A consideration of the manner by which personality and situational variables interact in order to better understand thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
The study of psychology aims to describe, understand, explain, and predict people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, otherwise referred to as the “psychological triad.” Over the years, psychology subfields have emerged with their own perspectives in the study of the psychological triad and its causes. In particular, the subfields of personality and social psychology have proposed seemingly contradictory views: personality psychologists generally point to personal, individual, and internal factors to explain the triad, whereas social psychologists generally point to external, environmental, and contextual factors. Despite these “opposing” views, plenty contend that greater insight into the triad can be provided by a consideration of both internal and external influences, and the interaction between the two. Modern researchers tend to side with this interactionist view, arguing that traits and situations play a role in determining behavior (Nezlek 2007), but this is far from a new idea.
Kurt Lewin (1935), a pioneer in the study of behavior, formulated the equation, B = f(P,S), in which B is the overt behavior, P is the individual or person factors, and E is the external or situational factors. Thus, Lewin declared that behaviors are a function of both the person’s traits and the situation at hand. Whereas Lewin pushed for an interactionist approach, others since proposed more polarized perspectives, resulting in the person-situation debate.
On the situation side of the debate, referred to as “situationism,” psychologists such as Walter Mischel (1968) maintained that people’s behaviors are provoked or influenced by an external force: the situation or context. Modern theorists, who are not necessarily proponents of the one-sided view of situationism, still realize the importance of quantifying situations and propose approaches to measure situations. For example, some have been able to empirically create both random and fixed situations in laboratory settings (Geiser et al. 2015). Contrasting random situations, fixed situations are those that are experimentally manipulated and, moreover, are those in which the researchers are aware of which situations participants are in. For example, by having participants engage in both random and fixed laboratory settings, Geiser et al. (2015) observed how traits and situations interact, and they broadly concluded that “researchers can examine whether and to which extent traits are situation-specific. Furthermore, [researchers] can analyze both situation effects and person × situation interaction effects” (p. 16). However, the pressing question of how situations are conceptualized and measured remains (Rauthmann et al. 2015).
The counterargument to situationism is the trait perspective. Some psychologists argue that a person’s internal attributes, or personality traits, are not irrelevant factors; rather, they play an important role in determining behavior (Funder 2008). A necessary but not sufficient condition of their importance in determining behavior is that personality is stable and real, which has been evidenced in the research of many personality psychologists (e.g., see Allport 1937). Gordon Allport, considered by many to be the father of personality psychology, argues that personality traits are as stable and real as physical traits. In Allport’s opinion, they differ in that personality traits are developed through experience, not genes. Regardless, Allport proposed that personality traits are tangible enough to be measured, just as physical traits can be, and one’s combination of personality traits is unique to the individual.
Since Allport’s assertion, other researchers have supported the notion that traits are primary determinants of behavior, and have found that the most widely validated taxonomy of these real and stable traits comes in the form of the Big Five. Through their research, trait-proponent psychologists have contended that every individual, even across cultures, falls somewhere on the spectrum, from low to high, of five different personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, known as the Big Five (John and Srivastava 1999). Thus, these psychologists propose internal attributes to be the primary influencers of behavior, although most do not completely disregard the effects of the situation on behavior.
Decades ago, psychologists were more divided on the question of behavioral determinism with some on the side of individual traits and others on the side of environments and situations. However, these more myopic stances have understandably fallen out of favor as more and more research provides evidence of the validity of Lewin’s classic formula. Not only is behavior a function of the person and the situation, but persons and situations also influence one another.
Persons and situations can influence each other in a number of ways, but Buss (1987, 2009) has provided an organizational scheme suggesting that three main systems by which the two interact: selection, evocation, and manipulation. Selection refers to an individual’s decision to approach or avoid certain environments. Buss discusses his point from an evolutionary standpoint, in the sense that individuals choose to mate with similar others in order to have the most advantageous gene reproduction. Individuals also avoid dangerous situations in order to survive and reproduce. Evocation refers to the response that individuals elicit from others as a result of their own behavior. For example, Buss asserts that whether or not an individual obeys authority or contributes effort in working in a group setting can be explained by the individual’s personality and how the group or person in authority views the individual. He also notes that the labeling of individuals as charming or provocative, for example, relies heavily on the response of others to the individual’s behaviors, which only serves to reinforce the charming or provocative behaviors of the individual. Lastly, manipulation refers to the ways in which individuals purposefully manipulate their social environments. For example, individuals must be able to manipulate, or change and influence, situations in order to parent children, mate, and move up the social ladder. In sum, Buss’s notion of selection, evocation, and manipulation clarifies the ways in which individuals and situations affect one another and mutually provide an explanation of behavior, thus providing insights into trait-situation interaction.
Beyond their influence on each other, persons and situations interact to explain behavior, and some theorists have proposed an update to Lewin’s formula. For example, Bem (1983, p. 566) proposes that, “Certain kinds of persons will behave in certain kinds of ways in certain kinds of situations.” Additionally, Bond (2013) suggests that an individual’s personality, objective features of situations, society’s agreed-upon view of situations, and the individual’s perception of situations are all determinants of behavior. Whereas some, such as Bem and Bond, have made theoretical contributions to the interactionist perspective, others have proposed working models of interactionism.
An interactionist theorist who, like Lewin, proposed multiple determinants of behavior is David Funder. His model differs from Lewin’s, however, in that his revolves around the idea of construal, which is proposed to be one’s unique perception of a situation that is a function of both one’s traits and the features of the situation (Funder 2016). More specifically, the situation construal model (SCM) proposes that personality, the psychological features of the situation, and construal all account for variance in behavior. Although Lewin’s ideas served as a basis for Funder’s construal model, Funder updated Lewin’s formula by explicitly creating interaction terms to account for the ways in which various determinants of behavior can interact.
Given the relative recency of its development, the SCM is only just starting to bear fruit. In one application, the model was used to help explore the process by which personality is associated with, and likely influences, social outcomes (Morse et al. 2015a). This work demonstrated that personality was associated with participants’ normative (i.e., perceiving situations as others perceive them) and positive construal (i.e., perceiving situations positively) of social situations, and normative and positive construal were associated with positive social outcomes (Morse et al. 2015a). Elsewhere, in the more applied context of healthcare, the SCM was used to explore the relationships among personality, features of healthcare situations, and perceived outcomes of recent healthcare visits (Morse et al. 2015b). This work demonstrated that the valenced construal (i.e., positive or negative) of healthcare situations was associated with both the patient’s personality and features of the situation; furthermore, construal mediated the relationship between person and situation characteristics and patient-reported outcomes of the healthcare situation (Morse et al. 2015a). Taken together, early signs support the utility of the SCM in taking an interactionist approach to research.
Another theory in line with an interactionist perspective is the cognitive-affective personality system (CAPS; Mischel and Shoda 1995). The CAPS theory states that by fully understanding the person, the situation, and the interaction of the two, one can best make sense of a person’s behavior. Specifically, “the theory accounts for individual differences in predictable patterns of variability across situations (e.g., if A. then she X, but if B then she Y), as well as for overall average levels of behavior, as essential expressions or behavioral signatures of the same underlying personality system” (p. 236). Mischel and Shoda contend that a person’s perception of the world is of utmost importance; therefore, one must study how a person’s thoughts give way to his or her actions (1995).
Before becoming known as the cognitive-affective personality system, the CAPS model was originally titled the “cognitive social learning theory” (Mischel 1973). This theory asserted that an individual’s personality is constructed of five variables related to cognition. The first “person variable” is “Cognitive and Behavioral Construction Competencies.” This variable includes mental abilities and patterns of behavior that one has learned through observing the world. Thus, it addresses the individual’s abilities and knowledge. The second is “Encoding Strategies and Personal Constructs” which involves how one views oneself and one’s general abilities and how one deciphers stimuli from the world. The third is “Behavior-Outcome and Stimulus-Outcome Expectancies,” which explores the idea of expectancies of self and consequence of behavior. It revolves around the notion of cause and effect. The fourth is “Subjective Stimulus Values,” which includes a person’s expectancies of accomplishment when it comes to objectives, and a person’s view of rewards and incentives. The fifth is “Self-Regulatory Systems and Plans,” which asserts that while people are given external societal standards, they also impose expectations, standards, and consequences on themselves. This variable also accounts for an individual’s arrangement of behavior sequences. Overall, Mischel proposed the “cognitive social learning theory” to suggest that individuals use cognition to interpret conditions and stimuli, and these interpretations in turn influence behavior.
Building upon the “cognitive social learning theory,” Mischel and Shoda proposed that one should consider the individual’s emotions and feelings, in addition to the five “person variables” previously established, in order to fully understand the individual’s behavior. Thus, the original theory was updated and became known as the “cognitive-affective personality system” or CAPS (Mischel and Shoda 1995). The CAPS model sets out to demonstrate that an individual’s varying patterns of behavior are not by chance or error, but rather are characteristics of the individual’s personality. This notion is exemplified in Mischel and Shoda’s (1995) research in which they created a computer program to test individuals’ traits and their interactions with hypothetical situations. The results showed that individuals’ patterns of variability in behavior were stable and predictable over numerous situations. These findings provide empirical support for the significance of the CAPS model, such that a person’s traits, perceptions, and the situation interact to determine how the individual will behave.
Trait-situation interactions, otherwise referred to as person-situation interactions, have a storied history within personality and social psychology. Once seen as opposing forces in the explanation of human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, personality and situations are now understood both to influence each other and to interact in a variety of ways to help make sense of the psychological triad. The current entry provides a brief account of two popular interactionism theories, the situation construal model and the cognitive-affective personality system, but an understanding of trait-situation interactions is not limited to these two perspectives. In sum, the consideration of persons and situations in explaining behavior has come a long way, but of course more research is required in order to more fully develop an understanding of the varied and complex ways in which traits and situations interact.
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