How Important is Character in Choosing a President?

Though people say elections should hinge on issues, personality comes into play.

Posted Jun 07, 2019

Pexels/Element5 Digital
Source: Pexels/Element5 Digital

Though the final selection is nearly 18 months away, the 2020 U.S. presidential race is already heating up. With more than 20 democratic candidates tossing their hats into the ring, ready to compete against one another and against Republican incumbent Donald Trump, it’s bound to be an exciting race with important long-term impacts.

In many ways, the candidates couldn’t be more different than one another. Although most people say they believe elections should hinge on the issues, candidates’ personalities nonetheless inevitably come into play. In the 2016 election, for instance, the public clashed (and still does) over whether Trump displayed the character necessary to be president. A similar debate concerned Hillary Clinton’s character. Whichever side you’re on, however, we can all agree that such issues of character are deeply important and can easily overshadow issues of policy.

The 2016 race wasn’t the first time character took the political center stage. In 1998, for instance, the House of Representatives famously began impeachment proceedings against the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton, on account of his sexual activity with a White House intern and subsequent attempt to conceal it. Though he ultimately served out his term, these events ignited a national debate over whether character matters in a president. Rolling Stone magazine even featured an article titled “Clinton and Character,” in which the author asked: “Shall we give him an official pass to perjure himself on questions about his sex life? Or is Congress about to impeach a president for mere sexual infidelity? Have our public values been reduced to the contentious word games of criminal-defense lawyers?”

Both of these examples highlight our society’s difficulty judging character, not to mention determining whether it’s important or not. The problem is that each person’s definition of “character” is likely to be quite different from everyone else’s, resulting in people talking past one another when it comes to determining the fitness of a candidate for office. So, it’s worth asking whether there’s a more objective, scientific way to gauge whether someone has good character.

Luckily, research offers at least some guidance in this regard.

In 2000, psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman embarked upon perhaps the most ambitious attempt to define and measure character ever undertaken. They began by diving deeply into the literatures of spiritual and philosophical traditions from across globe, including Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They consulted the writings of luminaries and world leaders like Charlemagne and Benjamin Franklin. They examined greeting cards, bumper stickers, personal ads, and song lyrics. The even read the profiles of Pokémon characters.

Through this process, certain common views of character began to emerge. In particular, they found that six virtues cut across these different traditions and cultures: Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence. Although most people would agree that all six virtues are important to some extent, not everyone upholds them in the same ways. For this reason, Peterson and Seligman broke each of the virtues into smaller pieces, known as “character strengths,” which are the concrete ways people live according to these virtues. For instance, one way of displaying the virtue of wisdom is through a love of learning (a strength), but another way of displaying the same virtue is through practicing good judgment (another strength). In all, they identified 24 strengths:

Creativity: originality, adaptivity, ingenuity

Curiosity: interest, novelty-seeking, exploration, openness to experience

Judgment: Critical thinking, thinking things through, open-mindedness

Love of Learning: mastering new skills and topics, systematically adding to knowledge

Perspective: wisdom, providing wise counsel, taking the big picture view

Bravery: valor, not shrinking from fear, speaking up for what’s right

Perseverance: persistence, industry, finishing what one starts

Honesty: authenticity, integrity

Zest: vitality, enthusiasm, vigor, energy, feeling alive and activated

Love: both loving and being loved, valuing close relations with others

Kindness: generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, altruism, “niceness”

Social/Emotional Intelligence: being aware of the motives/feelings of self/others, knowing what makes other people tick

Teamwork: citizenship, social responsibility, loyalty

Fairness: justice, not letting feelings bias decisions about others

Leadership: organizing group activities, encouraging a group to get things done

Forgiveness: mercy, accepting others’ shortcomings, giving people a second chance

Humility: modesty, letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves

Prudence: careful, cautious, not taking undue risks

Self-regulation: self-control, discipline, managing impulses and emotions

Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence: awe, wonder, elevation

Gratitude: thankful for the good, expressing thanks, feeling blessed

Hope: optimism, future-mindedness, future orientation

Humor: playfulness, bringing smiles to others, lightheartedness

Spirituality: religiousness, faith, purpose, meaning

We all exemplify these character strengths to differing degrees. Nobody can max out on all of them, nor would we want to. That’s because strengths probably don’t work way you think they do. Seligman and Peterson assert that most strengths represent the “golden mean” half-way between two unhealthy extremes. A person best exemplifies a particular strength when he or she displays just the right amount of that strength. But, someone can also display the opposite of a strength or an exaggerated version of that strength, both of which could lead to problems. The character strength of  “judgment,” for example, falls along a continuum from gullibility (not exercising judgment at all) to cynicism (exercising too much judgment). People who exercise good judgment fall between these two extremes, displaying an appropriately skeptical yet open attitude. So, too much of a strength can actually be a bad thing.

Seligman and Peterson argue that each person resonates most with a small handful of strengths. Known as a person’s “signature strengths,” these are the characteristics we most own and celebrate. Unlike other strengths that require effort to deploy, signature strengths flow easily from us. Although one person may, with considerable effort, be able to force him or herself to exemplify the strength of leadership, another person may effortlessly display this strength. We’re at our most authentic when we tap into such signature strengths.

As we approach the upcoming election, consider which strengths are most important to you in a president. Would you value someone more whose signature strengths were creativity, kindness, and humility, or someone whose strengths included prudence, bravery, and judgment? If you had to choose only one strength that, for you, most exemplified a good president, what would it be?

Given that all of us are different, people can certainly disagree on which character strengths are most important to them. Such disagreements often get to the heart of important political differences. The power of Seligman and Peterson’s system is not that it compels all of us to agree, but that it provides a common language for discussing important disagreements. 

Once we understand which aspects of character are most personally important to us, we can more objectively gauge which candidates fit. We also may be better able to appreciate why other people in our lives feel equally strongly about different candidates, perhaps leading to more constructive conversations. Ultimately, character strengths are personal. But that doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from trying to understand them as objectively as possible.

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