Character Strengths Overuse and Underuse
Summary of Research Findings
The dynamics of character strengths remains a new area of study. One model for looking at the dimensionality of character strengths is to place each strength on a continuum in which too much of a strength in a particular context becomes overuse, too little is underuse, and the center area is the “strengths zone” or optimal expression (i.e., golden mean) of the strength.
- Discusses the phenomenon of extreme social withdrawal in large numbers of Japanese youth, known as hikikomori, using the lens of character strengths overuse, underuse, and optimal use within case examples (Matsuguma & Niemiec, 2020).
Matsuguma, S., & Niemiec, R. M. (2020). Hikikomori from the perspective of overuse, underuse, and optimal use of character strengths: Case reports. International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41042-020-00047-3
- Reviews philosophical theories on the golden mean concluding that the relationship between virtue and behavior is addressing situation-specific optimality; challenges traditional measurement approaches and explains why virtues cannot be accurately measured as general tendencies in behavior (Ng & Tay, 2020).
Ng, V., & Tay, L. (2020). Lost in translation: The construct representation of character virtues. Perspectives on Psychological Science. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1177/1745691619886014
- Offers central arguments, concepts, and theory for the existence of character strengths overuse, underuse, and optimal use. Tables for overuse, underuse, optimal use, and top correlates across the 24 strengths are provided. Suggests practical strategies for researchers, based in theory, to test and for practitioners to experiment with, such as the tempering effect, the towing effect, strengths-spotting, direct questioning, feedback, and mindfulness (Niemiec, 2019).
Niemiec, R. M. (2019). Finding the golden mean: the overuse, underuse, and optimal use of character strengths. Counselling Psychology Quarterly. http://doi.org/10.1080/09515070.2019.1617674 Golden_mean_overuse_underuse__optimal_use_of_CS_(Niemiec_2019).pdf
- Second ever empirical study examining the overuse, underuse, and optimal use across 24 character strengths, replicating the previous findings that overuse and underuse are each significantly associated with less flourishing and life satisfaction and greater depression while optimal use is significantly associated with the reverse of these three outcomes. The study also found that the following pattern could correctly sort (with 89.3% accuracy) whether someone has clinical levels of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or not: overuse of social intelligence, judgment, appreciation of beauty/excellence, fairness, prudence and underuse of forgiveness and self-regulation (Littman-Ovadia & Freidlin, 2019).
Littman-Ovadia, H., & Freidlin, P. (2019). Positive psychopathology and positive functioning: OCD, flourishing and satisfaction with life through the lens of character strength underuse, overuse and optimal use. Applied Research in Quality of Life. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11482-018-9701-5
- Study of 100 people on health and overuse, underuse, and optimal use of character strengths. The study replicated previous findings around the benefits of optimal strengths use and the negative impact of strengths overuse and underuse. Optimal character strengths use predicted better physical and mental health, and more frequent health behaviors and positive emotions. Underuse predicted each of these in the opposite direction as optimal use. The same was true of overuse with the exception of overuse not predicting worse mental health. In all cases, as in previous studies, the underuse of character strengths was more negatively impactful, but with one exception – overuse was worse than underuse for physical health (Bergen, 2019).
Bergen, A. (2019). Adult character strength use and its relationship to physical and mental health. Doctoral dissertation (Walden University).
- Pilot study of 79 students finding that underuse of character strengths related to poor academic performance while optimal use related to good academic performance (strengths overuse had a positive, nonsignificant correlation). More specifically, the optimal use of perseverance, love of learning, and self-regulation accounted for 68% of the variance in academic performance (Powell, 2018).
Powell, H. V. (2018). Academic success: The role of character strength use for undergraduate student academic performance. Unpublished dissertation (John Moores University).
- Offer conceptual work suggesting that character strengths can moderate the impact of psychopathology on functioning (Jayawickreme & Blackie, 2018).
Jayawickreme, E., & Blackie, L. E. R. (2018). Psychopathology and languishing are distinct. Journal of Positive Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1528379
- Discusses the strengths as syndromes and strengths as symptoms models for conceptualizing clinical diagnoses and introduces the strengths as moderators model which offers a complement to traditional diagnostic formulation (Hall-Simmonds & McGrath, 2017).
Hall-Simmonds, A., & McGrath, R. E. (2017). Character strengths and clinical presentation. Journal of Positive Psychology. http://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2017.1365160
- The first empirical study to examine overuse, underuse, and optimal-use of character strengths. Several findings: First, it reveals that these constructs do indeed exist for the 24 character strengths; second, overuse and underuse were significantly related to higher depression, less flourishing, and less life satisfaction (with underuse of character strengths doing worse) while the optimal-use (i.e., golden mean) of character strengths was significantly related to higher flourishing and life satisfaction and less depression; third, 87.5% of individuals with or without a clinical diagnosis of social anxiety disorder (social phobia) were able to be correctly sorted to having or not having the condition based on a combination of several overuses and underuses of character strengths. Finally, the study introduces a new research assessment measure called Overuse, Underuse, Optimal-Use (OUOU) of Character Strengths (Freidlin, Littman-Ovadia, & Niemiec, 2017). The instrument is available free to researchers on the VIA site.
Freidlin, P., Littman-Ovadia, H., & Niemiec, R. M. (2017). Positive psychopathology: Social anxiety via character strengths underuse and overuse. Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 50-54. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.12.003
- Seligman (2015) champions the work of Peterson (2006) who began to explore the connection between each of the 24 character strengths and differing types of psychopathology. Peterson framed each of the 24 around excess, absence, and opposite of the strength. This model was then made more practical and consistent with “golden mean” methodology of strengths use dating back to Aristotle by describing each character strength in terms of a continuum of overuse and underuse where optimal-use lies in the center (Niemiec, 2014). The first empirical study with psychopathology was then published examining this revised framework in individuals with social anxiety disorder (Freidlin et al., 2017).
1. Seligman, M. E. P. (2015). Chris Peterson’s unfinished masterwork: The real mental illnesses. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(1), 3-6. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2014.888582
2. Peterson, C. (2006). The values in action (VIA) classification of strengths. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), A life worth living: Contributions to positive psychology (pp. 29–48). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
3. Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Boston: Hogrefe.
- Virtue theorist reviews elements of human striving and what could be viewed as different forms of character strengths overuse, including forcing, impulsivity, overthinking, and too high of standards (Snow, 2016).
Snow, N. (2016). Virtue acquisition: The paradox of striving. Journal of Moral Education, 45(2), 179-191. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03057240.2016.1181617
- Offers a practical conceptual framework for discussing and understanding the overuse of character strengths through 10 guiding principles, for example, “when a strength is overused, it is no longer a strength,” “any of the 24 character strengths can be overused,” “overuse can be managed by bringing forth other strengths,” and “despite the benefits of reframing, overuse remains a deficit-based approach because it emphasizes what is wrong” (Niemiec, 2014).
Niemiec, R. M. (2014). The overuse of strengths: 10 principles. [Review of the motion picture Divergent]. PsycCRITIQUES, 59(33). NP. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0037734
- Too much (overuse) and too little (underuse) of character strengths use can have a negative impact on well-being and other important factors (for a review, see Grant and Schwartz, 2011).
Grant, A. M., & Schwartz, B. (2011). Too much of a good thing: The challenge and opportunity of the inverted u. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 61-76.
- Support was found that managers/leaders tend to overdo their talents (not character strengths) and to a lesser degree underuse their talents (Kaiser & Overfield, 2011).
Kaiser, R. B., & Overfield, D. V. (2011). Strengths, strengths overused, and lopsided leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 63 (2), 89-109.
- Philosophical article offering insights for the science of character around the types of character, plurality of character, and the concept of unity of character (Fowers, 2008).
Fowers, B. J. (2008). From continence to virtue: Recovering goodness, character unity, and character types for positive psychology. Theory & Psychology, 18 (5), 629-653.
- In a theoretical paper, the argument is made that the VIA character strengths should not be treated independently from one another, should be cautioned from overuse, and that a “master” strength of practical wisdom is needed in order to effectively deploy strengths (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2006).
Schwartz, B., & Sharpe, K. E. (2006). Practical wisdom: Aristotle meets positive psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 377-395.
- Emphasizes the importance of all 24 strength and development and balance among the range of virtues referred to as the “unity of character” (Fowers, 2008).
Fowers, B. J. (2008). From continence to virtue: Recovering goodness, character unity, and character types for positive psychology. Theory & Psychology, 18(5), 629-653.
Updated May 2021