Personal development: Managing self and relationships

It’s more fun to work on strengths than weaknesses (but it may not be better for you)

Buckingham and Clifton (2001) argue that companies and individual employees should focus on building on their strengths, rather than correcting their weaknesses. They suggest that attempting to correct weaknesses is often futile and dispiriting, while working on strengths typically leads to positive emotions which help maintain one’s efforts.
These arguments make sense in theory, but are they empirically correct? To test this hypothesis we (a psychology 101 class) undertook the following experiment. First, almost all students in the class (N=320) took the VIA inventory of strengths to identify each person’s top strengths, as well as each person’s lowest scoring strengths (hereafter called “weaknesses†). Next, the class was divided in half by day of the month on which one’s birthday fell. Students in the “strengths-first†group were asked to perform an activity that employed or built on one of their strengths, every day, for two weeks. Students in the “weakness-first†group were asked to perform an activity that employed or built on one of their weaknesses. Each student picked a strength or weakness from a list of 120 suggested activities that had been previously drawn up by a team of students in the class (see appendix). Students were free to make up their own activities, but the great majority picked a listed activity. After two weeks, everyone switched activities so that those in the strengths-first condition now picked a weakness to work on for the next two weeks, while those in the weakness-first condition picked a strength to work on for the next two weeks.
At each of the three important times in the study participants were asked to fill out a web survey to assess how their lives and moods were going. Time 1 was just before starting the first activity. Time 2 was the switching point, after two weeks, and Time 3 was the end of the study, after working on the second activity. The three assessments included identical sets of dependent variables, including: Self Esteem (Rosenberg’s 10 item self esteem scale); Frequency of Good and Bad events (a self report of the number of times that various things happened in the week before the assessment); Health Problems (assessed both by symptom checklist and by ratings of the number of days with health problems), and an overall assessment of subjective well being (SWB), on a 9 point scale. Most of the dependent variables were assessed on a website that we created for the class. This website then sent participants on to a website run by Michael Hagerty at U.C. Davis that assessed the health and SWB measures. This second website is part of a larger project evaluating the effects of positive psychology interventions.
The principle hypotheses were 1) that working on a strength would have beneficial effects on most of the dependent variables (compared to baseline assessment), and 2) that working on a strength would be more beneficial effects than working on a weakness. We had no prediction as to whether working on a weakness would lead to a decrease or just to a smaller increase on the main dependent variables. The whole class was kept blind to these predictions, which were not revealed until after the study was over.

Participants and Analytical Strategy:
Participants were 289 students at the University of Virginia who completed the first assessment (47% male). However because of the difficulty of matching up data from two websites for each of three sessions based on a private 5-digit identification number that each student typed in each time, some data was lost as the study went on. Only 218 students completed both the first and the second assessments, and only 192 students completed all three assessments. Many more students did one or two phases of the study and some others even completed all three assessments, but because students often forgot or mistyped their identification code, many entries could not be matched up across assessments.
Because of this difficulty the main analytical strategy followed here is to focus on changes from the first to the second assessment. This strategy preserves a higher N (218), and it also simplifies the interpretation of results, since it reduces the original “cross-over†design into a straight across-subjects experiment where half worked on a strength and half worked on a weakness.
In all cases the analysis the analyses focus on 10 dependent variables:

1) Enjoyment. Participants were asked to rate at T2 and T3 how much they enjoyed doing their daily activity. [5 point scale, from disliked it strongly to enjoyed it strongly]
2) Self-Esteem. Participants were given the Rosenberg Self Esteem scale at T1, T2, and T3.
3) PosEvents: sum of frequency of 7 positive events in last week (feeling flow, excited by something in class, helped someone, felt love in a conversation, someone confided in me, initiated a conversation with someone I wanted to meet, and went somewhere new out of curiosity). Each rated on a 5 point scale from “didn’t happen†to “more than 7 times in the last weekâ€
4) NegEvents: sum of frequency of 3 negative events (I lost my temper at someone, I lost my temper at some frustrating thing, I turned down an invitation to do something social).
5) HealthProbs. Number out of 14 possible health problems experienced during past month. [Note: ideally this would have asked about the past week, but this question was part of the already existing web site]
6) OverallHealth. A rating of one’s overall health, on a 5 point scale, 1=excellent, 5=poor.
7) BadPhysdays. Estimate of days out of the past 30 when one’s physical health was bad
8) BadMentalDays. Estimate of days out of the past 30 when one’s mental health was not good
9) FeelingScale: score out of 10 of feelings one might have felt in “the past few weeks†.
10) SWB. Subjective well being, assessed by the question: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole now?â€

Question #1: Did the strengths and weaknesses groups differ?
To answer this question, we examined the 218 students who completed both of the first two assessments. We further restricted the sample to the 206 students who said that they took the study at least somewhat seriously (answered 3, 4, or 5 on a 5 point scale where 3 = “I did my activity 3-6 times in the past 2 weeks and 5 = “I did my activity every day†).
The tables below focus on change scores. In all cases change scores are presented such that positive numbers show improvement and negative numbers show that things got worse.

Table 1. Change scores on 10 main Dependent Variables, by Strength group.

Strength Weakness Difference
N= 108 98
1) Enjoyment [Raw Score, on 5 pt scale] 4.31 3.73 p<.001
2) Self-esteem change [on 5 pt scale] .12 ** .06 n.s.
3) PosEvents change [7 events listed] -.36 .20 n.s.
4) NegEvents change [3 events listed] .34 * .41 * n.s.
5) HealthProbs change [out of 14] 1.60 ** 1.03 ** n.s.
6) OverallHealth change [5 pt scale .02 -.10 n.s.
7) BadPhysDays change [out of last 30] .91 * .89 * n.s.
8) BadMentalDays change [out of last 30] 1.31 * 1.15 * n.s.
9) FeelingScale change [out of 10 items] .17 .41 * n.s.
10) SWB change [on 9 point scale] -.03 -.11 * n.s.
Note. * indicates that the change is significantly different from 0 at p<.05, or **p<.01. The right-hand column shows statistical tests of differences between the columns.
Conclusion #1: Participants working on their strengths enjoyed their activities significantly more than did those working on a weakness. However, contrary to the predictions of Buckingham and Clifton, there were no significant differences between the two groups. There is also no sign of a trend towards the strengths group. Out of the 10 change scores, 6 were slightly higher (better) in the strengths condition, and four were slightly higher (better) in the weakness condition.
It is interesting to note, however, that most of the numbers in Table 1 are positive, and many of them are significantly different from 0. Whether participants worked on strengths or on weaknesses, most of the variables we measured showed some slight improvement. This leads us to Question #2.
Question #2: Were improvements related to level of participation in the study?
We did not have a “no activity†control group, so we cannot be certain that the improvements shown in both groups in Table 1 were due to taking part in the study (as opposed to, for example, taking the second assessment on a nicer day, or in a less stressful week of the semester.) However we can examine whether improvements on the dependent variables showed a “dose-response†effect. That is, did people who did the activities more faithfully show more improvement than those who only did their activities a few times during the two weeks? For this analysis I ignored strength/weakness group and just divided the class by their responses to the question about how seriously they took the study.

Table 2. Change scores on 10 main Dependent Variables, by degree of participation
Less Serious More Serious Difference
N= 76 152
1) Enjoyment [Raw Score, on 5 pt scale] 3.63 4.22 p<.001
2) Self-esteem change [on 5 pt scale] .03 .10 n.s.
3) PosEvents change [7 events listed] .31 -.29 n.s.
4) NegEvents change [3 events listed] .34 * .40 ** n.s.
5) HealthProbs change [out of 14] 1.05 ** 1.29 ** n.s.
6) OverallHealth change [5 pt scale -.05 0.0 n.s.
7) BadPhysDays change [out of last 30] 1.42 * .81 * n.s.
8) BadMentalDays change [out of last 30] .82 1.50 ** n.s.
9) FeelingScale change [out of 10 items] .53 ** .16 n.s.
10) SWB change [on 9 point scale] -.15 * -.04 n.s.
Note. * indicates that the change is significantly different from 0 at p<.05, or **p<.01. The right-hand column shows statistical tests of differences between the columns.
Conclusion #2:
Those who took the study more seriously (i.e., did their activities on “most days†or “every day†) enjoyed doing their activities more than did the less serious group (who did their activities on “one or two†days, or else on “three to six†days). However there was no significant difference in outcomes for the two groups. This finding suggests either that 1) doing daily activities does not affect the outcome variables under study, and the improvements found in Table 1 were due to other causes, or else 2) thinking about strengths and weaknesses and doing an activity even occasionally is sufficient to produce small benefits, on average.

Question #3: What about a longer time frame? What happened at T3?
I repeated the analysis reported in Table 2 using change scores from T1 to T3, for the full four week period. I split the sample by those who answered 3 or less on both post-activity assessments versus those who answered 4 or 5 on both.

Table 3. Change scores on 10 main Dependent Variables at T3, by degree of participation

Less Serious More Serious Difference
N= 39 91
1) Enjoyment [Raw Score, on 5 pt scale] 3.82 4.12 n.s.
2) Self-esteem change [on 5 pt scale] .15 ** .10 n.s.
3) PosEvents change [7 events listed] -.03 -.22 n.s.
4) NegEvents change [3 events listed] .08 .34 n.s.
5) HealthProbs change [out of 14] 2.06 ** 1.16 ** n.s.
6) OverallHealth change [5 pt scale .09 .14 n.s.
7) BadPhysDays change [out of last 30] 1.52 -.09 n.s.
8) BadMentalDays change [out of last 30] 1.44 ** 1.90 ** n.s.
9) FeelingScale change [out of 10 items] 0.0 .29 n.s.
10) SWB change [on 9 point scale] -.25 -.13 * n.s.
Note. * indicates that the change is significantly different from 0 at p<.05, or **p<.01. The right-hand column shows statistical tests of differences between the columns.

Conclusion #3
This analysis yielded basically the same picture as before. Most numbers were positive, but there were no significant differences between the two levels of seriousness, and no consistent trends. It appears that even after four weeks of doing daily activities, there is no sign that those who took the task more seriously were doing better than those who took the task less seriously.
As a final test of hypothesis #2 I limited the analysis to the 91 people shown in the middle column of Table 3 (our very best participants, who took the study very seriously for all four weeks) and looked for significant differences in change scores at T3 as a function of group (strengths-first vs. weakness first). None were found.

Question #4: What did participants THINK they got out of this study?
The entire class was asked to write a paper at the conclusion of the study. They were asked to “talk about whether or not you noticed any changes in the way you acted or felt over the course of the four weeks. Were there any differences between working on a strength versus a weakness?†The papers indicated that most participants enjoyed taking part in the study, particularly working on their strengths. Many of the papers were inspiring to read: participants adopted new good habits or dropped old bad ones; participants went around doing good things for other people, or broadening their own minds or social circles. It seemed that many participants had issues they had already wanted to work on, and this project provided an extra push to motivate personal changes.
When participants directly stated which half of the study made the most difference to them they usually said it was working on strengths rather than weaknesses. However a number of participants stated that working on weaknesses helped them more than strengths.

Overall Conclusion
This analysis found clear evidence that people enjoy working on their strengths more than their weaknesses. For the strengths-first group, 38% said that they “enjoyed it strongly†at T2 and 0% said they “disliked it strongly†. For the weakness-first group the corresponding numbers were 15% and 1%. However the specific hypothesis that working on a strength would measurably improve one’s life was only very weakly supported. It is true that several of the variables showed significant improvement from T1 to T2, but since this improvement was not related to level of participation in the study, it is possible that participants would have shown the same slight improvement if they had not participated in the study.
Furthermore, the most important and interesting hypothesis – that it is better to work on a strength than a weakness – received no support. This does not mean that the hypothesis is false. It could be that our manipulation (doing an activity every day) was not strong enough, or that our measurement methods (self-report questions about health, self-esteem, activities, etc.) was not sensitive enough. Future research will be needed to fairly test Buckingham and Clifton’s provocative hypothesis that it is better for individuals (as opposed to corporations) to focus on strengths than on weaknesses.

Future Directions
Because participants seemed to get a lot out of this study, and because Buckingham and Clifton’s hypothesis is so interesting, we will do a similar study next year. However we will make several improvements:
–We may use a three-group design: strength, weakness, and no-activity (control). I had not included a no-activity group this year because I wanted everyone in the class to benefit equally from working on a strength.
–We will run the study for 4-6 weeks, to allow more time for habits to develop and changes to show themselves.
–We will use only one website, avoiding the difficulty of linking two different sites
–We will improve the list of suggested activities, removing those that lead to trivial daily activities.
[If you have additional ideas for improvements, please email them to [email protected]]

Reference: Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D. O. (2001). Now, discover your strengths. New York: Free Press.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to the team of volunteers who created the list of suggested activities and helped design the assessment questionnaire: Chris Kelly, Ashley Nuckols, Celine Clark, Alex Edwards, Claire Stevenson, Jake Hostetter, Ben Brown, Andrew Dorin, Dan Noonan, Breanna DiGiamnarino, Emily Lorand, and Roman Tceltygmachev.

Appendix: list of suggested activities

Psychology 101 Strengths/Weaknesses Project: Suggested Daily Activities (3/19/02)
Below is a list of suggested activities for each of the 24 strengths/virtues. Some activities appear under several strengths (e.g., curiosity overlaps with love of learning). You may want to read over the whole list, since something under one strength may be appropriate, or easily adapted, for the one you want to work on. It is best to pick ONE activity and stick with it for the two weeks, but if that activity is not working, it’s OK to switch to something else. Some of these activities will only work as a strength, others only as a weakness, but you may be able to modify them to suit your needs.
1. Curiosity and Interest in the World
a. Ask question in class
b. Discover new places
c. Explore the stacks in the library; browse widely, or pick an interesting looking book each day, and spend 20 minutes skimming it.
d. Eat something new that you never otherwise would have tried
e. Go to a meeting or hear a speaker

2. Love of Learning
a. Discover one new place in C’ville every day
b. Read a newspaper other than the Cav Daily
c. Go to a professor’s office hours without a question
d. Ask a question in class
e. Go to an online search engine like Ask Jeeves-ask a question and explore sites you never otherwise would have discovered
f. Every day, read a chapter of a book that is not an assigned class text
g. Read a book about something you’ve always found intriguing but never found the time to learn more about

3. Judgment, Crit. Thinking and Open-Mindedness
a. Go to a multi-cultural group or event.
b. Play devil’s advocate and discuss an issue from the side opposite to your personal views
c. Take a hall/suitemate out to lunch who is different from you in some way.
d. Go to a different church or religious event
e. Every day, pick something you believe strongly, and think about how you might be wrong.

4. Creativity, ingenuity and originality
a. Keep a journal, work on a picture or poem
b. Submit a piece to a literary magazine or newspaper
c. Decorate a notebook or your room
d. Pick one object in your room and devise another use for it rather than its intended use
e. Find a new word everyday (perhaps at and use it creatively every day.
f. Change your profile on IM daily

5. Social Intelligence
a. Meet one new person each day by approaching them
b. Go into a social situation in which you would normally feel uncomfortable and try to fit in
c. Whenever you talk with someone, try to figure out what his or her motives and concerns are.
d. Encounter someone by themselves and by being friendly, include them in your group

6. Perspective (Wisdom)
a. Get a quote a day online
b. Give advice to an upset friend
c. Think of the wisest person you know. Try to live each day as that person would live.
d. Look up prominent people in history and learn their views on important issues of their day and/or find a significant quotation that they said.

7. Valor
a. Talk in class (if you don’t normally)
b. Go against peer pressure or social norms
c. Stand up for someone even if you disagree with him/her.
d. Ask someone out or to dance
e. Introduce yourself to a stranger next to you in class
f. Speak up for an unpopular idea (if you believe in it)

8. Industry diligence and Perseverance
a. Finish work ahead of time
b. Notice your thoughts about stopping a task, and ignore them. Focus on the task at hand.
c. In class, resist daydreaming and distractions.
d. Plan ahead- use a calendar for assignments and tests.
e. Set a high goal (e.g., for exercise, or studying) and stick to it.
f. When you wake up in the morning, make a list of things that you want to get done that day that could be put off until the next day. Make sure to get them done that day.

9. Honesty, Authenticity and Genuineness
a. Refrain from telling small, white lies, to friends (including insincere compliments). If you do tell one, admit it and apologize right away.
b. Monitor yourself and make a list of every time you tell a lie, even if it is a small one. Try to make your daily list shorter every day.
c. At the end of each day, identify something you did that was attempting to impress people, or put on a show. Resolve not to do it again.

10. Zest, Enthusiasm, and Energy
a. Go out of your way to become more involved in an organization you are already a part of
b. Take up a greater interest in one of your classes, i.e. volunteer for a class activity
c. Do something because you want to, not because you are told.
d. Get a good night’s sleep and eat a good breakfast, to give yourself more energy during the day.
e. Do something physically vigorous in the morning (e.g., jog, push-ups)

11. Kindness and generosity
a. Leave a huge tip for a small check.
b. Do a random act of kindness every day (a simple, small favor). Make it anonymous if possible.
c. Be a listening ear to a friend. Ask them how their day was and actually listen to the answer before telling them about your own day.
d. Send an e-card to a different friend each day.
e. Pay the whole tab when you are out with friends.

12. Capacity to Love and be Loved
a. Tell boyfriend/girlfriend/sibling/parent that you love them
b. Send a loved one a card or e-card to say that you were thinking about him/her.
c. Give loved ones a big hug and a kiss
d. Write a nice note where someone you love will find it sometime during the day. Do this in a new place, or for a new person, every day.

13. Citizenship and Teamwork
a. Volunteer at Madison House
b. Take on added responsibility within an organization you are already a part of
c. Pick up litter that you see on the ground
d. Clean your suite, hall, or lounge (anywhere communal)
e. Organize a hall/suite dinner
f. Do your share in a group work/as a facilitator

14. Fairness Equity and Justice
a. Allow someone to speak their peace while keeping an open mind by not passing judgment
b. Stay impartial in an argument between friends despite your beliefs (be the mediator)
c. Notice when you treat someone based on a stereotype or pre-conception; resolve not to do it again.

15. Leadership
a. Organize something special for your friends or suitemates one evening.
b. Organize a study group

16. Modesty
a. Don’t talk about yourself at all for a full day.
b. Dress and act modestly, so as not to attract attention to yourself.
c. Find a way in which someone you know is better than you. Compliment him or her for it.

17. Self-Control and Self-Regulation
a. Set aside 2 hours (or other designated amount of time) and ACTUALLY study in a quiet place.
b. Work out four days a week (if you don’t already)
c. Clean or organize your room. Every day, make sure that you pick up whatever mess you made during the day.
d. Leave something unfinished on your plate that you usually regret eating afterwards.
e. When something upsets you, attempt to block it out of your mind and instead focus on the good things in your life.
f. Make a resolution to not gossip. When you feel the urge to talk about someone behind his or her back, remember your resolution and stop yourself before you talk.
g. In the evenings, make an agenda for the following day. Stick to that agenda.
h. When you get overly emotional about something, calm down and calmly consider all of the issues again.

18. Caution, Prudence and Discretion
a. During a conversation, think twice before saying anything. Weigh the probable effect of your words on others.
b. Think about the motto “Better safe than sorry†at least three times a day. Try to incorporate its meaning into your life.
c. Before you decide to do something important, reflect on it for a moment and consider if you want to live with its consequences 1 hour, 1 day, or 1 year later.

19. Forgiveness and Mercy
a. Think of someone that you found it very hard to forgive. Try to see the situation from their perspective. Then consider, if you had been the one to do the offensive act, would you have expected to be forgiven?
b. Keep a journal, and every night, describe someone who made you mad, or against whom you have a grudge. After writing about the grudge, describe why you are resistant to forgiving them. Then look at the situation from that person’s point of view, and forgive the person.
c. Make contact with someone who has made you mad in the past. Let them know that you forgive them, or just be kind to them in your conversation.
d. When someone does something that you do not understand, try to fathom his or her intentions in the actions.

20. Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence
a. Go to a museum (e.g., the Bailey) and pick out a piece of artwork or a display that has aesthetic value and touches you because of its beauty.
b. Write down your thoughts about a piece of art, or something beautiful you see around grounds.
c. Take a walk with a friend and comment on something pretty that you see
d. Attend a concert and enjoy the sound for its musical value. Or pick out the most moving music you know of, and listen to it appreciatively on headphones every night. Or ask a friend to recommend the most beautiful music he or she knows.
e. Keep a journal, and every night, record something you saw during the day that struck you as extremely beautiful, or skillful.
f. Find something that makes you happy, in aesthetics or value, a physical activity or an object, and let it inspire you throughout the day.
g. Visit the Fine Arts Library and browse through the art books.

21. Gratitude
a. Keep a journal, and each night, make a list of three things that you are thankful for in life
b. Every day, thank someone for something that you might otherwise take for granted (e.g., thanking the janitor who cleans your hallways).
c. Keep a record of the number of times you use the words “thank you†in a day. Over the course of the first week, try to double the number of times that you say the words.
d. Call a parent/sibling/friend each day and thank him/her (e.g., for helping you to become who you are, or for always being there for you.)
e. Send someone a “thank you†e-greeting.
f. Leave a note on your roommate/apartment mate suitemate/hall mate that thanks them for something about them that you appreciate.

22. Hope, Optimism, and Future-Mindedness
a. Keep a journal, and every night, record a decision you made that day that will impact your life in the long run
b. When you are in a bad situation, turn it around to see the optimistic side of it. You can almost always find some good in a situation, regardless of how awful it seems at the time.
c. Make a list of bad decisions you have made. Forgive yourself and move on in life realizing that you cannot go backwards, only focus on the present and future.
d. Notice your negative thoughts. Counter them with positive thoughts.
e. Reaffirm yourself that you can and will succeed at whatever you put your mind to.

23. Spirituality and Sense of Purpose, and Faith
a. For five minutes a day, relax and think about the purpose of life, and where you fit in..
b. For five minutes a day, think about the things you can do to improve the world or your community.
c. Read a religious or spiritual book, or go to a religious service every day
d. Explore different religions. You can do this by going to a library, looking on the Internet, or asking your friends about their religions.
e. Spend a few minutes a day in meditation or prayer.
f. Invest in a book of affirmations or optimistic quotes. Read a few every day.

24. Humor and Playfulness
a. Every day, make someone smile or laugh.
b. Learn a joke and tell it to your friends.
c. Watch a funny movie or TV show.
d. Read the comics
e. Learn a magic trick and perform it for your friends

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