leader, left behind a legacy deeply rooted in the exemplary character he exhibited throughout his life. Ray inherited his administration during a period of great civil unrest, when tempers flared over the Vietnam War and cultural conflicts sparked rioting and bloodshed. Yet he governed with heart, spirit and boundless determination, consistently demonstrating honesty, sincerity and a commitment to moral integrity over the course of his time in office.

Aside from his executive orders and fiscal successes, he also became a global leader in the resettlement of Vietnam War refugees, welcoming them with open arms to the U.S., and was essential in passing the Iowa Burials Protection Act of 1976 to protect American Indian grave sites. By the time he left office, his governorship had stretched 14 years.

In Ray’s honor, the Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award—now the Robert D. and Billie Ray Pillar of Character Award—has been presented each year to an individual “who demonstrates good character as a role model and reflects former Gov. Robert D. Ray’s lifelong commitment to civility and character development,” according to a Drake University article. Actor, humanitarian and Iowa native Ashton Kutcher was the recipient of the award in April 2017. During his speech, Kutcher questioned if his character had “peaked,” joking, “If I’m peaking at 39 on character, that can be a real big problem.” He then made an interesting observation: “You can’t peak, because you’re never done building your character. It legitimately never ends.”

Does his statement have merit?

Many components of the human experience and physiology can be measured, revealing some ideal “peaking” ages, including:

  • Your brain processing power may peak around age 30.
  • Strength may peak around our early to mid-20s or 30s.
  • Bone mass may peak at around 20 to 30 years of age.

What is character?

Character, however, is rather ambiguous. Is there a point when our character peaks? If there is a pinnacle, does character remain a constant once it has been reached? Can character even be measured?

While character might be a word we toss around without a second thought, when asked, we may struggle to define it. Christian Miller, the A.C. Reid professor of philosophy and the director of the Honesty Project at Wake Forest University, defines someone’s character as their collection of moral traits (moral character).

Virtues and vices

According to Miller, moral character traits fall into two broad categories: moral virtues and moral vices. Honesty and humility are examples of virtues; cruelty and cowardice demonstrate vices. “Virtues are acquired excellences,” Miller says. “We are not born with them, but it is possible to develop them slowly over time.” A virtue has many features, including:

  • Leading to good actions that are appropriate to the situation.
  • Leading to actions that are performed in a variety of different situations relevant to the virtue.
  • Leading to actions that are done for the appropriate reasons or motives.
  • Leading to a pattern of motivation and action that is stable and reliable over time. 

For example, Miller explains, an honest person does the honest thing in relevant circumstances, which range widely from moments in a courtroom to a party, the office, etc. This is a stable feature of their character that persists over time. When they do the honest thing, they do it for the right reasons. “Wanting to make a good impression on someone or wanting to avoid guilt would not count as the good motives or reasons, typically,” Miller says.

The culture of character

According to the writings of cultural historian Warren Susman, the use of the term “character” began in the 17th century and increased in prominence by the 19th. As he wrote in his book, Culture as History, “By 1800 the concept of character had come to define that particular modal type felt to be essential for the maintenance of the social order. The term itself came to mean a group of traits believed to have social significance and moral quality, ‘the sine qua non of all collective adjustment and social intercourse.’ In the age of self-consciousness, a popular vision of the self defined by the word ‘character’ became fundamental in sustaining and even in shaping the significant forms of the culture.” 

“Our character is our worth; it’s why we matter,” says Bill Puka, a former professor and psychologist in the cognitive science department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The culture of character that Susman wrote about, however, which once focused on self-sacrifice, began to shift: “It is further a striking part of the turn-of-the-century decade that interest grew in personality, individual idiosyncrasies, personal needs and interests. The vision of self-sacrifice began to yield to that of self-realization.” In this culture of personality driven by self-realization, or what some might call “selfie culture,” people seem focused on how they present themselves on social media and, in turn, how they may be perceived by others.

“‘Virtue’ has become a less popular word than it was in the past,” Miller says. He worries about social media’s potential impact on narcissistic tendencies, and the anonymity and moral distancing that may allow harassment, bullying and other negative behaviors to become increasingly widespread.

Constant growth is necessary

Whether character is a forgotten ideal, Miller agrees with the sentiment of Kutcher’s remark. “Character is malleable, and we can shape our character over the course of a lifetime,” he says.

Puka believes if your character peaks, it had better stay there or you may find yourself on a downward spiral. “Even staying steady is a deficiency, because you should be developing your character more and more your whole life, as Kutcher implies,” Puka remarks.

In Miller’s opinion, “peaking” could imply the idea that there is such a thing as perfect virtue. Although he thinks it makes sense to talk about being perfectly compassionate or honest in theory, the reality is that it’s highly unlikely any of us will ever come close to perfect virtue. So, character can’t peak in this sense.

But Miller says there are numerous ways to measure character from a psychological perspective, including covert behavioral observation, lab behavioral observation, peer reports, experience sampling and implicit association tests. There are also various obstacles that may hinder the development of a person’s character, which could include genetics, upbringing, environment and pressures to conform or consume.

Although character does not necessarily peak, it can be measured. “Personally, when I encounter someone of character or real integrity, their level of commitment and gravitas come through first,” Puka says. “But it has to be in relation to stellar values and principles. Those are very difficult to doubt.”

This article was updated June 2023. Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock

Crystal Ponti is a science, health, and technology reporter from Downeast Maine. She has written for the The Washington Post, The New York Post, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR and Salon. Follow her on Twitter.