Personal Projects and the Development of Virtue

Personal Projects and the Development of Virtue: How Characteristic Adaptations Enact and Encourage Virtue


Colin DeYoung, Ph.D. (Co-PI)
Associate Professor of Psychology
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN


Co-PI: Moin Syed, Ph.D. (Co-PI)
Associate Professor of Psychology
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN


Valerie Tiberius, Ph.D. (Co-PI)
Professor and Chair of Philosophy
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

Project Summary

What constitutes virtue and well-being? Do they develop together? These questions have been debated by philosophers for centuries and continue to be an active area of inquiry among philosophers and psychologists. One point of agreement is that success in at least some of one’s personal projects (such as in relationships, occupation, or education) is crucial for well-being. Further, a broad view of virtue is that it reflects qualities that aid one in pursuing personal projects or in helping others to pursue theirs. This team built on these general observations to study the development of virtue in young adulthood, by using an innovative methodology to study the details of people’s personal projects. This method, Personal Projects Analysis (PPA), combines qualitative assessment of people’s various idiosyncratic projects with quantitative assessments of various qualities of each project. PPA allows a thorough mapping of people’s characteristic adaptations, that is, the various goals, interpretations, and strategies that contribute to their projects and reflect the ways in which people adapt to their own particular life circumstances. In a longitudinal study of 250 undergraduates, the team investigated how characteristic adaptations develop over time using PPA. The aim was to investigate the philosophical claim that well-being involves success in important personal projects, and the empirical question of how people’s characteristic adaptations both express and lead to the development of virtue and to increases or decreases in well-being.

How virtue can be cultivated in order to improve human life is a fundamentally interdisciplinary question. What counts as a virtue and as well-being are normative questions that science cannot answer directly, but, on a given philosophical understanding of these terms, questions about the process of change are empirical questions. A serious obstacle to successful interdisciplinary collaboration is lack of agreement about how to understand key concepts. Disagreement often arises about how to understand well-being and virtue. The team addressed this problem by characterizing shared key features across schools of thought, to allow collaborative research that can answer central questions about the development of virtue, so that people from different theoretical backgrounds may benefit. Rather than beginning with a theory of well-being or virtue, they begin with a working assumption that any of the main contenders could accept, though they would have different explanations for it. Specifically, they hold that both virtue and well-being involve success in important personal projects.

To explore this matter empirically, the project team administered PPA, along with measures of personality traits, character strengths and virtues, psychological well-being, and identity, once every semester for two years (four assessments in total). In their first paper for the project, they showed that success in personal projects is associated with psychological well-being, suggesting the viability of integrating our approach with standard psychological approaches to well-being. Now that all data have been collected, the team is testing whether success in personal projects leads to increased virtue reflected in PPA and in questionnaire ratings. They will also test whether virtues at earlier time-points predict increases in psychological well-being and increased success in personal projects.

Significant Research Accomplishments

The research team began this project with questions about the development of virtue and the relationship between virtue and well-being.  In the background, they wanted to make sure their conception of well-being was richer than standard notions used in psychological research.  This is why they adopted the method called Personal Projects Analysis and adapted it for computerized administration.  As it turns out, the most significant progress in their project so far has to do with this method for studying well-being. The team produced a paper that showed that success in personal projects is indeed related to subjective well-being, which is a first step in a larger argument that everyone has a reason to take PPA seriously, including psychologists who typically rely on subjective measures of well-being.  The team also made steps toward a larger goal.  For example, in her new book, Well-Being as Value Fulfillment (Oxford, forthcoming), Tiberius discusses success in personal projects (what she calls “values”) as relevant to all three of the main philosophical theories of well-being (objective theories, hedonism, and desire satisfactionism). She also suggests, on the basis of work done with this grant, that PPA would be a good way to measure well-being as value fulfillment.

The project team hopes that their work will have a positive influence on interdisciplinary well-being research. Indeed, one of their major accomplishments has been in the deep integration of their research team,  which bridged three different intellectual backgrounds. This involved extensive dialogue regarding the meaning of terms like “self,” “personality,” “virtue,” and “well-being,” and this dialogue produced a number of useful insights. The team was able to capture many of these insights and to explore their process of deep integration in a chapter they wrote for the collection of essays that will be edited by the Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project Directors.


  • DeYoung, C. G. (2017). Characteristic adaptations versus traits: Thinking systematically about different kinds of personality construct. Paper presented in the symposium, Personality on Three Levels: Integrating Traits, Characteristic Adaptations, and Narrative Identity (C. G. DeYoung, Chair). 18th Biennial meeting of the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences. Warsaw, Poland.
  • DeYoung, C. G., Tiberius, V., Syed, M., & Bedford-Peterson, C. (2017). Integrating philosophical and psychological approaches to well-being: The role of success in personal projects. Paper presented at the Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project Conference, Norman, Oklahoma.
  • DeYoung, C. G. (2017). Chair: Roundtable on causal and explanatory approaches to personality theory. Lifespan Social Personality Preconference at the 18th annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, San Antonio, Texas.
  • DeYoung, C. G., Tiberius, V., & Syed, M. (2016). A personal-projects approach to well-being and virtue: Philosophical and psychological considerations. Paper presented at the Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project Conference, South Bend, Indiana.
  • Syed, M., Bedford-Peterson, C., DeYoung, C. G., & Tiberius, V. (2017, May). The value of identity: Longitudinal relations between identity development processes and virtue. Paper presented to the 24th Annual International Society for Research on Identity Conference, Groningen, Netherlands.
  • Tiberius, V. (2017). Integrating philosophical and psychological approaches to well-being: The role of success in personal projects. Paper presented at the Kansas Workshop on Well-Being.

Publications & Manuscripts

  • Bedford-Petersen, C., DeYoung, C. G., Tiberius, V., & Syed, M. (revision under review). Integrating philosophical and psychological approaches to well-being: The role of success in personal projects. Journal of Moral Education.
  • Syed, M., DeYoung, C. G. & Tiberius, V. (Under review). Self, motivation, and virtue or: How we learned to stop worrying and love deep integration. Invited book chapter for SMV edited volume.


Proposal - 2015 IMF

Presentation - 2016 SMV Conference

Presentation - 2017 SMV Conference