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K-State Today

September 1, 2011



Defining character: Psychology professor researches classifications and consistencies of moral tendencies

By Communications and Marketing

How honest is an honest person? Are they any less likely to tell a lie when it benefits them? Research by a Kansas State University personality psychologist will answer those questions and more thanks to a major grant.

Brenda McDaniel, assistant professor of psychology, was awarded a $199,429 grant from the Character Project at Wake Forest University, a three-year project supported by a grant from The John Templeton Foundation for her research project, "Structure and Consistency of Character." The Character Project addresses challenging questions of interest to character, particularly in the areas of psychology, philosophy and theology, in order to foster new advances in the study of character. The questions examine whether the character traits of honesty and compassion exist, the prevalence of these traits and how people should overcome their character flaws.

McDaniel's research will be conducted over two years. Youth and emerging adults will be tracked across time and situations to understand the structure and consistency of their character. Under examination will be William Damon's theory of moral integration. Damon, a psychologist at Stanford University, surmised in 1984 that morality becomes more incorporated into the self as age increases. Thus, age is predicted to be one of the major factors in predicting the consistency of character.

"It is expected that emerging adults will be more consistent overall in their moral behavior than youth," McDaniel said. "But it is very likely that everyone has the ability to show various levels of moral traits throughout the day and beyond depending on the situation."

It is hypothesized that character can be influenced by interactions with other individuals such as role models, characteristics of the situations and personal dispositions, according to McDaniel. The project will examine character as a collection of moral tendencies or dispositions. Different categories of moral dispositions will be compared to predict moral behavior.

McDaniel hopes to reconcile ongoing controversies in personality psychology in the process. One controversy involves whether dispositions should be studied as differences within unique individuals or differences between groups of people. Another personality controversy addressed involves whether behavior is the product of situational influences or if there are characteristic ways of behaving unimpeded by the situation.

The project's findings are expected to guide McDaniel's future research on personality. She hopes the research will have broader applicability as well.

"I hope the research results will provide greater understanding of personality development as well as how to possibly foster pro-social behaviors in youth," she said.