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Can you manufacture good character?

Angel and devil gadgets

What shapes our character? As traits such as confidence, responsibility and self-control become more important in individuals, the Victorian belief that good character can be manufactured is coming back into fashion, says Richard Reeves.

David Cameron has made a foray into the treacherous territory of political morality.

Against the backdrop of the impoverished east end of Glasgow, he said on Monday that politicians had to drop "moral neutrality".

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He criticised the political classes for "a refusal to make judgments about what is good and bad behaviour, right and wrong behaviour. Bad. Good. Right. Wrong."

But what makes people do the right thing rather than the wrong one? What makes us bad or good? The answer is a mixture of our genes, our parents and our peers - these are the ingredients of our character.

A scout's badges - one of the founder, Lord Baden-Powell, the other reads 'Scouting is wicked'
Character-building activities are enjoying a resurgence

Character is of course a loaded term: it sounds Victorian, judgemental - and also, if we're honest, a bit dull. But a diverse range of policy wonks, politicians and scholars are interested in what makes us who we are, on the grounds that a good society needs good people.

Lord Baden-Powell described the Scout Movement he founded as "character factory", with the explicit aim of turning out young men of the right sort. The goal, in his words, was to instil "some of the spirit of self-negation, self-discipline, sense of humour, responsibility, helpfulness to others, loyalty and patriotism which go to make 'character'."

Similarly, the first headmaster of Buckinghamshire's Stowe school, JF Roxburgh, once described his aim as producing men who would be "acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck".

Good traits

Character - and the various ways in which it could be manufactured - was an obsession of British politicians and writers for most of the 19th Century, and a good part of the 20th.

But it fell out of favour as a more egalitarian spirit was born. For socialists in particular, discussions of character were seen as a way to blame the poor for their poverty. But now those on the centre-left of politics are becoming interested in issues of character, even while strenuously avoiding the term. One reason for this is the evidence for a link between character and social mobility.

Finalists in The Apprentice. Bullet-proof confidence a must
That ring of confidence...

Julia Margo, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, draws on the latest research on the links between child development and life chances.

"Over time, poverty has become more associated with differences in character development, so while in the past a poor, deprived child would have about the same chance of developing a good character as a more affluent child, our research suggests that children who were born in the 1970s, as opposed to in the late 50s, into deprivation were much less likely to develop good character than more affluent groups."

The family is the main character factory, and Ms Margo's work shows that some families are much more effective manufacturers than others. This is of course a potential problem in its own right: but there is another reason why those on the left are worried.

Certain personal traits - in particular confidence, responsibility and self-control - are becoming more important to an individual's life chances.

Ms Margo suggests that these non-cognitive skills - or character - have become significantly more important to career chances and future earnings. So character development has become an increasingly important factor in one of the most prized progressive goals: equality of opportunity.

Nature or nurture

Some scientists believe that much of our character is fixed at birth - that it is simply one of the cards dealt to us by our DNA. And there is certainly an impressive body of research showing the influence of genes.

If you have a rather twitchy, irritable temperament and you're brought up in a harsh way, it's bad news
Stephen Scott
But it looks as if developing a good character is still more about the way we are raised, and the people we interact with.

Stephen Scott, Professor of Child Health and Behaviour at King's College London and the Institute of Psychiatry, argues that improved parenting can have a dramatic impact on the development of children's character.

"There's an interaction between your genetic predisposition, your set of genetic characters, and then how you turn out according to the way you're raised," he says.

"When it comes to that character trait of being rather anti-social, aggressive, stealing and lying, there is a big interaction that goes on. If you have a rather twitchy, irritable, poor self-control temperament and you're brought up in a harsh way, it's bad news.

"For that group, the rate of criminality aged 17 is about 40%. If you have that twitchy character but you're brought up in a reasonably calming, soothing way, your parents don't overreact, they let you run around in the park after school - these kids will do well."

gestures at David Cameron in 2007
Good or bad behaviour, David?

The person whose character we can have most influence on, except that of our children, is of course ourselves.

"It matters tremendously to keep up the endeavour of trying oneself to be a person of character and of good character. And of helping others to do that, of bringing up our children to do that," says the philosopher Anthony Grayling.

"Even if it turned out that it's a very uphill task - the uphillness being our genetic endowment - the hope and the aim of being able to do it has to be part of the human story."

Richard Reeves is a writer and commentator on economics and politics of wellbeing.


Below is a selection of your comments.

It seems to me that this virtually all comes down to the parenting - or lack thereof - of our children. There appears to be a abdication of parenting responsibilites in large parts of the population with parents being more interested in being their children's friends rather than their teachers and disciplanarians, and they expect someone else - ie schools, police, etc - to teach their children to behave decently. People need to take responsibility for their own offspring.
Ian Mangles, Saffron Walden

Be very careful about moral judgements. They're simply constructions of the mind, not objective, proven things.
Alex, Whitley Bay

Manufacturing good character... Does anyone else detect a whiff of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, or am I on my own here?
Alice, North Yorkshire

I believe that the background of your upbringing sets the stage for any further development via peers etc. A happy, stable family life will lead to a child becoming socially responsible. Poverty is not a factor. Many families are poor but retain happiness within their family. Conversely, many affluent families suffer a breakdown of that happiness which is difficult to re-establish. A lot of the factors that influence our character come from our parents, but nurture is ultimately the moulding process.
Jake Ubed, Norwich, England

Absolutely - we are all ultimately responsible for our own character. The problem is that today's society doesn't always offer us incentives to be good. Many of the celebrity role models which society look up to exhibit very poor character, and we are encouraged to take more from others than we give in return by today's "sue society".
Ben, Peterborough

I'm 25, and four years ago I stopped owning a TV. All my free time is spent in two ways. Firstly, outside - poi spinning, festivals, producing wildlife videos for YouTube, playing Frisbee... These are all skills that take a lot of time and effort to learn, and ultimately master. Time I wouldn't have if I had a TV. The effort in the beginning was almost too much, but after a few months it stopped feeling like an effort. Secondly, I learn. I read philosophy, study Web 2.0... I talk to friends about my lifestyle in comparison to theirs, and am constantly surprised by their lack of excitement in anything. I have great passion for many things and can talk for ages on many topics. Self-improvement isn't easy, but that's what makes it so worthwhile.
Georgina, Reading, UK

My younger sister and i have different genes but the same up bringing. She is more wayward, irresponsible, materialistic and bad with money than I am and expects people/jobs/life to come to her rather than working for it. I, as the older, disciplined one, am more principled, responsible, never taking any money from the parents. I therefore always wonder if we switched family positions, retaining our genes, whether we would be exactly alike in mind and character.
Lucy Stirling, Sheffield, UK

It is all nature, not nurture. You only have to look at where Alan Sugar and Paris Hilton come from respectively, and what they're doing with their lives, to see that.
Gio Bellini, Bournemouth

Yes, parents have a big impact. However, once we are adults ourselves we do not have to go with the flow and bend with peer pressure etc. We have minds of our own. I for one was born to two disabled parents, one of whom was very fiery - even more so when my only sibling died in a car accident. I left home at 16 and worked in clubs and my life was aimless. I then accepted God into my life and my character was completely changed. I am now married, with two children in a good job, reunited with my parents, and most of all have peace in my life.
Jo, Basingstoke

I cannot believe that character development is getting more connected to poverty. The Victorians talked about the criminal classes. What is happening is that in mid-20th Century, the "virtuous poor" started to have the opportunity to better themselves. I'm not sure that this is still happening.
Jo Edkins, Cambridge

Your report does not take into account the work of Judith Rich Harris in The Nurture Assumption, showing that parents have relatively little effect on the way their offspring turn out, except, of course, through the genes they pass on. According to Harris, it is your peers and how you get on with them that are the key to your later development.
Alwyn, London, England

Of course those born in the 1970s in poor areas are going to turn out worse than those born in the 50s. Single parents have become single grandmothers and some even single great grandmothers, which is bound to have an impact. A third generation population without role models or morals, what do you expect.
Kit, Shirley West Midlands

I was reading through this as follows... "Yes, yes, I agree, yes ... WAIT, What the hell?!?" The candidates for The Apprentice are being held up as a beacon of the right kind of character we need at the moment? I don't think so.
Matthew, London


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