Can Your Character Peak?

Robert D. Ray, former Iowa governor and humanitarian leader, leaves 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—demonstrating honesty, sincerity and a commitment to moral integrity.

Aside from his policy 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 first laws that protected American Indian grave sites. When he left his final term, a governorship that stretched 14 years, Iowa was prosperous, unified and the embodiment of “for the people, by the people.”

Each spring in Ray’s honor, the Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award is presented 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.” Actor, humanitarian and Iowa native Ashton Kutcher received 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.”

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Does his statement have merit?

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

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?

Character, like integrity, is a word we toss around without a second thought. But when asked, we often struggle to define it. Christian Miller, a professor of philosophy and the director of the Character Project at Wake Forest University, defines someone’s character as their collection of moral traits (moral character).

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:

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


“Our character is our worth; it’s why we matter.”


For example, Miller explains, an honest person does the honest thing in relevant circumstances, which range widely to include the courtroom, 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,” Millers says.

Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of character theory, is often referenced when speaking about morality and virtues. He viewed doing something against moral principles, compromising one’s integrity, as more of a tragedy than a loss. Character doesn’t appear to have the same prominence as it once did in society. According to the writings of cultural historian Warren Susman, the use of the term “character” began in the 17th century and peaked in the 19th. In the 1800s for example, people were commonly judged based on their character, good or bad.

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

Related: 6 Essential Traits of Good Character

The culture of character that Susman wrote about, however, which once focused on self-sacrifice, has shifted largely to a culture of personality driven by self-realization or what some might call “selfie culture.” Today, people seem focused on being likeable and how they are perceived by others, rather than serving others and improving their inner moral compass.

“ ‘Virtue’ has become a less popular word than it was in the past,” Miller says. He worries about social media’s potential impact on increasing narcissistic tendencies, and the anonymity and moral distancing (even when not anonymous) that allows harassment, bullying and other negative behaviors to become increasingly widespread.

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 better stay there or you are 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 of this world is that none of us will 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, Implicit Association Tests and EAR Technology. There are also various obstacles that can hinder the development of a person’s character, including genetics, upbringing, environment, and pressures to conform or consume.

Although character does not necessarily peak, it can be measured. And often, it doesn’t require a fancy psychological assessment. “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.”

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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.

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