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Home » All, Decision-Making, Goals, Morality, Prudence

In Praise of Prudence

By on March 12, 2013 – 10:26 am  12 Comments

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:

  1. A foresighted stance toward the future, holding long-term goals and aspirations
     
  2. Ability to resist self-defeating impulses and to persist in beneficial activities, even if they lack immediate appeal (Grit anyone?)
     
  3. Reflective, deliberate, and practical thinking about life choices
     
  4. 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?
     
  5. 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?

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).

Need I say more?

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.

Viva Prudence!

 


 
References

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.


Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses

Changing a tire courtesy of chris.corwin
Prudence and civic duty courtesy of wallyg
Avenue of trees courtesy of rogiro

12 Comments »

  • Angus says:

    Viva Prudence, Viva Kathryn and Viva Zest – we need the full quiver. You raise important points here Kathryn. For my part I would put up my hand and say I think I and much of my generation failed on prudence with consequences for our grandchildren we will regret at the close of play. I wonder sometimes if we were so irresponsible with economies and ecologies because we had never experienced war and its horrors. I rather think so. Some have argued that the horrors of the 20th century wars brought a doubt in humanity’s capacity for goodness, let alone zest. Yet it remains – in music, opera and drama, we love life. Yes there must be prudence.
    Yet there must also be zest.

    As to war Pinker is salutary in setting out how violence has decreased, we are getting better. I think the same is true for care, I wish I could prove it.
    Thank you for this thoughtful piece Kathryn – and for your zest (readers, I have seen Kathryn in red).
    And there are important points here. Barbara Ehrenreich’s book (Smile or Die in the UK, Bright Sided in the US) I found a sorrowful book and could well understand why it was so. It was such a contrast to Dancing in the Streets which joyfully looked back at the loss of dance and expression, probably a loss following plagues and distress in the 14th century. Louise Milne’s Carnival and Dreams is excellent in this regard, rare book, great holiday read.

    You are right on both counts Kathryn. We need prudence and we need joy and zest. In his heart I think Gordon Brown knew this, prudence was his watchword. I don’t think he knew how to communicate it, even to himself. Do any of us?
    Best aye
    Angus

  • Nice Kathryn. As I read your article I wonder what the relationship between prudence and mindfulness is. It sounds to me like they are the same thing psychologically although perhaps prudence refers more to the action or behavior and not the mental state. Mindfulness being the mental state that begets prudent behavior.

  • Angus,
    I laughed out loud at your reference to seeing me in red. What about our shared penchant for colorful socks? I have a Van Gogh starry night pair that I’ll wear tomorrow.

    My thought when I started this article was to figure out the place of Prudence in the VIA line-up. It seemed like such a sad, shriveled up little strength until I reread the VIA chapter and the Comte-Sponville chapter. Comte-Sponville says, “Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues of antiquity and the Middle Ages.” So why does it seem so dull and out-of-date to us now? He also says, “…prudence is the disposition that makes it possible to deliberate correctly on what is good or bad for man (not in itself but in the world as it is, and not in general but in specific situations) and through such deliberation to act appropriately. It could be called good sense, but in the service of good will.”

    It’s also odd that we associate prudence with fear of risks. Comte-Sponville again, “Prudence presupposes uncertainty, risk, chance, and the unknown.” I see it in people around me making decisions that will shape their lives. What do they imagine for each of the possible pathways? I hope we can rehabilitate the word for Gordon Brown and all of us.

    Prudence plus zest? Yes!

    Kathryn

  • Jeremy,

    I wonder if the difference is the time frame: mindfulness as awareness of things as they are right now, prudence as the ability to project choices of the moment into the future? Certainly I think mindfulness in the moment serves imagination and selection in the future.

    Also perhaps there is more judgment involved in prudence?

    Kathryn

  • I wonder what the correlation is between zest and prudence. One would think that they are often not together in one’s top 5 signature strengths, yet they are definitely not opposites. Zest isn’t recklessness – it’s a joie de vivre. Can one enjoy and zestfully appreciate one’s own prudence? Perhaps! It would be a very interesting combination. I also wonder – perhaps there is domain-specific prudence? very intriguing and thought-provoking article – thanks Kathryn!

    PS. I tend to agree that there is probably more judgement involved in prudence than mindfulness – it involves risk assessment, evaluation and mitigation. Mindfulness seems to be less judgemental…

  • Kenny E. Williams says:

    Kathryn,

    I really appreciate this article, for as a dad and a guidance counselor, I believe that our culture is so saturated with the here and now, which saliently has its own place in our lives of course, that we have devastatingly devalued the tried and true notion of delayed gratification. Being in the moment and honoring flow in our lives are life enhancing, but the ability to show prudence and self regulation seems so overshadowed by the “gotta have it now” cultural zeitgeist.

    I love this quote: “The least prevalent character strengths in human beings are prudence, modesty, and self-regulation.” (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006).

    More Power to the PRUDENT and balance with the PRESENT!

    Kenny E. Williams

  • oz says:

    Kathryn – I wonder if a prudent person might answer well-being questionnaires prudently – perhaps they are way more happier and healthier than we think

    And yes viva prudence

  • Lisa,

    If you look at the VIA circumplex plot, Zest and Prudence are about as far apart as any two strengths can be — Zest in the Heart/Focus on self quadrant, Prudence in the Mind/Focus on Others quadrant.

    Thanks for your comment. I like the idea of zestfully enjoying one’s prudence!

    Kathryn

  • Kenny,
    I wonder if there is less delayed gratification now than at former times, or does it just seem that way to us in the middle of it? How could that question could be answered?

    It certainly seems that prudence is less valued now than in former times. But I wonder if that isn’t largely because the common definition of prudence has gotten so narrow and a bit dull. Perhaps we use other words nowadays for the valuable qualities of prudence.

    I like your statement about balancing the present with the future.

    Kathryn

  • Kenny E. Williams says:

    Thanks Kathryn,

    Through my own experiences (which is decisively not based on hard core research!), it feels like the technological age we are in exacerbates the “here and gotta have it now” motto: “Get the online degree in half the time…have it your way…you can have it all, and et al.” Our media – social, mainstream, print, political, financial – all influentially (manipulatively) promote what can be done for us, now.

    Your question is most salient: Are we really less prudent now than we were as a culture, for example, in the 60′s? While I may feel that, I do agree that we (I) are (am) not adept at discerning our own behaviors during our own lifetime. Maybe delayed gratification pivots to and fro on the pendulum of time.

    I do agree that prudence has not been afforded the R-E-S-P-E-C-T it deserves. Sing it Aretha…sing it!

    Kenny E. Williams

  • Oz,
    Fun point. I can certainly imagine a prudent person thinking, “Well, I can imagine being happier, so I won’t give an extreme answer on the questionnaire.”

    Kathryn

  • Kenny,
    That was exactly my point. We know what the media sings out to us, but does it really correspond to what we, as a culture at large, are doing? We don’t necessarily do what we’re told, else there’d be a lot more vegetables eaten. Does the level of prudence in a society change as demographics change? Can we compare decades? For example, baby boomers were teens in the 60′s, social security recipients now. Does the aging of that rather dominant group change the prudence “temperature” of our society? I really haven’t found much in the way of study of this feature. That’s interesting too.

    Kathryn

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