Character vs. Personality
“Character” and “personality”: These two concepts play divergent roles in how we talk about individual differences.
“Who cares about personality? What matters is character.”
That’s an interesting declaration. Before deciding what to make of it, we need to unpack the distinction between “personality” and “character.” Although both ideas pick out significant differences between people, “personality” describes persistent patterns of behavior and feelings, while “character” brings in the elements of choice, values, responsibility, and praise or blame.
When I say Sam has a tempestuous personality, I’m referring to his highly emotional outbursts and the interpersonal dramas he provokes. I’m warning you not to expect Sam to have a calm, mild manner. The reference to a personality trait implies that Sam flies into a stormy or exuberant mood easily and often.
If I offer to vouch for Skylar’s character, I’m not talking about that type of behavior. Most likely I mean that she has certain positive moral qualities, such as honesty, reliability, good judgment and consideration for others. This would have to be based on long, close observation. Strangers and mere acquaintances wouldn’t normally know Skylar’s character from sparse or casual interactions.
For the most part, personality and character are independent of each other. Along with Sam’s tempestuous personality, we can imagine him being either brave or cowardly, tolerant or hateful, fair or unjust, forgiving or spiteful. Likewise, Skylar’s upright, honest character might come out in an effusive, sociable personality or a quiet, retiring one.
Most experts say that personality tends to show itself from a very young age – by the first grade, if not earlier. People can adjust the behavior that accompanies their personality to a certain extent. For instance, Sam could learn to control his explosive acting out around others. Generally, however, such modifications don’t change the person’s preferences and feelings. Extroverts continue to prefer socializing over solitude, and introverts like privacy more than self-exposure even if they modify how they interact.
When it comes to character, experts believe it emerges mainly in adolescence and adulthood. We talk about character being “formed” – that is, learned through moral instruction and experiences while growing up. However, sometimes that moral instruction gets taken to heart and sometimes it gets ignored or thrown off. Because character has to do with decisions that people make, we tend to hold others responsible for either telling the truth and obeying moral norms or lying and cheating their way through life.
So which is more important? Personality matters because it affects how much we enjoy being around the various people in our world. It matters because we can’t help bumping up against others’ tendencies and our own. For instance, I remember once waiting at a drugstore counter for a prescription while a pharmacist chattered trivialities nonstop to her coworker. My husband and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. We were both thinking, “What if I had to work with someone like that? Her poor colleague!” The woman’s personality did not appeal to either of us.
Character probably doesn’t come up on a daily or even weekly basis in our lives. But it matters because we admire those who put our shared ethical beliefs into action in challenging situations, and we may struggle to like those who fall far short of moral ideals. If I learned that the loquacious pharmacist showed extraordinary consideration and compassion for disabled customers and those who spoke poor English, I would surely change my opinion of her. And I recall reading in the newspaper that a doctor my mother had seen was caught having lied to get out of jury service. My mother and I agreed that we would now not want to use that doctor, given a choice. His character repelled us.
All in all, I’m not sure which matters more, personality or character. They matter in different ways. What do you think?