Character strengths are an indispensable aspect of positive psychology.
They are a collection of personal abilities that buffer against mental health disorders and positively impact our overall health and wellbeing (Bromley, Johnson, & Cohen, 2006).
The concept of character strengths stems as far back as the 1920s, and research on the topic has amplified globally. Many character strengths tests and assessments, both qualitative and quantitative, have emerged to help mental health professionals evaluate individual strengths and weaknesses.
Given the growing number of such tests, it can be challenging to know which assessments are sufficiently reliable and valid.
This article will explore three of the most scientifically backed character strengths assessments to help you choose the best assessment for your psychology or coaching practice.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Strengths Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients realize your unique potential and create a life that feels energized and authentic.
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How Can We Best Measure Character Strengths?
There are two key ways we can evaluate a person’s strengths, each of which has pros and cons. One approach is to use qualitative methods, while the other is to use quantitative methods.
Qualitative approaches to strengths assessment
Qualitative approaches to understanding someone’s strengths can be carried out with the support of a coach, consultant, or therapist. Such explorations can be conducted one-on-one or in a group setting, such as within a work team.
A popular approach to conducting qualitative strengths assessments is through observation or retrospective reports from observers, such as by using the critical incident technique (Flanagan, 1954).
Flanagan (1954, p. 327) defines an incident as “any observable human activity that is sufficiently complete in itself to permit inferences and predictions to be made about the person performing the act.”
When using the critical incident technique, researchers will effectively collect ‘stories’ of incidents that can be taken to be reflective of a person’s character, or in this case, a person’s character strengths.
For instance, imagine you were reflecting on what you felt to be your best friend’s character strengths. In doing this, you might recall a time when this person dropped their plans to come to your aid on short notice, such as if a pipe burst in your home and this person came to help mop up the water in your house.
This situation involving your friend’s actions in light of the burst pipe is an example of a critical incident that you might take to indicate a character strength such as dependability or generosity.
There are several advantages to using qualitative methods, particularly the critical incident technique, to gauge a person’s character strengths (MBA Skool Team, 2020).
First, the technique allows for the identification of strengths that may only manifest in unique or heightened situations. For instance, it’s not every day that you need a friend to rush to your aid, as in the example above. However, had we only assessed this friend’s strengths based on their behavior on an average day, we may never have become aware of their dependability and generous spirit.
Another strength of qualitative approaches is that they can account for the role and perspective of the observer, as well as the context in which a strength is demonstrated.
For example, while an interview with a work acquaintance may reveal work-related behaviors that point to their colleague’s strengths, such as perseverance, the romantic partner of that colleague may observe different strengths, such as empathy. Qualitative approaches can tap into both sources’ perspectives simply by interviewing these different observers.
Finally, the critical incident approach allows for the identification of more unusual or niche character strengths that do not necessarily fit into an existing framework. Examples of such strengths may include wittiness or eye for detail. Furthermore, sometimes these initial qualitative observations can aid in the development of a quantitative measure of character strengths later down the line (Thun & Kelloway, 2011).
Despite these advantages, qualitative approaches to assessing character strengths have several downsides (MBA Skool Team, 2020).
First, observations made by others are subject to memory and recall biases (Michel, 2001). While this is also true of quantitative reports of strengths gathered from observers, the critical incident approach may exacerbate this effect.
Second, qualitative reports via the critical incident approach may be vulnerable to recency effects. That is, observations that have been made closer to the time of reporting may crowd out those that occurred further in the past.
Finally, depending on the person, situation, and context, basing an assessment of character strengths purely on critical incidents may not be an accurate reflection of that person’s strengths. For instance, the character strength of social intelligence is a strength that may manifest passively and subtly in a person’s daily interactions, rather than in heightened situations.
For a resource containing many qualitative examples of character strengths, take a look at Ryan Niemiec and Robert McGrath’s book The Power of Character Strengths: Appreciate and Ignite Your Positive Personality.
In this book, you’ll find over 50 examples of stories highlighting people’s character strengths and virtues being carried out in everyday life.
Quantitative approaches to strength assessment
However, they can sometimes involve responses to questionnaires completed by others on our behalf, such as those involved in 360-degree assessments.
As with qualitative character strengths assessments, these sorts of questionnaires based on psychometrics have a range of strengths and weaknesses.
First, quantitative character strengths-based interventions and tools are becoming increasingly convenient to administer as part of a coaching or counseling practice using digital tools.
For instance, using a platform such as Quenza, helping professionals can easily channel clients through a pathway of self-paced activities that assess and explore character strengths using standardized questionnaires or exercises.
Second, standardized measures of strengths and weaknesses tend to yield more accurate and objective assessments of character strengths than qualitative assessments.
As we’ve seen, qualitative assessments can be biased by recall, recency effects, context, and the perspective of the person providing the assessment. In contrast, quantitative assessments tend to produce results that exhibit test–retest reliability (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). That is, a person taking the same test at a later point in time will tend to get a similar result.
However, like qualitative assessments, quantitative assessments of character strengths have downsides, too.
First, quantitative assessments may be vulnerable to socially desirable responding. For example, Osin (2009) found that various character strengths in Peterson and Seligman’s (2004) Values in Action model correlate significantly with indicators of socially desirable responding, such as the strengths of honesty, modesty, and forgiveness.
Therefore, it is important to be wary of using these sorts of questionnaires in contexts where people are motivated to respond in a way that makes them appear favorable, such as in selection and hiring scenarios.
Organizations should be especially careful to confirm that there are, indeed, links between particular strengths and desirable work behaviors/performance before incorporating such tests in any sort of selection or evaluation process.
Second, quantitative indicators of character strengths tend to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach and are, therefore, limited to the lists of strengths, domains, or factors included in the assessment.
Consequently, these assessments may fail to capture more niche or unusual strengths.
Finally, it can be challenging to choose an appropriate scale with adequate scientific backing (although this post should help with this!), and some scales require certification to be administered properly.
Ultimately, as a practitioner, the best approach you can take to assess strengths will probably involve a combination of qualitative, face-to-face discussion, and quantitative psychometrics. However, given the accessibility and ease with which such psychometrics can be administered, there is little reason not to incorporate them into your strengths-based coaching practice.
Next, we’ll take a closer look at three character strengths assessments that have exhibited robust evidence of reliability and validity throughout research and are widely used in practice.
The Values in Action (VIA) Character Strengths Survey
If you’re looking for the leading assessment on character strengths, look no further than the VIA Character Strengths Survey, designed by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman (2004).
In their research, Peterson and Seligman view character strengths as “specific psychological processes that define broader virtues, which are core characteristics that have been identified and valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers throughout time” (Shogren, Singh, Niemiec, & Wehmeyer, 2017).
This 15-minute assessment measures 24 such character strengths, which fall under six overarching categories:
VIA Character Strengths Assessment
|Wisdom and knowledge|
4. Love of learning
|1. The ability to develop something unique and original.
2. Inquisitiveness and interest to know.
3. The power of rationalization and critical thinking.
4. The affinity to participate in new activities to adapt to something new.
5. Wisdom and perception to see the world as others see it.
|1. Courage, valor, fearlessness.
2. Persistence and the power to hang on during times of distress.
3. Genuineness, truthfulness, and authenticity.
4. The energy to live life fully and face challenges with grit and positivity.
3. Social intelligence
|1. The power to feel and show affection to others and develop long-lasting relationships.
2. Mercifulness and empathy.
3. The ability to communicate effectively and form strong social bonds.
|1. The motivation to work as part of a team and strive to achieve group goals.
2. The virtue of treating everyone equally and making unbiased judgments.
3. The capacity to be the face of a team, supervise effectively, and empower others.
|1. The ability to accept others’ shortcomings.
2. Modesty and a humble nature.
3. Rational thinking and the power to interpret things logically.
4. Control over oneself and command over self-expression.
|1. Praising the self and surroundings.
2. Feeling and expressing thankfulness, including for the small things in life.
3. Positive, future-oriented feelings and optimism.
4. The ability to approach life with a playful, light attitude.
5. Religious faithfulness and commitment.
The VIA assessment consists of a total of 240 positively keyed questions. Examples of items include “I experience deep emotions when I see beautiful things” and “I always treat people fairly whether I like them or not.”
All items are presented on five-point scales, where 1 is ‘very much like me,’ and 5 is ‘very much unlike me.’
You can complete the full VIA assessment for free at the VIA Institute on Character’s website.
Reliability and validity
This strengths classification scheme and assessment marks the culmination of a three-year research project led by Peterson and Seligman (2004) involving 55 social scientists from around the world (VIA Institute on Character, n.d.).
All 24 subscales have exhibited satisfactory internal consistency. This means that the items assessing each strength appear to effectively contribute to the measurement of that strength.
Likewise, test–retest correlations for the scale over a four-month period are substantial, suggesting that the questionnaire tends to produce consistent scores for the same individual across time.
The test also exhibits convergent validity with a range of demographics. For instance, military personnel taking the test were significantly more likely than civilians to return high scores on the strengths of honesty, hope, perseverance, and teamwork.
Despite these positive findings, one study revealed that the 24 character strengths did not produce a factor structure consistent with the six higher order factors proposed by Peterson and Seligman (Macdonald, Bore, & Munro, 2008), suggesting potential issues with the conceptual theory underlying the assessment.
However, despite these findings regarding factor structure, the VIA appears to be an effective and psychometrically valid tool that is likely to find a home in any positive psychologist’s toolkit.
The DiSC Personal Assessment Tool
Another science-backed strength assessment that is widely used in business settings is the DiSC personal assessment tool.
The DiSC model was first put forward by Dr. William Marston in his 1928 book Emotions of Normal People. Industrial-organizational psychologists later adapted Marston’s work as the basis for an employee selection tool.
The word ‘DiSC’ is an acronym used to represent the four behavioral profiles measured by the assessment, which are represented by a circumplex (DiSC Profile, n.d.):
- Dominance (D) measures a direct, dominant disposition using adjectives like ‘strong-willed.’
- Influence (i) measures an interactive, influencing disposition using adjectives such as ‘lively.’
- Steadiness (S) measures an accommodating, steady disposition using adjectives like ‘patient.’
- Conscientiousness (C) measures a private, conscientious disposition using adjectives like ‘analytical.’
In addition to these four profiles, there are four profiles that combine the letters above with their neighboring profiles on the circumplex (DiSC Profile, n.d.):
- Di/iD measures an active, fast-paced disposition using adjectives like ‘dynamic.’
- iS/Si measures an agreeable, warm disposition using adjectives like ‘cheerful.’
- SC/CS measures a moderate-paced, cautious disposition using adjectives like ‘self-controlled.’
- CD/DC measures a questioning, skeptical disposition using adjectives like ‘cautious.’
Example items from the assessment are as follows:
- I am bold.
- Accuracy is a priority for me.
- I can be pretty forceful with my opinions.
- People think of me as a really good listener.
- I love meeting new people.
The DiSC assessment consists of approximately 80 items, and all items are presented on five-point scales, where 1 is ‘strongly disagree,’ and 5 is ‘strongly agree.’
It should be noted that the classic DiSC assessment is just one of several comprehensive assessments employing the DiSC circumplex model. If your focus is in business or leadership coaching, you may find value in one of DiSC’s variations, which focus on themes like productive conflict and sales.
If you are interested in trying out a version of the DiSC profile assessment yourself, you can complete a free version of the test at the Open-Source Psychometrics Project’s website.
Reliability and validity
There is substantial evidence supporting the DiSC profile assessment, provided you obtain a version of the assessment from a reputable distributor.
In terms of reliability, studies of the assessment from the distributor Everything DiSC (2013) have shown that the test exhibits strong test–retest reliability. Likewise, the scale exhibits strong internal consistency, suggesting the scales’ items are successfully measuring a single, unified construct.
Regarding validity, adjacent profiles on the circumplex (e.g., Dominance and Influence) should exhibit moderate to strong positive correlations. In contrast, profiles on opposite sides of the circumplex (e.g., Influence and Conscientiousness) should exhibit negative or non-significant correlations.
These patterns of correlations were confirmed in a 2013 report on the tool (Everything DiSC, 2013), evidencing the assessment’s reliability.
If you are looking to employ DiSC profile assessments as a tool in your coaching practice, ensure that you obtain a license from a reputable distributor as there are many variations, not all of which are scientifically validated.
To be sure, we recommended obtaining a license from Wiley’s official DiSC Profile website.
The CliftonStrengths Assessment
Developed in 2001 by educational psychologist Donald Clifton, the CliftonStrengths Assessment aims to help individuals maximize their potential by discovering their talents and strengths.
Like the DiSC profile assessment, this tool is widely used in corporate settings.
The CliftonStrengths Assessment helps individuals and leaders identify and better utilize strengths by assessing 34 different strength themes, each of which belongs to one of four overarching domains:
|Analytical||The ability to search for and synthesize reasons and causes that might affect a situation.|
|Context||Talent at understanding present-moment circumstances by reflecting on the past.|
|Futuristic||Talent at energizing others with inspiring visions of what the future might look like.|
|Ideation||Fascination with themes and ideas and the ability to connect seemingly disparate phenomena.|
|Input||Skill at accumulating and organizing information, ideas, artifacts, and even relationships.|
|Intellection||Talent for introspection and appreciation for thinking and intellectual discussions.|
|Learner||A strong desire to learn and continuously improve with an appreciation for the process of learning.|
|Strategic||Talent at identifying problems and issues and finding alternative ways to proceed.|
|Adaptability||The ability to ‘roll with the punches’ and discover the future one day at a time.|
|Connectedness||The ability to find meaning in all events and maintain faith that nothing is a coincidence.|
|Developer||The ability to recognize and cultivate the potential and talent of others.|
|Empathy||Talent at sensing others’ feelings and taking others’ perspectives.|
|Harmony||Talent at building consensus and agreement in an effort to minimize conflict.|
|Includer||Effective at accepting everyone the way they are, ensuring everyone feels included.|
|Individualization||Talent at identifying the unique qualities of each person and identifying how these can be leveraged effectively in a group.|
|Positivity||The ability to get others excited about a pursuit through positive emotional contagion.|
|Relator||The ability to derive deep enjoyment from close relationships and collaboration with friends.|
|Activator||Talent at swiftly turning plans into actions.|
|Command||Talent at taking control of a situation and making decisions.|
|Communication||Talented at putting thoughts into words through conversations and presentations.|
|Competition||The ability to measure one’s progress against that of others and strive to outperform the competition.|
|Maximizer||Skill at stimulating personal and group excellence, elevating projects from good to great.|
|Self-assurance||The ability to manage one’s own life with a strong inner compass that facilitates confident decision-making.|
|Significant||Talent at prioritizing for big impact in the hope of substantially influencing groups and individuals.|
|Woo||Talent at breaking the ice, making connections, and winning over new people.|
|Achiever||Skill and stamina at working hard to achieve goals; takes satisfaction in being busy and productive.|
|Arranger||Talent at organizing resources for maximum productivity.|
|Belief||Effective at remaining true to one’s core values, which define an unchanging sense of purpose in one’s life.|
|Consistency||Talent at ensuring fairness through clear rules, procedures, and routines that all can follow.|
|Deliberative||Skilled at careful decision-making and anticipation of obstacles throughout goal pursuit.|
|Discipline||Skilled at creating and thriving within routine and orderly structures/systems.|
|Focus||Skilled at setting a direction, following through, and staying on track.|
|Responsibility||Commitment to being dependable and taking psychological ownership for what one says they will do.|
|Restorative||Talent at identifying and resolving problems.|
The CliftonStrengths Assessment comprises 177 paired statements, each of which the participant has 20 seconds to respond to.
For example, one scale may feature the statement “Starting conversations is an effort for me” on one end and “I get a rush from striking up a conversation with a stranger” on the other.
The participant then provides a response on a five-point scale, indicating which statement describes them best and to what extent. A response of 3 would indicate that neither statement was characteristic of the respondent or that both statements described the person equally.
At the end of the assessment, participants will immediately be shown their top-five signature themes.
To learn more about the CliftonStrengths Assessment, take a look at Gallup’s official website.
Reliability and validity
In terms of reliability, the CliftonStrengths Assessment exhibits middling internal consistency, but this is, in part, due to the large number of strengths incorporated in the assessment (Asplund, Agrawal, Hodges, Harter, & Lopez, 2014).
The 34 themes within the assessment have been shown to exhibit fairly consistent test–retest reliability over one-month, three-month, and six-month time intervals, with only a few themes showing notable changes across the longest retest period (Asplund et al., 2014).
Likewise, Chi-square testing revealed that it was significantly likely that a theme appearing in a respondent’s top-five during an initial test would appear in that same respondent’s top-five in a post-test for 33 out of 34 themes.
Regarding validity, there is substantial evidence in support of the CliftonStrengths Assessment. Results from hierarchical cluster analysis provided evidence for the measure’s construct validity, revealing that items tended to cluster within their themes in expected ways (Asplund et al., 2014).
Likewise, the themes within the assessment have been shown to correlate significantly with conceptually related phenomena. For instance, the themes of Achiever, Discipline, Focus, and Responsibility are significantly correlated with the Conscientiousness subscale of the Big-Five model of personality (Asplund et al., 2014).
Taken together, these findings lend support to the reliability and validity of the CliftonStrengths Assessment.
Understanding the 34 themes of cliftonstrengths
Additional Resources for Exploring Your Strengths
We hope we’ve helped narrow your search for the perfect character strengths assessment. In addition to our breakdown above, you may find value in exploring some of the following additional resources.
- The Sailboat Metaphor
Once we understand our strengths, we can begin to understand how they factor into our broader lives and external environment. The Sailboat Metaphor, part of the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, is a great tool to help explore how our sails (strengths) can be leveraged to help us reach our desired destination.
- 12 Character Strength Examples, Interventions, and Worksheets
For 12 more character strength examples and useful tools to help your clients discover and leverage their strengths, take a look at our dedicated article by Courtney Ackerman.
- 10 Best TED Talks on VIA Character Strengths and Virtues
If you’d like to dig even further into the VIA model of character strengths, take a look at our post by Elaine Houston with links to the 10 best TED Talks on VIA strengths.
- 17 Strengths-Finding Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop their strengths, check out this collection of 17 strengths-finding tools for practitioners. Use them to help others better understand and harness their strengths in life-enhancing ways.
A Take-Home Message
When we take the time to explore our strengths, we enhance our capacity to steer our lives and achieve our goals. Likewise, we become better able to contribute to a thriving team.
Strengths-based approaches are at the foundation of positive psychology. Therefore, as a coach, psychologist, or other helping professional working within a positive psychology paradigm, it’s often helpful to have a strengths assessment in your toolkit, ready to administer with clients.
We hope that our breakdown of the science behind three of the world’s leading assessment tools has helped simplify your decision about which to adopt in your practice.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Strengths Exercises for free.
- Asplund, J., Agrawal, S., Hodges, T., Harter, J., & Lopez, S. J. (2014). The Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 technical report: Development and validation. Gallup.
- Bromley, E., Johnson, J. G., & Cohen, P. (2006). Personality strengths in adolescence and decreased risk of developing mental health problems in early adulthood. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 47(4), 315–324.
- DiSC Profile. (n.d.). Science behind DiSC. Retrieved from https://www.discprofile.com/what-is-disc/research-reliability-and-validity.
- Everything DiSC. (2013). Research report for adaptive testing assessment. Retrieved from https://www.discprofile.com/CMS/media/doc/ed/research/research-report.pdf
- Flanagan, J. C. (1954). The critical incident technique. Psychological Bulletin, 51(4), 327–358.
- Macdonald, C., Bore, M., & Munro, D. (2008). Values in Action scale and the Big 5: An empirical indication of structure. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(4), 787–799.
- Marston, W. M. (1928). Emotions of normal people. Routledge.
- MBA Skool Team. (2020, May 15). Critical incident method. MBASkool.com. Retrieved from https://www.mbaskool.com/business-concepts/human-resources-hr-terms/15250-critical-incident-method.html#
- Michel, S. (2001). Analyzing service failures and recoveries: A process approach. International Journal of Service Industry Management, 12(1), 20–33.
- Osin, P. (2009). Social desirability in positive psychology: Bias or desirable sociality? T. Freire (Ed.). Understanding positive life research and practice on positive psychology (pp. 407–428). Climepsi.
- Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (vol. 1). Oxford University Press.
- Shogren, K. A., Singh, N., Niemiec, R., & Wehmeyer, M. L. (2017). Character strengths and mindfulness. Oxford Handbooks Online. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935291.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199935291-e-77
- Thun, B., & Kelloway, E. K. (2011). Virtuous leaders: Assessing character strengths in the workplace. Canadian Journal of Administrative Sciences/Revue Canadienne des Sciences de l’Administration, 28(3), 270–283.
- VIA Institute on Character. (n.d.). VIA-IS published reliability and validity data. Retrieved from https://www.viacharacter.org/researchers/assessments/via-is