Is personality contained within the person or a result of situational influences?
Trait theorists contend that personality traits inherent to the individual hold predominant predictive power, despite an inability to provide empirical support for same (Mischel, 2009). In fact, therein lays the focal point of Mischel’s critique of unilateral acceptance of broad trait theories of personality. Specifically, Mischel noted that numerous research studies have been unable to predict behavior based on personality traits (Mischel, 2009). Rather, research evidences a tendency for behavior to vary significantly dependent upon the situation (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). Mischel also argued that a correlation of 0.30 – 0.40 is rather insignificant when a perfectly positive correlation is 1.0 (Friedman & Schustack, 2012). It is important to note, however, that both of these criticisms have been addressed. For instance, although there are strict trait theorists who would hotly debate situational influences and strict social psychologists who would counter the opposite view, it is well understood that behavior is, in fact, influenced by both factors. Additionally, as Friedman and Schustack point out, 0.30 – 0.40 may seem to be have low correlative power when compared to a perfect correlative value of 1.0, however, within the context of the real world, a value between 0.30 and 0.40 is actually indicative of an important influence occurring. For example, if the odds of winning the lottery were a mere 30 to 40%, I suspect a great many more people would be likely to play. Not to mention, finding out you have a 30-40% chance of succumbing to a hereditary illness would send most individuals running to their local doctor for a checkup.
On the other hand, Mischel’s criticisms are not completely without merit. In actuality, his argument was never anti-trait as many have argued after publication of his book Personality and Assessment in 1968. Rather, Mischel argued for a more balanced viewpoint, an understanding of the necessity of allocating an equal value to both situation and trait influences on behavior. In fact, Mischel suggests that arguing trait versus situation is overly simplistic.
“It treats situations and persons as entities that supposedly exert either major or only minor control over behavior. Instead, I argued then, and still believe now, that we need to examine what situations are psychologically meaningful for different individuals and types, and how they may be mentally represented and function in the expressions of social behavior and in the organization and activation of the underlying personality system. The goal is to understand the nature of the dynamic interchange and reciprocal transactions between situations and individuals” (Mischel, 2009, p. 284).
Contemporary research bears out the conjoint influence of both traits and situation. Research related to complicated behaviors involving leadership (Derue, Nahrgang, Wellman, & Humphrey, 2011), sexual risk taking (Cooper, 2010), to even more automated behaviors such as driving (Stephens & Groeger, 2007), all evidence that situation and trait influences are conjoined to have significant influences on behavior of individuals.
Cooper, M. L. (2010). Toward a person X situation model of sexual risk-taking behaviors: Illuminating the conditional effects of traits across sexual situations and relationship contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(2), 319-341. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0017785
Derue, D. S., Nahrgang, J. D., Wellman, N., & Humphrey, S. E. (2011). Trait and behavioral theories of leadership: An integration and meta-analytic test of their relative validity. Personnel Psychology, 64(1), 7-52. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6570.2010.01201.x
Friedman, H. S., & Schustack, M. W. (2012). Personality: Classic theories and modern research (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Mischel, W. (2009). From personality and assessment (1968) to personality science, 2009. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(2), 282-290. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2008.12.037
Stephens, A. N., & Groeger, J. A. (2009). Situational specificity of trait influences on drivers’ evaluations and driving behaviour. Transportation Research Party F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 12(1), 29-39. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.trf.2008.06.005