Many social scientists strive to understand why people do what they do. One traditional perspective in personality psychology suggests that people do what they do because of their personality traits. A trait psychologist might suggest, for example, that a person behaves talkatively because she has a high level of extraversion. Trait psychologists traditionally assume that traits are stable psychological characteristics, remaining quite consistent across situations and time. By implication, the trait approach assumes that an individual’s behavior should be fairly consistent across situations and time.
In 1968 Walter Mischel published a book challenging the foundations of the trait perspective. Mischel reviewed empirical examinations of behavioral consistency, and he claimed that results revealed surprisingly low levels of cross-situational consistency. He concluded that a theoretical perspective based on broad, context-free personality traits was too simplistic, and his conclusions became the basis of the “situationist” position that human behavior is strongly determined by situational forces.
The debate between those sympathetic to traditional personality psychology and those representing a situationist position became known as the person-situation debate. The nature of the debate ranged widely, with protagonists from both sides taking positions of varying extremity, accusing each other of undue extremity and of misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the opposing position. For example, proponents of the “situationist” side variously suggested, or at least were accused of variously suggesting, that the traditional trait approach was too simplistic, that traits do not exist, or even that personality itself does not exist. Despite such ambiguity on both sides, at its heart the debate concerned two important issues— the nature of the behavioral phenomena to be explained and nature of the theories offered as explanations of behavior.
One fundamental issue in the person-situation debate was the degree to which stable individual differences in behavior exist alongside cross-situational variability in behavior. At least two developments advanced the field’s understanding of the empirical realities of behavioral stability and variability. First, research demonstrated that individuals do manifest stable differences in their general behavioral trends, if behavioral observations are aggregated across situations (Epstein 1979). Second, research demonstrated that considerable levels of behavioral stability and variability coexist (Fleeson 2001; Funder and Colvin 1991). That is, an individual does behave differently across a variety of situations; however, individuals differ from each other in their average levels of behavior, and these individual differences are indeed stable. These findings are important because they empirically demonstrate, within a single set of behavioral data, the validity of the assumptions of both the trait position (that people manifest stable differences from each other in their behavior) and the situationist position (that people’s behavior varies across situations). The fact that both the trait side and the situationist side are empirically tenable legitimizes the theoretical basis of both.
A second important issue in the person-situation debate was the theoretical basis of personality psychology. Psychologists debated the appropriate ways to conceptualize personality and its ties to behavior. Emerging from two or three decades of debate, most theories are “interactionist” because they acknowledge the fact that behavior results from an interaction between personality and situational forces. Despite the general agreement that personality and situational forces affect behavior, such theories differ in terms of the nature and relative importance placed on such factors. Some theorists are sympathetic to an expanded trait perspective. Such theorists acknowledge the role of situational forces in shaping specific behaviors, but they emphasize the utility of traits as predictors of important behavioral trends and outcomes such as psychological well-being, physical health, social relationships, occupational performance, and political attitudes (e.g., Costa and McCrae 1998; Ozer and Benet-Martinez 2006). Other theorists reconceptualize personality in terms other than “traits.” For example, the social-cognitive approach emphasizes the importance of cognitive characteristics affecting the way people process information about social situations. From this perspective, cognitive personality characteristics such as one’s expectations, beliefs, or self-concept are indeed stable, but different situations trigger different aspects of the cognitive system, leading to variability in behavior (Mischel and Shoda 1995). Finally, some theorists recognize the need for greater attention to the psychological nature of social situations (Funder 2005).
The person-situation debate was a challenging yet ultimately constructive argument for personality psychology (Fleeson 2004). By forcing psychologists to think carefully about the links between behavior, personality, and situations, the person-situation debate was a catalyst for a deeper appreciation of the importance of personality and for a more sophisticated understanding of why people do what they do.
SEE ALSO Personality; Schemas; Trait Theory
Epstein, Seymour. 1979. The Stability of Behavior: I. On Predicting Most of the People Much of the Time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37: 1097–1126.
Fleeson, William. 2001. Towards a Structure- and Process-Integrated View of Personality: Traits as Density Distributions of States. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80: 1011–1027.
Fleeson, William. 2004. Moving Personality Beyond the Person-Situation Debate: The Challenge and Opportunity of Within-Person Variability. Current Directions in Psychological Science 13: 83–87.
Funder, David C. 2005. Toward a Resolution of the Personality Triad: Persons, Situations, and Behaviors. Journal of Research in Personality 40: 21–34.
Funder, David C., and C. Randall Colvin. 1991. Explorations in Behavioral Consistency: Properties of Persons, Situations, and Behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 60: 773–794.
Mischel, Walter. 1968. Personality and Assessment. New York: Wiley.
Mischel, Walter, and Yuichi Shoda. 1995. A Cognitive-Affective System Theory of Personality: Reconceptualizing Situations, Dispositions, Dynamics, and Invariance in Personality Structure. Psychological Review 102: 246–268.
Ozer, Daniel J., and Veronica Benet-Martinez. 2006. Personality and the Prediction of Consequential Outcomes. Annual Review of Psychology 57: 401–421.
R. Michael Furr
"Person-Situation Debate." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/person-situation-debate
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