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The link between personality and social behavior can be approached in two ways. The ﬁrst question is to what extent social behavior is caused by personality factors. The second question is what eﬀects social behavior has on personality. Both questions have proven surprisingly diﬃcult for social scientists to answer.
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Personality refers to the stable traits and dispositions that characterize individual people. In simplest terms, social behavior has two possible causes: personality and the situation. Although it is tempting to assign everything inside the person to personality and everything outside to the situation, the reality is somewhat more complex, because external factors (such as being insulted by others, an emergency, or an opportunity) may create temporary internal states. Personality is thus usually reserved to the relatively stable aspects of the person, as opposed to temporary states. One handy test is what aspects of the person remain the same when he or she moves from one situation to another. Personality consists of those aspects.
1. Mischel’s Challenge To Personality
The view that social behavior derives from personality is deeply rooted in common sense and traditional views. People are widely believed to have stable personality traits that account for readily discernible patterns in their behavior. Indeed, the very concept of personality is usually understood in terms of consistency. That is, people are supposedly consistent in their motivations and actions.
Walter Mischel (1968) challenged this alleged consistency of personality in an inﬂuential book. Mischel proposed that if personality were composed of a stable, consistent set of traits, then psychological measures of traits should eﬀectively predict social behavior quite strongly. From a review of published research studies, however, he concluded that personality traits have not been shown to have strong eﬀects on behavior. Instead, he found that the correlations between traits and behaviors were usually small: Typically the correlation was found to be 0.20 to 0.30 out of a maximum possible 1.00. He used the term ‘personality coeﬃcient’ to refer to the small correlations that were typically found.
Mischel therefore concluded that the situation is far more powerful than personality as a cause of social behavior. Following the standard statistical practice, he pointed out that a correlation of 0.30 accounts for only 9 percent of the variation in behavior, leaving the other 91 percent to the situation. Put simply, the situation was 10 times as powerful as personality in determining behavior.
This view was immediately recognized as challenging the view that personality is an important cause of social behavior. Psychologists were not the only ones to have believed in personality, for the general public has also had a long and ﬁrm belief in personality. Mischel’s colleague Lee Ross (1977) coined the term ‘fundamental attribution error’ to refer to people’s tendency to interpret someone’s behavior as caused by that person’s personality traits and to underestimate the importance of the situation in causing behavior. For example, people who observe an angry outburst will tend to conclude that the angry person has a hostile or aggressive personality while in fact the true cause of the angry outburst is likely to be a bad day, a provocation, a frustration, or some other cause rooted in the immediate situation. A well-known work by Jones and Nisbett (1971) pointed out that people tend to attribute their own behavior as caused by their situation (e.g., ‘I was only following orders’ or ‘I was just reacting to what you did’), whereas they interpret other people’s behavior in terms of personality traits.
Mischel’s book and his striking conclusions had a major impact on psychology. One implication was that psychologists should focus on analyzing the situation rather than the individual personality in order to be able to understand and predict behavior. Social psychologists, who specialized in studying the power of situations, embraced this conclusion to the detriment of personality psychologists. This attack on personality coincided with a period of rapid growth in US psychology departments, and as a result many universities hired social psychologists rather than personality psychologists, with the result that social psychology continues to be a much larger ﬁeld than personality even several decades later.
A recent analysis of the controversy by Funder (1997) summarized Mischel’s argument as having three essential parts. First, a review of the literature shows that there is an upper limit to how well one can predict someone’s behavior from one situation to the next, and this upper limit is small (a correlation of around 0.20 to 0.30; Nisbett 1980 later revised this upward to 0.40). Second, situations are more important than traits in explaining behavior. Third, it is no use to measure personality, and the common and traditional view of people as consistent, personality-driven beings is wrong.
2. Defending Personality
Personality psychologists gradually came forward to defend their ﬁeld of study and the value of their work against Mischel’s critique. One important point was that the correlations of 0.20 to 0.40 are not trivial and can in fact contribute useful knowledge. A correlation of 0.40 means that a prediction of behavior would be right 70 percent of the time (compared to 50 percent by chance).
Moreover, the conclusion that situations are much more powerful than personality traits does not stand up under scrutiny. Funder and Ozer (1983) analyzed the power of situational variables to predict behavior, using several classic social psychology experiments on cognitive dissonance and bystander reactions to emergencies. Funder and Ozer (1983) found that the well-known eﬀects of these situational factors were about the same size (between 0.30 and 0.40, when converted to correlations) as Mischel’s personality coeﬃcient. In other words, trait and situation have about equally powerful eﬀects; it was simply not true that the situation was 10 times as powerful as personality.
Another important point was that the seeming weakness of personality traits for predicting behavior was partly due to the way psychologists did their research. Typically they would use a standard questionnaire to assess some general trait, such as helpfulness, and then they would correlate it with how helpful the person was in a speciﬁc situation (such as how the person responded to a request to donate blood). The problem with such designs is that only a single, context-speciﬁc behavior was measured, which might not match up well with a broad trait. In contrast to that procedure, some researchers began aggregating multiple behaviors. Thus, instead of only measuring whether the person acceded to one request to donate blood, one could combine many diﬀerent helpful behaviors, such as taking care of sick friends, giving directions to strangers, volunteering to help on a hotline, donating money, befriending disadvantaged children, helping friends with chores, and assisting someone with schoolwork. Epstein (1979a, 1979b) found that aggregating behaviors in that way enabled traits to predict behavior at a level of over 0.80 in some cases, thus far more successfully than the 0.3 coeﬃcient derided by Mischel.
The success of aggregation is revealing about how personality is linked to social behavior. It shows that personality traits can predict behavior in general with good success. They are, however, much less successful at predicting single behaviors. To know someone’s personality is therefore to be able to predict how that person will behave in many situations, but it remains much harder to say how a given person will react on a particular occasion.
3. Traits And Metatraits
Another possible reason for the seeming weakness of the link between personality and behavior is that not all personalities are composed of the same kinds of traits. Bem and Allen (1974) proposed that some people are more consistent than others with respect to certain traits. Including inconsistent people in a research project will inevitably weaken the results. For example, Bem and Allen (1974) asked people whether they were consistent or inconsistent on the dimension of sociability. One person might be consistently high in sociability, or consistently medium, or consistently low. Someone else might be inconsistent, in the sense that the person acts in a highly sociable manner one day but in an unsociable or even antisocial way the next. Bem and Allen computed the correlation between trait sociability score and a behavioral measure of sociability twice: once for the people who said they were consistent, and once for the inconsistent ones. The correlation was much higher for the people who were consistent.
The implications of Bem and Allen’s idea are potentially profound. For some people, the trait of being sociable versus unsociable is a stable, consistent aspect of personality, but for others it is not. One theme in personality psychology is the attempt to measure traits, but perhaps some people should not be measured on some traits. The question ‘How sociable are you?’ may be relatively meaningless for some people, because the answer would ﬂuctuate from day to day and from one situation to another. For the latter, apparently, their personality lacks anything that could be described as a trait level of sociability. Baumeister and Tice (1988) used the term ‘metatrait’ to describe this pattern. A metatrait is literally the trait of having (or not having) a trait. For traited people, behavior will tend to be consistent. For untraited people, behavior may vary widely even within seemingly similar situations.
The idea of metatraits poses a serious challenge to both the measurement and the conceptualization of personality. Several methods have been proposed to ascertain whether people are traited on a given trait or not. There is ample evidence that the very same measures yield much stronger results for traited as opposed to untraited people (Baumeister and Tice (1988, see also Britt and Shepperd 1999). Yet other experts have proposed that these measures could potentially have statistical problems (e.g., Tellegen 1988), and there is not yet a general consensus on the best way to deal with these.
Still, the idea that people diﬀer in their level of consistency is promising, and eventually it may turn out to be a crucial aspect of the link between personality and social behavior. The implication is that personality contains something that makes the person’s behavior consistent, and that some personalities do not have whatever that is. Although Bem and Allen (1974) and most subsequent researchers have assumed that diﬀerent people are traited on diﬀerent traits, Snyder (1974) proposed that some people are simply more consistent than others across all traits. He developed a measure of self-monitoring that sought to assess how much each person changes his or her behavior from one situation to another. The term ‘self-monitoring’ refers to the monitoring of situational cues and altering one’s own behavior accordingly. People who are high in self-monitoring are deﬁned as being alert to circumstances and quick to change their behavior so as to do what might work best in any given situation. In contrast, people who score low in self-monitoring tend to act based on their inner feelings and values regardless of the situation. Hence low self-monitors will be more consistent across diﬀerent situations, whereas high self-monitors will tailor their behavior to each situation and exhibit less cross-situational consistency.
4. Diﬀerent Situations
Two other ways of understanding the link between personality and social behavior focus on diﬀerences between situations. One of these emphasizes simply that diﬀerent situations vary in their power to dictate behavior. A strong situation can override personality traits, so that nearly everyone will act the same way. In contrast, a relatively weak situation will allow behavior to be driven by personality.
Research on behavior in emergencies has provided a good illustration of this approach. Darley and Latane (1968) investigated the question of whether bystanders will come to the aid of a victim in an emergency. They found that when bystanders are alone and believe themselves to be the only ones who can help the victim, they are quite likely to act. In contrast, when there are many bystanders, each is likely to think that it is someone else’s responsibility to take action, and so each will tend to do nothing. Across a series of studies, they measured an assortment of personality traits, but none of these traits predicted behavior. They concluded from their research that personality is largely irrelevant to how people respond in emergencies (see Latane and Darley 1970). They suggested that emergency situations are both powerful and unusual, and so few people develop habits or traits about how to deal with them.
The conclusion that personality is irrelevant to emergencies came under criticism from personality researchers. They proposed that the original researchers had simply used extremely powerful versions of the emergency situation, with either no one else available to help or a great many people. What about when there are only one or two other people who might help? When the emergencies were set up with just one or two other bystanders, the response rate moved to the intermediate level of 50 percent, and personality traits were quite eﬀective at predicting which people would respond (Siem and Spence 1986, Tice and Baumeister 1985).
In short, situations do vary in how powerfully they exert pressure on people to respond in a particular way. When this power is high, there is little room for personality to make a diﬀerence. In contrast, when the power of the situation is low, personality can be decisive. This conclusion complements the metatrait view that some personalities are more strongly geared toward consistent behavior than others. An untraited person will generally respond based on the situation, whereas a traited person will act based on his or her personality. Conversely, a powerful situation will dictate behavior, whereas a weak one will leave behavior to be determined by inner traits.
The second situation-based approach was put for-ward by Snyder and Cantor (1998). In this theory, situations are the primary determinant of behavior — but personality dictates which situations the person enters. For example, introverted people may avoid loud parties, and so their behavior does not come under the inﬂuence of the party atmosphere. Thus, personality and situations may operate in sequence rather than in direct competition for determining social behavior. Personality involves the grander role of how people set up their lives and how they make broad choices, whereas situations exert the immediate and short-term inﬂuence over how the person acts.
5. Behavior Shapes Personality
Although most research has focused on the question of whether personality determines social behavior, there has been some work on the complementary question of whether behavior shapes personality. To be sure, personality is deﬁned as stable and consistent, so such change will be slower, smaller, and more gradual than changes in behavior. Yet few people believe that personality is utterly immune to change. A compilation of works by many experts on the topic of ‘Can personality change?’ yielded an emphatic answer of ‘yes,’ even though change was acknowledged to be diﬃcult and slow in many cases (Heatherton and Weinberger 1994).
One of the possible models of personality change involves internalization. For example, young women do not magically develop maternal personalities, nor are these traits always visible during their youth prior to motherhood, but upon assuming the role of mother a woman may begin to change her behavior, and over time these new patterns of maternal behavior can become ﬁrmly established to the point that the woman’s personality can be said to have changed to ﬁt the role.
How does the internalization process operate? One important theory was proposed by Jones et al. (1981). These authors suggested that people’s self-concepts contain a great deal of information that is not necessarily consistent or well-organized. When people are induced to act in a certain way, they begin to recall other behaviors that are consistent (and to ignore previous acts that would not be consistent). Eventually the self-concept shifts to accommodate these patterns of behavior, and then the personality itself follows suit. Fazio et al. (1981) asked people a series of loaded questions that were designed to get them to think about themselves as either extraverted or introverted (e.g., ‘What things would you do to liven up a dull party?’ versus ‘What do you dislike about loud, crowded parties?’). Their self-concepts shifted accordingly. Later, when they were left alone with a stranger, their behavior followed from the newly induced self-concept, which implies that there was at least some lasting change in their personality. Speciﬁcally, the people who had been led to think of themselves as introverts sat quietly and did not talk with the stranger, whereas the people who had been led to think of themselves as extraverts were more likely to strike up a conversation with the stranger.
The importance of the social dimension of behavior emerged in subsequent work. Tice (1992) showed that people only internalize behaviors that are witnessed by other people. That is, when people gave their answers to another person in an interpersonal setting where another person heard them, they showed evidence of personality change. In contrast, when they gave their answers conﬁdentially and anonymously by speaking into a tape recorder while alone, they showed no sign of internalization. The implication is that secret and private behaviors do not lead to internalization as much as do public, interpersonal behaviors. The social context—speciﬁcally, whether other people are there to witness the behavior—is decisive as to whether behaviors lead to inner change.
The practical side of this can be seen in the practices used by cults and other organizations that seek to ‘brainwash’ or otherwise bring about fundamental changes in people’s values, motives, and other aspects of personality. Attempts to eﬀect such change by bombarding the person with messages or inﬂuence while the person sits there passively have not proven eﬀective. Nor is it apparently enough to get the person to comply in a private or anonymous fashion. Rather, success at brainwashing depends on inducing the person to comply actively and publicly. New recruits to a religious cult may, for example, be induced to speak out in front of the group about their new commitment to the cult or even to approach strangers to tell them about the cult, ask for donations, distribute literature, and the like. Such public actions help cement the person’s commitment to the cult and bring about the inner change that the group seeks.
Although the intellectual debate has been cast in terms of whether the trait or the situation is the main cause of behavior, this is merely a matter of emphasis: Most experts believe in interactionism, which is the doctrine that behavior is an interactive product of the person and the situation. Put another way, hardly anyone believes that traits are so powerful that people will always behave the same way regardless of situation, nor does anyone really believe that there are no meaningful diﬀerences among individuals.
The interaction between person and situation is implicit in several of the formulations already noted, such as the idea that personality dictates the selection of particular situations, and then the situations guide actual behavior. An explicit interactionism would assert that any approach is doomed if it focuses on merely the person or merely the situation. A crowded, noisy party will make some people mingle happily with the crowd and enjoy shouted discussions with groups of people, while others retreat to search for a quiet place where they can talk at length with a single person. Likewise, a major upcoming test will strike some people as a threat, making them so anxious that they avoid studying, whereas others will embrace the test as a challenge and prepare to do their best. Thus, seemingly identical situations elicit very diﬀerent behaviors from diﬀerent people, depending on their personalities.
Modern statistical techniques allow the observations of human behavior to be divided into three parts. Trait and situation each claim a share, and the interaction (between trait and situation) gets the third share. The trait share refers to how much behavior is aﬀected directly by personality, independent of the situation (and thus consistently across diﬀerent situations). The situation share involves how much all diﬀerent people will give essentially the same response to the situation. Last, the interaction encompasses ways that the same situation aﬀects diﬀerent people diﬀerently.
There is unfortunately no general principle or agreement as to which of these three shares is generally the largest. It appears that some situations are quite powerful in aﬀecting everyone the same way. Other situations are relatively weak (such as unstructured situations), and traits exert considerable inﬂuence there. Interactions do not always occur, but they are common and often generate the most interest, insofar as diﬀerent people react in reliably diﬀerent ways.
7. Future Directions
At present, it appears that personality psychology has successfully survived the crisis provoked by Mischel’s (1968) critique, although some eﬀects linger (such as the smaller size of personality psychology faculty). Instead of looking at personality and situation as competing against each other to explain behavior, the current emphasis is to understand how they interact and complement each other. A priority for the next generation of research is to assess the several models (described above) for possible interactions, such as diﬀerential traitedness, personality dictating entry into situations and situations being the proximal causes of behavior, and diﬀerential power of situations.
Another reason to expect increasing rapprochement between research programs focusing on personality and programs focusing on situational causes is contained in the logic of scientiﬁc development. As in most ﬁelds, broad generalizations and sweeping general principles are likely to be identiﬁed ﬁrst, whereas later generations have to study more ﬁne-grained and subtle eﬀects. The behavioral principles that are generally true for everyone were likely identiﬁed relatively early in psychology’s scientiﬁc development. Subsequent generations of researchers will therefore have to focus more on principles that apply only to certain people, and these attempts to understand how situations aﬀect particular groups will require a greater sensitivity to individual diﬀerences and a greater integration between personality and situational factors.
The study of how situations and speciﬁc experiences produce lasting changes in personality remains wide open for new ideas and creative research. The question of how personality changes is likely to be of increasing importance in the coming decades for many reasons, including the wish to facilitate child development toward desired personality outcomes, the increasingly recognized need to oﬀset the consequences of harmful parenting or other nonoptimal upbringing patterns, and in particular the wish to enable clinical psychology to bring about the desired changes in a reliable and lasting manner.
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