2 minute read


General term in psychology used to describe behavior motivations and personality traits that make each person an individual.

Character is most often used in reference to a set of basic innate, developed, and acquired motivations that shape an individual's behavior. These qualities of an individual's motivation are shaped during all stages of childhood. By late adolescence, around age 17, the traits that make up individual's character are normally integrated into a unique and distinctive whole. The term character is sometimes used as roughly synonymous with the term personality, although such usage does little to reduce the imprecision of either term. Some psychologists believe that differences in character among individuals largely reflect affective, or emotional, differences, that are the result of biochemical or other organic variations. Many psychologists claim that character, to some extent, is a function of experience. These psychologists, generally, believe that, as the early behavior of an individual directed toward a primary, instinctive goal is modified by environmental circumstances, the motivational system of the individual is also modified, and the character of the individual is affected. There is some dispute among psychologists about whether, or to what extent, character may be controlled by conscious or rational decisions, and about whether, or to what extent, character may be dominated by unconscious or irrational forces. At the same time, there is widespread agreement among psychologists that, while much research remains to be done to delineate the genetic, instinctive, organic, cognitive, and other aspects of character, the development of a reasonably stable and harmonious character is an essential part of a psychologically healthy existence.

Character education, a periodic but recurring theme for schools to teach basic values and moral reasoning to primary and secondary students, attracted renewed popularity in the 1990s. Character education initiatives have developed at the local and state levels, but reflect a national trend. In 1995, President Bill Clinton and the U.S. Congress declared October 16-22 "National Character Counts Week." In character education, teachers confront students with moral dilemmas and ask them to formulate and defend courses of action.

Many prominent educators, politicians, and academics support character education. Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, object to character education because it could lead to teaching religious beliefs. Some religious groups oppose it as well, since public school teachers must avoid teaching religion and could make character a virtue that is anti-religious.

Further Reading

Lockwood, Anne Turnbaugh. Character Education: Controversy and Consensus. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, 1997.

Murphy, Madonna M. Character Education in America's Blue Ribbon Schools: Best Practices for Meeting the Challenge. Lancaster, PA.: Technomic Publishing Co. Inc., 1998.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage