Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning (Theano Coaching LLC). She teaches positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. She recently published a book,Smarts and Stamina, on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits. Her blog is Positive Psychology Reflections. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
During an energy crisis many years ago, when we were all worried about gas supplies and tired of waiting in lines at the gas pumps, I read an article in my company’s newsletter about ways to save fuel. One suggestion was to take the spare tire out of the trunk of the car. The author argued that you almost never need it, and the weight it adds to the automobile increases gas consumption for every use.Needless to day, I didn’t rush out to take the spare tire out of my car. True, I’d been lucky enough never to need it yet, but I could imagine finding myself by the side of the road with a flat tire. I could imagine how sorry I’d be if there weren’t a spare available. I was willing to pay a small price with every car trip to be prepared for the one that went wrong. This is the same thinking that prompts me to pay high premiums for health insurance while still entertaining the strong hope that we won’t need to use it.
That ability to project forward, to imagine possible outcomes, and to make sensible judgments, is a quality of the character strength, Prudence, Caution, and Discretion.
An Underappreciated Strength
Imagine for a moment a group of people that has taken the VIA assessment of character strengths and then gathered to share top strengths. Most will speak up gladly and confidently about “Social Intelligence,” “Curiosity,” “Courage,” “Creativity,” “Spirituality,” and so on. But for those whose top strength is “Humility” or “Prudence,” what would you expect?
Years ago, I read a report by Tracy Steen and colleagues about focus groups they conducted with high school students to explore their understanding of the VIA strengths. Generally speaking, adolescents understood them quite well, but I remember they had a tendency to confuse Humility with humiliation and Prudence with prudes. According the authors, “It seems that for most students, caution/prudence is a stuffy trait associated with timidity and lack of adventurousness.” Maybe adults are a little more discrimating with language, but still people seem a bit disappointed to find prudence on the top of their lists. Is this because people nowadays tend to glorify risk-taking? Is it because they don’t fully appreciate the value of prudence to a well-lived life?What Does Prudence Entail?
Psychologist Vincent Jeffries defines prudence as, “the use of reason to correctly discern that which helps and that which hinders realizing the good.” Think about all that entails: being able to project today’s actions into the future, to imagine the possible outcomes, and to form judgments about alternatives. I expect a person with the character strength prudence must have a high tolerance for ambiguity, needing to deal with incomplete and often conflicting information in order to make judgments.
As the expert contributor to the Prudence chapter in Character Strengths and Virtues, Nick Haslam identifies the following qualities of prudence:
- A foresighted stance toward the future, holding long-term goals and aspirations
- Ability to resist self-defeating impulses and to persist in beneficial activities, even if they lack immediate appeal (Grit anyone?)
- Reflective, deliberate, and practical thinking about life choices
- Ability to harmonize multiple goals into a “stable, coherent, and unconflicted form of life”
Imagine getting a job offer in a distant city. The job is very exciting, but it requires you to move your family. Your spouse already has a good job and isn’t eager to change. Your children don’t want to change schools. The new job will be closer to your spouse’s family but further from your family. How do you harmonize your goals of career advancement and family well-being?
- Ability to seek personal good without being collectively destructive
In fact, in a 1991 article, Haslam associated prudence with “the proper turf of an ethical psychology.”
So prudence is much more than carrying a spare tire in the car. It involves imagining the future. It involves creating, assessing, and harmonizing multiple goals. It may involve making hard choices.Prudence at Work
Prudence involves the ability to picture the future. For many, this may mean being able to picture a better future and to plan actions that bring that future about. The paragon of prudence in the book Character Strengths and Virtues is Fred Soper, a pioneer epidemiologist working toward a world without all the human suffering that comes from malaria. So prudence does not have to involve playing it safe or settling for small goals.
Prudence involves practical judgment, not Panglossian optimism. Soper’s plans were pragmatic, based on observation and fieldwork, and addressing the threat of malaria from multiple viewpoints. He didn’t try to solve it in just one way. So he probably set multiple goals and had to bring them together in his one life.
In her book, Creating Your Best Life, Caroline Miller argues that effective goals are non-conflicting and leveraged. By this she means that you can work on one goal without undermining other goals, and that working on one goal can move other goals forward. This is prudence in action.
Why Talk about Prudence?
Need I say more?
What does prudence do?
“Persistence, honesty, prudence, and love were substantially related to fewer externalizing problems such as aggression.” (Park & Peterson, 2008)
Who has prudence?
“The least prevalent character strengths in human beings are prudence, modesty, and self-regulation.” (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006)
What can be done to increase prudence in the world?
“Merely naming a strength in another person can amplify it.” (Peterson & Seligman, 2001).
Though of course I will.
Imagine a world where people think about the long-term implications of their actions. Imagine more people thinking about their carbon footprints when they make major life decisions, such as where to live and work, or everyday decisions such as where to shop and play. Imagine them thinking about the world their grandchildren will experience every time they turn on the faucet to brush their teeth.
There’s a saying, French I believe, that only a family will plant an oak avenue because it takes so long for it to grow, one has to be able to think of one’s grandchildren enjoying it. Certainly there’s a lot of short-term optimization going on today, with companies that look only at next quarter’s profits, with politicians that focus on short-term gains. But perhaps if we spoke with admiration for the long-term thinking of prudence, we’d see people taking actions that benefit the entire family of life.
Comte-Sponville, A. (1996). A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Emmons, R. A. (2004). Personal goals, life meaning, and virtue: Wellsprings of a positive life. In C. Keyes & J. Haidt, Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived. In C. L. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, (pp. 105-128). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Gladwell, M. (2001). The mosquito killer. New Yorker. “Millions of people owe their lives to Fred Soper. Why isn’t he a hero?”
Haslam, N. (1991). Prudence: Aristotelian perspectives on practical reason. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 21, 151-169.
Jeffries, V. (1998). Virtue and the altruistic personality. Sociological Perspectives, 41, 151-167. Preview.
Miller, C. A. & Frisch, M. B. (2009), Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide. New York: Sterling.
Atterstam, T., Britton, K., Judge, E. & Ufberg, M. (2006). Bringing Positive Psychology to the Footlights After School Center. Service Learning Project, Masters of Applied Positive Psychology Program.
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2008). Positive psychology and character strengths: Application to strengths-based school counseling. Professional School Counseling, 12(2), 85-92.
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(3), 118-129.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2001). How can we allow character to matter?. Essay for Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship.
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Steen, T.A, Kachorek, L.V. & Peterson, C. (2003). Character strengths among youth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 32(1), 5-16.