New Values: Changing Terms in a Psychological Classification

Unintended consequences of making art around recent positive psychology.

Christine Wong Yap, Character Strengths Signal Flags, 2015, linen, twill tape, letterpress-printed ribbon, rope, wood, flagpoles; 24 flags: 12.5 x 12 inches each; edition of three; flagpoles: 72–84 x 12 x 12 inches each; display: 73.5 x 20.5 x 27 inches. Photo: Anna Ablogina.

Christine Wong Yap, Character Strengths Signal Flags, 2015, linen, twill tape, letterpress-printed ribbon, rope, wood, flagpoles; 24 flags: 12.5 x 12 inches each; edition of three; flagpoles: 72–84 x 12 x 12 inches each; display: 73.5 x 20.5 x 27 inches. Photo: Anna Ablogina.


From 2013 to 2015, I designed, printed, and sewed Character Strengths Signal Flags. Each flag represented one of 24 character strengths in psychologist Martin Seligman’s and Chris Petersen’s Values in Action classification.

Recently I revisited the VIA website, and noticed that some of the strengths have been renamed. Those are listed below.

The new names relate to the old ones, but I can’t help but wonder: What is gained and lost with the linguistic updates?

  • Open-mindedness  Judgment
  • Persistence  Perseverance
  • Integrity  Honesty
  • Vitality  Zest
  • Citizenship  Teamwork
  • Self-Control  Self-Regulation
  • Appreciation of Beauty  Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence

I’m not a psychologist, but as the classification is aimed towards the public, the researchers are probably interested in accessible language. Here’s how I interpret the updates.

Some changes seem relatively minor—persistence and perseverance, and vitality and zest are phrasings many people would use interchangeably. Witnessing excellence can be beautiful; I can see the kinship in the appreciation of of the two. Psychologists might distinguish between self-control and self-regulation, but I don’t think general audiences would.

I believe the most dramatic change is from open-mindedness (withholding judgment) to judgment. In an era of snap judgments and constantly streaming opinions, I wonder why the researchers abandoned the self-assured open-mindedness, and then opted for judgment over the more measured critical thinking. Also, swapping integrity in favor of honesty seems complicated, too. To me, integrity implies a higher order of ethics and self-concordance than honesty.

The shift from citizenship to teamwork could inspire much deconstruction. The former implies geopolitics, nationhood, and the problems of inclusion, exclusion, and rights.* It’s too limiting for the meaning, which I interpret as the spirit of civic and social engagement.  On the other hand, teamwork originates in sport, but is now correlated with the workplace and management. This identity shift, from a (presumably) contributing member of a (presumably) democratic society, to a (likely, immaterial knowledge) worker, hits a nerve—it appears to be another instance of neoliberalism’s pervasive effect on our identities, where the corporation overtakes the state as the primary force organizing social relations.

While I don’t mean to conflate positive psychologists’ research with pop psychology writing, I did find a passage from Louis Menand’s essay on self-help business books (“The Life Biz,” New Yorker Magazine, March 28, 2016) to be relevant:

“It’s not surprising that every era has a different human model to suit a different theory of productivity, but it is mildly disheartening to realize how readily we import these models into our daily lives. We apply technologies of the self to our own selves, and measure our worth by the standards of the workplace.”



Justin Langlois‘ comments on citizenship (in “Questioning Citizenship at the Venice Biennale: Responses and Interventions,” C Magazine, Issue 128, Winter 2016) are too good not to cite.

First, the urgency of the question of citizenship:

“The idea of citizenship, and who gets to grant it, receive it, retain it and who has to give it up, is clearly one of the most pressing issues of our time.”

Then, a call to action to practice citizenship:

“Our citizenship relies on the testing of its very boundaries. And more often, it relies on a series of small and not-so-small gestures that secure or resist it, and that help us to exercise our capacity to measure, record and produce social and civic life together. Art provides an inventory of expanded practices and poetics that might offer us clues on how to do this, but we must work to hone our own actions and activities towards more complicated expressions that can evince our agency in the world. If we await an invitation to perform our citizenship, we will never get around to producing it ourselves.”

While of course I value cooperation and the ability to work well with others, what teamwork doesn’t account for is the desire and responsibility to “evince our agency in the world.”



More art, less story

Louis Menand’s in-depth look at the work of Andy Warhol in the current New Yorker Magazine (January 11, 2010) is stellar.

Warhol is easily one of the 20th century’s most popular artists; it’s too easy to underestimate the influence of his work, and as Menand argues, the philosophy and rigor behind it.

Menand calls conventional understandings of modernism into question, pitting Clement Greenberg against Arthur Danto. He includes some surprises: Pop pre-existed Warhol, our quintessentially American Pop artist had European influences, and the fundamental conceptual differences between the works of Duchamp and Warhol.

Especially when, as V puts it, periodicals are more interested in the story rather than the art, cheers to the New Yorker for their faith in the reader’s intelligence and interest in art history and criticism.