PSYC 2130 Chapter 4: Personality traits, situations, and behaviour
- As we begin to consider the trait approach to personality psychology, two points are
important to keep in mind:
1. This approach is based on empirical research that mostly uses correlation designs.
Trait psychologists put a great deal of effort into the careful construction of methods,
such as personality tests, for actually measuring how people differ.
2. It focuses exclusively on individual differences. Trait measurements are made on
ordinal rather than ratio scales.
- This focus on comparisons is one of the great strengths of the trait approach. It is
important to understand and to be able to assess how people differ from one another.
The Measurement of individual differences
- What Kluckhohn and Murray meant. First, is that certain psychological properties and
processes are universal (needs for food, water and sex). Second, other properties of
people differ but in ways that allow individuals to be grouped (people who are cheerful,
might be essentially alike). Third, each individual is unique and cannot be meaningful
compared with anyone else (genetic makeup, past experiences, and view of the world are
different from those of anyone else who ever lived or ever will).
- Because the trait approach is based on the ideas that all men are like some other men, it
assumes that in some real sense people are their traits.
- Theorists differ on whether traits simply describe how a person acts, are the sum of
everything a person has learned, are biological structures, or are some combination of
these concepts. But for some theorists, these dimensions of individual differences are the
building blocks of which personality is constructed. This raises a fundamental problem.
People are inconsistent
- Casual observations is sufficient to confirm that personality traits are not the only factors
that control an individual’s behaviour, situations are important as well. People act
depending on the situation.
- We should consider the possibility that traits do not exist, that people continually change
who they are according to the situation, and that everybody is basically the same.
- Therefore, people differ from each other in the degree to which they have developed a
consistent personality for themselves (psychological adjustments as well as age). Several
studies suggest that the consistency of personality is associated with general mental
The person- situation debate
- Which is more important for determining what people do, the person or the situation?
- Situationists, or opponents of the trait approach , argue: 1. That according to a review of the personality literature, the ability of traits to predict
behaviour is extremely limited.
2. That situations are therefore more important than personality traits for determining
what people do.
3. That not only is personality assessment (the measurement of traits) a waste of time,
but also many of people’s intuitions about each other are fundamentally wrong.
- Predictability: the definitive test of the usefulness of a personality trait is whether it can
be used to predict behaviour. If you know somebody’s level or score on a trait, you
should be able to forecast what that person will do in the future. Situationists argue that
this predictive capacity is severely limited. There is no trait that you can use to predict
someone’s behaviour with enough accuracy to be useful.
- Mischel looked at the relationships between S data and B data, between I data and B data,
and between some B data and other B data. The first two comparisons address the ability
of personality trait judgments to predict behaviour (can an acquaintance’s judgment of
your sociability predict how sociable you will be at Friday’s party). The third comparison
addresses the consistency of behaviour across situations (if you are sociable at Friday’s
party, will you also be sociable at Tuesday’s work meeting).
- In the research literature, predictability and consistency are indexed by the correlation
coefficient (the number that ranges from +1 to -1, and indexes the association or
relationship between two variables, such as personality score and a behavioural
measurement). Mischel’s original argument was that correlations between personality and
behaviour, or between behaviour in one situation and behaviour in another, seldom
- Another situationist, Richard Nisbett, later revised this estimate upward to .40.The
implication in both cases was that such correlations are small. And that personality traits