Individual Differences


Situation vs. Personality Debate

Last updated:
25 Aug 2003


Mischel (1968) sparks personality vs. situation debate




  • Is people's behavior best explained by the circumstances and situation they find themselves in, or by their personality, which guides behavior no matter what the situtation is?

  • Does the personality of an individual transcend the immediate situation and moment to provide a consistent guide to his or her actions or is what a person does completely dependent upon the situation he or she is in at the time?

For example, if you were placed on the sport field or in militiary combat, you would probably behave more aggressively than normal.  In fact, even quite passive and submissive people become aggressive given sufficient provocation.  This suggests that behavior may be explained by understanding not only the personality, but how also how we react to the environment and circumstances.  We term this emphasis on the role of situation circumstances, a "situational" view of personality.

The dispositional approach to personality, by definition, tries to identify those psychological characteristics which remain relatively stable for a person over time and across situations.  This may have blinded personality theorists and researchers to the role that changing situational circumstances plays.

The question provoked by the situation vs. person debate is to what extent to which behavior can be predicted by personality vs. the extent to which behavior arises from the dynamics of the situation and to what extent from the inherent characteristics of the person themselves. 

The person vs. situation debate has been hotly contested topic since the late 1960's.  Perhaps not suprisingly, the answer is that behavior is best understood and both situation and person.  Thus, as with the nature versus nurture debate, we may be better off studying the interaction more closely, to better understand the phenonmena of human behavior and experience.

Mischel (1968) sparks personality vs. situation debate

In 1968, Walter Mischel challenged the assumption that personality determined behavior, and instead claimed that people's behavior from situation to situation was variable and depended on the situational circumstances.  In other words, the "situation" view is that behavior depends on the situation itself, whereas the personality view is that behavior depends on long-held characteristic personality styles and is consistently displayed no matter the situation.

Mischel reviewed the research literature and concluded that the correlation between personality and behavior was .20 to .40 - overall .30, which is small.  This was used to argue that since there was only a small correlation between personality and behavior, then the role of personality was not all that important and the variability of behavior must be due to the situational demands (and to error). 

Another prominent situationist, Richard Nisbett (1980, cited in Funder, 2001) revised the personality-behaviour correlation upwards to .40, but this is still a small relationship.  If you use the common squared correlation method there is an upper limit of only 16% i.e. only 16% of a personís behaviour can be explained by personality. Using the Binomial effect size itís 20%, so the implication is that personality doesn't explain much of behavior.

However, those on the side of personality argue that:

  • the low personality-behavior correlations do not prove value of situational variables (the cause may be an unmeasured personality variable; i.e. stronger proof would be a high correlation between situational variable and behaviour).

  • the real relationship between personality and behavior is higher than .40; i.e., .4 is a lower-bound estimate due to error in research instruments, etc.,

  • .40 is not small; this can be translated (using effect sizes) to saying that knowing someone's personality characteristics allows prediction of behavior about 70% of the time (assuming we could predict behavior 50% of the time by chance) (Funder, 2001)

  • that personality is a strong predictor of behavior across all situations (i.e., of someone's overall trends), but is not a strong predictor of an individual's behavior at a specific time in a specific situation; e.g., personality more accurately predicts how happy you will be over the next year than it will predict how happy you are today

  • people choose their situations, and these choices reflect personality; e.g., an introvert may choose to work in a library

  • there are no other psychological variables which predict behavior more strongly that personality traits; so even though the correlations may seem low, personality traits are still the most useful psychological tools

  • personality research has improved considerably since the research reviewed by Mischel; this helped Nisbett to upwardly revise the relationship to .40.  That was over 20 years ago, and quite possibly the figure could be revised upwards further based on more recent research; however this view can be contrasted by the publication bias in research journals towards results which show significant relationships!

Interactionism: The interactionist perspective on the situation vs. person debate

Traits and Situations interact to influence behaviour - how else could it be?.  Its like the genetics vs. environment issue, one cannot exist without the other).  So, the trait and situationist perspectives are too simplistic: reality is more complex.  In reality, different situations affect different people in different ways. Some situations allow expression of personality, other situations provoke a narrower range of behaviour.  Thus,

  • Behaviour = personality x interpretation of the situation

It is vital to appreciate that there are individual differences in the personality-situation relationship.  High self-monitors display less consistency across situations in their behaviour because they try to adapt more to the situation.  Low self-monitors display more consistency in their behavior across situations because they less to adapt to situations.

Research (Kenrid et al, 1990) has shown that a trait will show up only in a situation where it is relevant. So anxiety may show up as a predictor of behavior some situations, and not others.  Also, some situations allow expression of personality, others provoke narrower range of behaviour.

In summary:

  • Some individuals show more consistent behavior

  • Traits may only emerge in some situations; traits do not have a constant influence on behavior, their influence waxes and wanes

  • Some situations allow expression of personal, whilst others provoke a narrow range of behavior (e.g., situation is strongly predictive of behavior of people hostage during a hijacking of a plane, whereas personality is strongly predictive of behavior during an exploratory art therapy session)

  • People display their traits by all that they do, including choice of situations, e.g., choice of career, choice of relationship, choice of lifestyle, etc.

In conclusion, the person-situation debate has lead to more dynamic approach to understanding how personality traits and situations interact to produce a personís behaviour



Kenrick, D. T., & Funder, D. C. (1991). The person-situation debate: Do personality traits really exist?  In V. J. Derlega, B. A. Winstead, & W. H. Jones, W. H. (Eds.) Personality: Contemporary Theory and Research (Chapter 6).