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Purpose and Character Development in Early Adolescence

Abstract

Character development in adolescence is of growing interest among psychology researchers and educators, yet there is little consensus about how character should be defined and studied among developmental scientists. In particular, there is no fully developed framework for investigating the developmental relationships among different character strengths. This study examines the developmental relations between purpose and three other key character strengths that emerge during early adolescence: gratitude, compassion, and grit. We analyzed survey (n = 1005, 50.1% female, 24.1% Caucasian, 43.6% African American, 18.9% Hispanic, 11.9% Asian American) and interview (n = 98) data from a longitudinal study of character development among middle school students from the United States. Data were collected over the course of 2 years, with surveys conducted four times at 6-month intervals and interviews conducted twice at 12-month intervals. Data analyses showed small but significant correlations between purpose and each of the other three character strengths under investigation. Interview data revealed patterns in ways that adolescents acted on their purposeful aspirations; and interview analyses identified qualitative differences in expressions of gratitude and compassion between adolescents who were fully purposeful and those who were not. The findings suggest that character development can be better understood by investigating the multidirectional developmental relationships among different character strengths.

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Acknowledgements

This work was conducted as part of the Character Development in Adolescence Project, a collaboration between the Stanford Center on Adolescence under the direction of William Damon, Principal Investigator, and the Duckworth Lab at University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Angela Duckworth, Principal Investigator. This project was generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Author Contributions

HM participated in conceiving and designing the study, collected, coded, and interpreted the data, and drafted the manuscript; IL participated in collecting and interpreting the data and drafting of the manuscript; WD conceived and designed the study and drafted the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Heather Malin.

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Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interest.

Ethical Approval

This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board at Stanford University and University of Pennsylvania.

Informed Consent

All eligible students and their parents received an information letter about the study and given the opportunity to decline participation by returning an opt-out form. Students who participated in the study read and agreed to an assent form prior to completing the survey and also prior to participating in the interview. Assent was obtained at each wave of data collection.

Appendix

Appendix

Prosocial Youth Purpose Scale (Malin et al. 2014, Prosocial Youth Purpose Scale, Unpublished survey; Malin et al. 2014)

  1. 1.

    Think about the things you want to accomplish in your life. From the items listed below, choose up to three that come closest to describing the goals that are most important to you.

    • Be physically strong or athletic

    • Improve the lives of others

    • Live an adventurous life

    • Serve God or a higher power

    • Provide support for my family

    • Create, invent, or discover things that will make a difference in the world

    • Live a life full of fun

    • Have a high paying career

    • Contribute to solving a problem in the environment or society

    • Have good friends

The next questions ask about some of the goals for your life that you ranked as most important. Fill in the blank with items selected above. Complete the scale separately for each item.

(5-point scale: “strongly disagree—strongly agree”)

  1. 1.

    I have a plan for how I will……………….

  2. 2.

    In my free time, I am usually doing something to ……………….

  3. 3.

    I feel that it is my mission in life to ……………….

  4. 4.

    Every week, I do things to work on my goal to ……………….

  5. 5.

    When I’m an adult, one of my most important goals will still be to ……………….

  6. 6.

    The main reason I want to ……………… is so I can be someone who makes a positive contribution to the world.

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Malin, H., Liauw, I. & Damon, W. Purpose and Character Development in Early Adolescence. J Youth Adolescence 46, 1200–1215 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-017-0642-3

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-017-0642-3

Keywords

  • Character development
  • Character strengths
  • Adolescence
  • Purpose