Tufts study confirms: Scouting builds character in 6 areas

You and I know Scouting builds character in young people. Now we have the scientific evidence to prove it.

In a groundbreaking two-and-a-half year study, Dr. Richard M. Lerner and his team at Tufts University surveyed nearly 1,800 Cub Scouts and 400 non-Scouts in the Philadelphia area to analyze the effects of Scouting.

What did they find?

As first reported on Scouting Wire, the study proved boys in Cub Scouts became significantly more cheerful, helpful, kind, obedient, trustworthy and hopeful about their future than non-Scouts. (Recognize any of those attributes from the Scout Law?)

How they did it

The Scouts and non-Scouts were surveyed at five separate times during the two and a half years.

In the first survey, conducted right after the start of the study, researchers found no significant difference between Scouts and non-Scouts. If the Scouts had entered the program with unusually high character attributes, one could argue that Scouting merely attracts better young people instead of helping make them.

Instead, researchers were confident their study began with both groups on equal footing.

In the next few surveys, things got interesting.

  • Gains were made in those six critical areas I mentioned above: cheerfulness, kindness, hopeful future expectations, trustworthiness, helpfulness, obedience
  • Scouts were more likely than non-Scouts to embrace positive social values. Ask a Scout what’s most important to him, and he was more likely to respond with answers like “helping others” or “doing the right thing.” Ask a non-Scout the same thing, and he was likely to say “being smart,” “being the best” or “playing sports.”
  • There were even variations within Scouting. For example, Scouts who attended meetings regularly reported higher character attributes than those who attended infrequently. In a nod to the importance of tenure, Scouts who stayed in the program longer reported higher character attributes.

These findings are spectacular. We should shout them from mountaintops and approach strangers on the streets to say: “Did you hear? Now we have proof that Scouting builds character!”

No nearby mountaintops? Here are some other ideas.

Resources to enjoy and share

Start with the resources below that help you share this research with fellow volunteers. Within the Scouting family, the research is a nice reminder that the “one hour a week” (or, in most cases, more) that you devote to Scouting really does make a difference.

Next, use these tools to recruit new families to your pack, troop, team, post, ship or crew. When they ask “Why Scouting?” you can show them this.

You can view this information in one of three ways: an infographic, a slide show and a 27-minute lecture by the study’s main author. This gives you plenty of options from which to choose when addressing various groups.

The infographic

See the infographic below (click to enlarge) or download it at this PDF.


The presentation slides

The BSA has summarized this groundbreaking research into a visually compelling slide show. See the slides below and download your own copy to share with others via the PDF at this link.

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The full presentation


  1. Not to be nit picky, but…. I whole-heartedly agree that Scouting promotes strong character; however, this is not a scientific study. First, the Scouts and non-Scouts were not a random sample from across the country, and second, it did not include Boy Scouts, Sea Scouts and Venturers. It would be very important to include all ages of Scouts in this survey.. Finally one cannot PROVE anything with a survey. It’s just informational, not experimental. The graphs are very attractive, though.

    • I can understand why this was done this way, adolescents and young adults (both scouts and non-scouts) have been influenced by many more factors … including having been a cub scout or not. Furthermore, the cub-scout program is fairly standardized, Boy Scouts begin to vary from patrol to patrol, and Venturing/Sea Scotus is just off the chains. The same can be said for the various opportunities available to non-scouts.

      The challenge with increasingly diversified groups is the need for larger numbers to grasp the underlying story!

      I suspect those kinds of multi-cohort longitudinal studies are under way, but it will take a lot longer for results to be reported.

    • It is a scientific study. Social science may not be physics or chemistry but it is a science nonetheless and it’s the primary way we have to study human behavior. The fact that the Scouts were not a random sample from across the country is a strength, not a detraction, because by using a pool of kids from the same area it removes more variables. The fact that it includes only Cub Scouts is also typical of social science research – start with a focused group for an initial study. This study is an excellent jumping off point for follow-on research, either by continuing to track the same group as they (presumably) move on to Boy/Sea Scouts and/or Venturing, or by starting from scratch at the older levels. 2,200 subjects is a great sample size to validate results, though my one criticism would be that it would have been better to have had the groups of Scouts and non-Scouts be of more equal size rather than the 4.5 Scouts to 1 non-Scout ratio as in the study.

      • OK, the study had some resemblance of science, but it was poorly designed. Researchers at Tufts Univ. should know better.

    • This IS a scientific study. It is a well designed cohort study, which is what we use a lot in science (medicine, social science, etc). It was not a national study, true. Any study would be better with thousands and thousands of people, but then you wouldn’t ever have any study. Every study has limits. Sure, we didn’t PROVE anything, but gave more evidence that cub scouts positively impacts young boys.

      • Well designed? You don’t need thousands of subject if the subjects are randomly selected from the population. From what I read there was no random selection, and it was only one large city in the mid-Atlantic. A sample of 100 randomly selected people is plenty to make a significant conclusion.

      • Well, yes and no. Firstly random samples with humans are great for cross-sectional surveys, but humans are often lost to follow-up, so you need many more at intake so that there are ample numbers several years down the road of a longitudinal follow-up study. And, then the folks you have at follow-up may be self-selecting on some important trait … which defeats the whole point of random selection in the first place.

        Secondly, for small effects, you don’t know how many subjects you need in advance. Although the effects in this study seem to be large, one never knows that when they start. And if the interest is in complex models with hundreds of parameters (and you get that many easily when you start looking at multiple combinations of variables measured at multiple time-points), an ample number of observations are needed.

        Finally, a national random sample is not, as someone would think, void of biases. Those biases are simply unknown at the beginning. Unless the study is narrowly focused (unlike this one) with the intent of limited discovery regarding a couple of key factors (again, not this one) random selection on an appropriately stratified cohort might require a sample frame in the hundreds of thousands! The cost of which quickly becomes prohibitive.

        Thus we have the sample of convenience — probably not much better than anecdotal stuff that I or any other scouter could prattle on about. But, just enough better to be worth the attention of a social scientist.

    • At the risk of sounding unkind, you are both nit-picky and wrong. None of your criticisms make this “not a scientific study”. Longitudinal studies are a well-established practice for the evaluation of ‘natural experiments’ such as are found in economics or sociology. Would the results be more compelling if the survey covered more time, geography or sample size? Certainly. Feel free to do so. That’s the essence of replication and extension.

  2. (Caveat: I haven’t read the paper yet. Will do so later)

    Well kudos for 100+ years of the American Scouting development. Nice to have some data in our back pocket when talking about the pros of Scouting.

    But, I must also asked if this has been peer reviewed? Would enjoy reading those, too, if they exist.

    Although I might agree with the study, it was “collaborated” (re financial support?) with a BSA Council.
    And just as I have a skeptical eye on a smoking study that a tobacco company partnered with or a political campaign promoting one of it’s own “polls”, I think studies like these should have the same scientific scrutiny, i.e. reviewed by their peers outside the influence of the company wanting the study and possible conflicts of interest.

    __Peer review of this study will be just as important as the study itself to support it and Scouting.__

    And although I think Scouting is one of the BEST things the world has going for it in the way of character development (besides possibly some religious teachings), I wouldn’t mind seeing how it compares to, say, similar youth organizations such as sports, after school programs, martial arts, other “scout like” organizations, etc. Is it just the same? A little better? A little worse?

  3. Here’s the pdf of the study’s findings.

    Note that it’s several studies with the Cub Scouts section on Pages 6-30.

    Here is the conclusion section:

    There are, of course, several limitations of the present research, ones pertaining to sampling (e.g., the participants were volunteers), measurement (e.g., our index of character pertained to the attributes associated with BSA), and analysis (e.g., the present data are all cross-sectional). Although these data provide important information about individual variables (regarding character attributes) and contextual variables (the roles of the QUEs and pack leaders in regard to youth character), only longitudinal data (to-be-generated in the subsequent waves of the CAMP study) will suffice in testing 27 the RDS ideas about individual-context bidirectional relations that are integral to the RDS/PYD model
    framing this research (e.g., Lerner, et al., in press; Overton, in press).

    Indeed, as this study continues through several waves of testing, we will assess character
    development within historical time and, as such, within a period in which the programs of Boy Scouts of America are evolving in the context of social issues, involving inclusion and social justice. As such, our future reports from this study will elucidate the importance of historical time and place (Elder, Shanahan, & Jennings, in press) on the context of a youth development program for the positive development of the youth it serves.

    In sum, the evidence gathered during this initial phase of a larger longitudinal study supported the descriptions of character in Scouting, and of the roles of QUEs and adult leaders, described by BSA programs. In addition, through qualitative analyses of pack leader responses in particular, we have generated understandings of how leaders in a youth development program define character and character development. We have also confirmed that pack leaders’ views of character fit well within the context of BSA programs; this is an important corroboration given that pack leaders are charged with delivering BSA curriculum and activities to Scouts.

    Moreover, through qualitative and quantitative data collection and analyses from the initial wave of the study, we were able to describe what character attributes may look like in Scouts participating in the CAMP study at baseline. Furthermore, we have illustrated that Scouts and non-Scouts have generally similar levels of character attributes, in particular when matched through propensity score analyses. This comparability allows us to make useful assessments between the Scouts and the nonScouts as we move into subsequent stages of data collection and longitudinal analysis. As such, this project has the potential to provide novel information about contributions to character development of a major youth development program in the United States.

  4. I haven’t read the underlying study, but from the presentation material it appears that the study measured stated values rather than actual values. If we spend 5 years telling a scout it is important to be cheerful, he’ll probably respond on a survey that being cheerful is important. But is he, in fact, cheerful? More broadly, is Scouting changing young men’s attitudes and behavior, or merely beating into their heads the importance of 12 words?

    To be clear, I’m a huge believer in Scouting, but I’m skeptical of this study.

    • That is best studied an experimental probe. As a crew advisor my favorite is “forced marches in bear country.” So here are my general impressions from the few dozens of youth I’ve had the privilege of working with.

      The youth who came up as scouts (girl and boy) have off-the-charts cheerful and courteous dispositions. That includes some of them who have serious mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, etc …). The youth who haven’t are constantly working to
      catch up.

      It’s not just important to them when they are filling out a survey. It matters when they realize that there is cocoa was left back in the car and the shortest trail had not been hiked and was unmarked and buried in three miles of dark. The non-scouts see a night without chocolate, the scouts see an opportunity for adventure!

    • well, isn’t it important to actually be cheerful? If you don’t think so, then you don’t care about these results. Other studies have shown that Eagle’s are more likely to do things such as donate or volunteer. This is a wonderful study, taken for what it is. No study is perfect. This gives us lots of valuable info that we can use.

      • I think you misunderstood my comment, Robert. I agree that being cheerful is important. My question is whether the study actually measured whether the boys were cheerful or simply if they thought being cheerful was important. The former would show Scouting succeeds, the latter would show merely that Scouts can parrot back a list of virtues.

        • I did misunderstand. I think trying to study actual “cheerfulness” would be very difficult. That would be a weakness of this study

    • Hmmm, isn’t that the point. Society is continually telling boys what is important, Scouting offers something different. These attributes are important, and if the boys start to believe it, then we have won half the battle.

  5. While I like to see positive comments about scouting I don’t know how one quantifies very subjective traits such as cheerful, helpful, kind, obedient, trustworthy. I agree with Eric Nelson a broader sampling is needed..

    • PTG, here’s my suggestion: as best you can, randomly grab a couple dozen jr. high and high school students (scouts, non-scouts, etc …youth groups are often decent cross-sections) and ask them to set up camp for a week.

      The distinction often emerges in the first two hours.

  6. No need for a study to come up with the positive results of Scouting. My study began in 1963 and continues today.The biggest difference between then and now is that the obstacles to overcome so we can gain the interest of the boys. Back in the 60s and 70s there was not an internet. When we are able to get the boys to stop the thumb dance and put down their devise, they are able to learn the exciting and fun activities that are the basis for Scouting.

  7. I love it.

    Using STEM (ie, math) to prove that Scouting Counts! Character Counts! Therefore, STEM Counts! (OK, I am biased. :^) )

  8. As an Eagle scout who started at tigers and was an assistant scoutmaster for a national Jambo troop, I can attest to the strengths of the program.

    That said, I’ve also done work with the SAT and other things and learned a thing or two about statistics and data with testing, especially k-12.

    I’m disappointed in the “study” overall, the cohort groups aren’t large enough (the control group for example needs more size), the values and attributes “tested” yet really self reported (Just think of facebook, or even better, dating website accounts… how honest is the information and how accurate it is…)

    Basically, its obvious the “science” behind this will be “proven” because it is essentially rigged. This includes the methodology, the question structure, lack of significant controls (in both survey and survey kids), and overall the “Researcher” appears very far from objectively unbiased.

    In short, it may technically be “science” by following the scientific methods, but the actual experiment was designed in a way that nothing would be learned, there was not any room for error. Simply put, this “study” has no public data above my comment about SES, Gender, Race, nor other important factors such as parental involvement (in general), parental education achievement, or even if there are two parents in the household.

    Want to see some actually significant and shocking figures, redo this study in five major US cities, for 10 years. Create two groups: one with no involvement in scouting, and one with involvement in scouting. Sort this by skin color and SES along with parental education achievement. Then add the recording of the variable with or without the father in the child’s life.

    Then go wait another decade and check up on these boys.

    Problem is, we don’t need to waste time and money on something like this.

    Anyone reading will assume results that will likely be correct, except most reading this post won’t be aware of how many young black men of color end up in a jail cell and not a college dorm room by the time they are 21 years old.

    Young men of color with experience in scouting for one year or more? I will bet the numbers will be lower than that of the control group, or national statistics. Even hoping parental SES and everything can be recorded accurately.

    Self reporting of elementary school kids, especially while those in scouting KNOW what they are being surveyed for? Good luck with any real results.

    We have problems in this nation, and scouting helps overwhelmingly in a positive manor (lets pretend homophobia doesn’t exist in scouting anymore…), yet this “study” with a tenured professor who needs to make money selling his book, should be distanced from official BSA publications and other PR material.


  9. Did they differentiate between parents,too? What I mean to say is this: is it possible that parents who help/participate/care enough to drop their kids off at scouts are instilling these values at home also?

  10. Nice to see the positive results of scouting. Too bad the scouts rejected my gay son. Apparently they didn’t think he deserved to learn any of these attributes. My straight son rejected scouting because scouting rejected his brother. That seems like a pretty positive social value to me.

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