The Person-Situation Controversy

Lewin (1936):

                                                                B = f(PE)

B = behavior

f = is a function of

P = person variables

E = environment variables

Cattell’s Specification Equation:

                B = f(w1T1 + w2T2 + wnTn)

                -Linear Model

                -Direct Additive Model

                -Assumes impact of the situation is the same on a given trait for all people

The Personologist Position

               Stable, intraorganismic variables (traits, states) are the main determinants of behavioral variation

                                               B = f(P)

The Situationist Position

               Environmental or situational factors are the main determinants of behavioral variation

                                                B = f(E)

The Interactionist Position

                The interaction of person and situational factors is the main determinant of behavioral variation

                                                B = f(P x E)

How to define environment?

               Physical Environment

                Psychological Environment

The psychological environment is never the same for two individuals; this favors an interactionist view

The Debate: Is behavior consistent?

               Across Time: Cross-temporal consistency

               Across Situations: Cross-situational consistency

The Research Evidence: The Early studies

Hartshorne & May (1928, 1929, 1930)

               Studies in the nature of character

                -Average correlation among 23 tests used to construct a “total character score” was +.30

                Jack Block’s Critique

Theodore Newcomb (1929)

                -Studied introversion-extraversion

                -Found little evidence of consistency at behavior, trait or type levels

Dudycha (1936)

                -Studied punctuality

                -Mean cross-situational correlation = +.19

                -Highest correlation = .44

These three early studies led the assumption of consistency—and trait and state theories--to be seriously questioned.


The Research Evidence: The middle studies

Walter Mischel

                -Coined term, “personality coefficient,” to indicate correlation of +.30 between any personality

                                measure and behavior

                -Only intellectual and cognitive measures had higher predictive correlations

                -Concluded behavior is specific to a particular situation, i.e., not consistent

Responses by Trait Theorists

                -Phenotypic inconsistency does not relate to genotypic consistency

                -Laboratory studies are too constraining to allow true personality—and consistency—to be expressed

                -S. Epstein (1979, 1980, 1982, 1983): Like Allport, emphasized the concept of Aggregation.


Mischel’s Response to Epstein (Mischel & Peake, 1982)

                -Aggregation increases measurement reliability but does not show cross-situational consistency

                -Epstein found trivial relations among behaviors

                -Aggregating cancels out the effects of situations

                -Mischel argues we must understand situation effects

The Interactionist View

               -Raush, Dittmann, & Taylor (1959)

                -Endler & Hunt (1966, 1968)

                Situation accounted for 6% of variance

                Person accounted for 8-19% of variance

                SxP accounted for 9-13% of variance

                -Bowers reviewed 11 studies done since 1919 & found

                                                Situation accounted for mean of 12.71%

                                                Person accounted for mean of 10.17%

                                                SxP accounted for mean of 20.77%

                -R. Moos studied 9 hospital patients in 11 situations

                                -Different patients reacted differently to different settings at different times

Interactionist Conclusions:

               -We must understand the patterns of stability and change for different individuals in different situations

                -We must obtain many samples of behavior in real-life and laboratory situations

-We must more clearly define the units of the person and of the situation (what is important in the person and outside the person) and understand how they interact

Is the question settled?

                Trait theorists say it is settled. There is consistency.

                Mischel (and Shoda, 1999) proposed cognitive-affective personality system (CAPS)

Still emphasizing behavior is in response to environmental cues, but looking at the process


(1)           There is considerable evidence for both person and situation determinants of behavior.

(2)           Some people are more consistent than others: Bem & Snyder

(3)           Some situations have more powerful influences than others in reducing or maximizing the role of

individual differences in personality.

(4)           The amount of evidence for consistency or variability will depend on who is being studied, where

(laboratory vs. natural environment), the personality variables considered, and the measures being used.

(5)           People observe their own behavior as well as that of others and develop theories to account for the

observed events.