Situation vs. Personality Debate
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.
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:
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,
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.
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).