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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

Character Sketches: Behavior Measures Character

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” – Anonymous, often misattributed to Edmund Burke[1]

The University of Rhode Island Ram Football Team was on a high in 1996, having reversed years of losses by winning their only division title in 1995. With a 3-3 record, the players, coaches and fans looked forward to beating The University of Connecticut Huskies on October 19 and, ultimately, another winning season. On October 7, however, any good men present on that team did nothing.

In revenge for two players being asked to leave a private party the weekend before, over half the football team attacked the Theta Delta Chi Fraternity house that day, severely damaging the structure and beating fraternity members present, resulting in hospital treatment.[2]

There were good men and women elsewhere on that campus, however, led most notably by their President, Robert L. Carothers. While the head football coach, Floyd Keith, quickly dismissed two players and suspended four indefinitely, plus another 25 for a single game,[2] President Carothers went further by taking a totally unprecedented step – he forfeited the upcoming game to the Huskies, the first time that had ever been done in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).[3] He also reimbursed The University of Connecticut its lost expected revenue of $150, 000 from the cancelled game.[4]

Met initially with shock and criticism, especially by many parents of the football players and the Ram coaching staff,[3] Carothers stood tall and firm, winning support from the campus at large and from around the country, saying:

It’s a chance to teach…[3]

Civility is everything we are about. I wanted to make clear our standard of behavior.[3]

Our decision to forfeit the game against UConn, to suspend students from the football program, and to take additional judicial action, should send an absolutely clear message to all those involved and to the community as a whole that these acts of aggression and violence are totally unacceptable at the University of Rhode Island. This is a community of learners, and those who cannot learn from their mistakes are not welcome here…[5]

At the University of Rhode Island, this has been a year for learning about violence, about accountability for our actions, and about working for peace.[5]

Doctor Carothers, when called upon to act and lead in a crisis, responded in a way that evidenced and supported his values and those he believed his institution stood for. Behaving according to our values, more often than not, is the foundation of character and the root of self-esteem.

It is clear from the President’s statements that he was consciously aware of the qualities and behaviors he valued and felt responsible for upholding. This allowed him to proceed with clarity and conviction. Each of us can achieve this same degree of confidence and, yes, self-esteem if we begin by identifying and clarifying what we value.

Separating what we truly value from what we may have been taught or advised to value, though, is not always easy. This is the premise behind Robert Fulghum’s charming 1988 book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, which discusses how rational arguments for moral behavior in adults are so often ignored. When asked what we value, many of us struggle and confuse this with desires or possessions, not descriptions of who and what we want ourselves to be.[6],[7] Scouts may rattle off, and aspire to become, Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent,[8] but how many people have been forced by a dark moment of the soul, or even truly taken the time, to deeply consider who and what we challenge ourselves to be? The goal and result are not self-judgment, but opportunity – a chance to feel good about ourselves by acting in ways we would be proud of.

A method many of my patients have found useful begins with making a written list of the values you image that you have. As we are seeking self-esteem, rather than esteem by others, you will only want to list what you truly believe you value – not what you have been told to value or what you imagine others believe you should value. Only list what you think is important and what you feel good about.

For example, if you wish to become the best bank robber in the world, then respecting the law and the rights and property of others should not appear on your list. Hopefully, your goals are more socialized, and it is true that sometimes your happiness will be associated with approval from others; self-satisfaction might therefore be involved with shared and common values. Again, though, this is self-esteem, not esteem from others. These are your values and you get to decide. This list will be used to pat yourself on the back, so it has to be list of qualities you truly admire. It also has to be a list of qualities you have control over and choose, not physical characteristics like tall that you can take no credit for. Handsome or pretty would also not count, though well-groomed (like clean above) may; physically fit might, but healthy might not, especially if it takes no effort on your part.

As an example, let’s say your list includes honesty, non-violence, charity, and industry or hard work. The next step is to test your list by measuring how often you choose behaviors that fit these candidates for your values. Use a pad, clipboard or journal and to the right of each value listed leave room for check marks or stars (see the table below). Each morning, look at your list to remind yourself of your guesses. Then, at the end of the day, bring out the list and place a mark beside each item for each time you recall a behavior that was aligned with that value.

Potential Value

Honesty * **

Non-violence *

Charity * *

Industry ** **

Kindness * ***


Helpfulness * *



Under honesty, each time you told the truth, when there might have been an advantage to a lie, give yourself a check mark for that day. If you also value kindness, though, you might allow yourself a considerate and inconsequential lie that protects an innocent’s feelings; if so, place a check by kindness instead. If you told a lie for self-advancement or that harmed someone, then you would not add a check mark in either category for that instance. If you are self-motivated and spent time on a task for work, school, family, community or even housework, give yourself a check next to industry for each task.

Run this test daily for two or three weeks. Consciously considering your values will likely lead you to add other candidates, and you should measure them the same way. Eventually, you will see a pattern and be able to assess how much you truly value some of these traits. If certain traits have very few marks beside it, and you recall ample opportunities to behave that way, you will need to admit that although it sounded good, you really don’t value it that much. Remove any of the proposed values that fit in this category from your final list.

In subsequent posts we will discuss the next steps, but until then, practice the revised list daily in the same manner, adding a check for each time your behavior was consistent with a value. Behavior is your measurement of your character.

Just as Doctor Carothers sought to teach his campus members to take accountability for their actions, the Reverend Fulghum writes, The human race has found out the hard way that we are what we do, not just what we think.”[9]

[1] Reuters Fact Check, Reuters Web page. Updated August 9, 2021, accessed April 21, 2022. [2] Jack Cavanaugh, College Football, “U. of Rhode Island Is Shaken by Players' Assault on Fraternity,” The New York Times, October 18, 1996. Accessed April 21, 2022. [3] Lee Benson, Sports Columnist, “Team Given Time Off for Bad Behavior,” The Desert News, November 25, 1996, accessed April 21, 2022. [4] Dave Fairbank, “Atlantic 10 Won’t Punish William and Mary,” Daily Press, September 25, 2003. Accessed April 21, 2022. [5]“Celebrating the Presidency of Robert L. Carothers, 1991-2009,” Words Through the Years, Reflections, The University of Rhode Island Web page, Accessed April 21, 2022. [6] Dorothy Neufeld and Sabrina Lam, “The World’s Most Influential Values, In One Graphic,” Visual Capitalist Web page, Published November 5, 2020. Accessed April 25, 2022. [7] Nir Eyal, “20 Common Values [and Why People Can’t Agree On More],” Nir and Far Web page, Accessed April 25, 2022. [8] “What Are the Scout Oath and Scout Law?” Boy Scouts of America Web page, Accessed April 25, 2022. [9] Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (New York: Villard Books, Random House, Inc., 1988), p. 6.

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