In 1969 Mischel published a landmark article, “Continuity and change in personality”. In this article Mischel questioned the importance of emotional personality variables (e.g., anxiety), suggesting that there was little evidence for continuity (i.e., that people show consistency in behaviors [continuity] across different situations, which would reflect the operation of emotional personality variables. Mischel noted that correlations between measures of emotional personality traits and relevant behaviors seldom exceeded .3 in the research literature, accounting for only 9% of the variance. Rather behaviors seemed to be more controlled by the situations people were in, and behaviors CHANGED as situations changed. Mischel challenged those researchers who believed in the importance of emotional personality traits to do additional research and publish data showing that emotional personality traits were important. The gauntlet was thrown and the challenge accepted by others.

Note that Mischel stated that there was good evidence for the importance of COGNITIVE personality traits. Correlations of these cognitive trait measures (e.g., IQ, field dependence, delay of gratification) often showed much stronger correlations than .3 with relevant behaviors (i.e., good continuity across situations).

Some defenders of PERSONALITY have argued that there are emotional personality traits at the genotypic level which endure and affect behavior, although the overt expressions of these behaviors may change. An example of this possibility would be someone with a high level of trait aggression. This trait aggression might be expressed overtly as hitting, yelling, kicking, biting, or high blood pressure (if the aggression was inhibited in direct expression). From this perspective inconsistency (change) in behaviors across situations could still be interpreted as “evidence” for the power of personality variables. Mischel disagrees with viewpoint, saying that it involves convoluted word magic. Mischel provides an example of a woman who seems to behave inconsistently. On some occasions she is fiercely independent, assertive, and even hostile. On other occasions she is passive, warm, and traditionally feminine. How does one explain this?

People who talk of enduring genotypes being expressed in diverse phenotypes (for example, more psychoanalytic theorists), might explain the picture by

1. A basically passive, dependent woman (at the genotype level) with a surface defense of aggressiveness, or

2. A genotypically aggressive woman with a facade of passivity.

Mischel rejects 1 and 2 in favor of a more situational explanation of the woman: “How about a hostile, assertive, independent, warm, passive, feminine person all in one. Which behavior occurs at any one moment is not random, but dependent on who she is with, when, and under what circumstances.”

Mischel says that theorists and researchers should pay more than lip service to the importance of situational specificity of behavior.

Critics of Mischel’s position (e.g., Alker, 1972) claim that the low correlations in the personality literature would be higher with methodological improvements. Alker claims that the low correlations are caused by:

1. Attenuation problems caused by:

A. Less than perfect reliability in the measuring devices, and

B. The use of homogeneous populations in research, which minimizes variability. The typical samples in personality research have been college students and hospitalized psychiatric patients.

2. The use of normative measures (rather than ipsitive measures). And

3. The use of simple correlations between two variables rather than multiple regression (Multiple predictors of 1 criterion variable).

In addition to these 3 methodological comments, Alker also introduces a theoretical perspective into the Personality versus Situation debate. Alker offers the idea that the apparent situational specificity of behavior may be “caused” by a personality variable. This introduces the interaction position, which states that there may be interactions of personality by situations that are more powerful that either personality trait effects or situation effects.

Imagine the following in a 2 by 2 by 2 design. A woman is insulted by her husband. The setting is either at home with the two of them alone or at a party with many people observing (Home vs. Party--a situational variable). The woman has either a high need for aggression or a low need for aggression (one personality variable). Finally the woman has either a high need for social approval or a low need for social approval (a second personality variable). Need for social approval involves a concern with the opinion of others and a need to be regarded well by others. In this example think of 4 different types of women (based on the possible combinations of personalities:

1. High aggression, high n. Social Approval

2. Low aggression, High n. Social Approval

3.High aggression, Low n. Soc. Approval

4. Low aggression, Low n. Soc. Approval

Now be psychologists and predict the probability (either low or high) that each woman would slap her husband after the insult, given that the insult occurred either at home alone or at the party. Try to graph out your predictions.

If the woman behaves differently at home and at the party (i.e., shows situational specificity), the reason might be due to a personality variable.

In a direct reply to Alker, Bem (1972), who was a student of Mischel’s, addressed the 3 methodological issues raised by Alker. Simply put, Bem’s review shows that when methodological improvements are made (i.e., correlations are corrected for attenuation, ipsitive measures are used, and multiple regressions are used), the personality correlation coefficient still does not exceed .3. But Bem supports Alker’s theoretical position of the potential importance of interactions, which Bem refers to as moderator variables. Any variable that affects the relationship between two or more other variables is a moderator variable. High or low need for social approval may be a personality moderator variable that affects whether people high in trait aggression will act aggressively in the presence or absence of others. Presence or absence of interpersonal threat may be a situational moderator variable that affects whether people high in anxiety will do worse on difficult tasks.

Bem also introduces the concept that some people may be trait like, and others may be more situational. For example, consider the personality dimension of high versus low need for social approval. People with a high need for social approval are likely to monitor themselves over many situations in order to maintain a particular social image. These people will control those behaviors that are under voluntary control, but will not be able to control more autonomic behaviors (e.g., body posture, sweating, blushing). People with high need for social approval will thus appear to be trait like and continuous in behaviors that are controllable, but will might show within situation cross modal inconsistency.

People with low need for social approval are more sensitive to situational changes because they are not monitoring themselves across situations in order to always be behaving in socially desirable ways. These people will appear to be more situational, and will also show a within situation consistency across the modalities of their behavior.

Another example of trait like versus situational people involves the concept of androgyny, as developed by Bem’s ex-wife, Sandra. Traditionally masculine or feminine individuals will appear to be more trait like. That is, they will be behaving consistently in a masculine or feminine fashion across situations. But androgynous individuals (those scoring high in both M and F), will be more situational. Depending on the needs of the situation, androgynous individuals are capable of displaying either masculine or feminine behaviors.