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Situationism is a theory in psychology that began in 1968 when a Person-situation debate was triggered by the publication of a monograph by Walter Mischel. [1]

It refers to an approach to behavior which holds that general traits do not exist (perhaps apart from Intelligence). Behavior, then, is seen as being influenced by external, situational factors rather than internal traits or motivations. It therefore challenged the position of trait theorists, such as Hans Eysenck or Raymond B. Cattell.

Situationists based their claims on experiments in which traits such as extraversion were estimated based on behavior in different situations. They found that a particular person's ratings in one situation were not highly predictive of that person's score in another situation. However, in response to such evidence, Hans Eysenck has pointed out that the correlations, while low, are typically still high enough to reach statistical significance. A midrange position, which holds that personality is best understood as resulting from "subtle interplay" of internal and external factors, is known as "interactionism".

Some notable situationist studies include: Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment, bystander experiments, obedience experiments like Milgram experiment and Heat and aggression experiments. The term is popularly associated with Walter Mischel, although he himself does not appear to like the term.

In 1968, Walter Mischel published a book called Personality and Assessment claiming that behavior is too cross-situationally inconsistent to be classified with personality traits. He stated:

“…with the possible exception of intelligence, highly generalised behavioral consistencies have not been demonstrated, and the concept of personality traits as broad dispositions is thus untenable” [2]:146

His book was a non-systematic meta-analysis of some of the research on the relationship between behavioral and personality traits (assessed by either self-report or peer-report). The book also assessed studies regarding measurements of behavior from one situation to another.[3] This book generated a formidable dispute between social psychologists and trait theorists because trait questionnaires had been used to measure personality for many decades. Behaviorism had dominated the field of psychology up until this time, making Mischel’s claim devastating to the mainstream consensus amongst personality psychologists and causing many psychologists to question and doubt whether personality exists.[4]

According to David C. Funder, Mischel's book posed three main questions:

  • Is personality consistent and does it overcome situational influences? Most people’s response to this is yes, people do have consistent personalities.
  • Are people’s intuitions about each other’s personalities generally flawed or generally correct?
  • If personality is really that consistent, why are psychologists continuing to argue about this issue?[3]

More recently, Mischel has retracted some of his original claims, protesting that some psychologists misinterpreted his argument to mean he believes personality does not exist.[5]

Situationist argumentEdit

Situationists had a number of arguments, but they can be generally summarized into four:[3][4]

  1. Low correlations between measures of behavior and personality: In psychological research, whether relationships between variables exist are compared by the correlation coefficient. Mischel argued that in his literature review of personality research, the correlation between personality and behavior, or behavior across situations, rarely exceeded .30-.40. Because the correlations are close to zero, Mischel concluded that personality traits have little to no relationship to shaping behavior. This claim was especially detrimental to personality psychology and continues to haunt many fields of psychology research today.[6][3][4]
  2. The validity of self-report measures and clinical assessment procedures: Most of the studies that Mischel reviewed had taken place in laboratory settings. Rarely was behavior analyzed in natural settings. The claim was that trait psychologists did not adequately combat issues of method variance,[7] social desirability and response sets,[8] and construct validity [9] when they constructed their measures of traits. The practical utility of trait measurements in predicting behavior was also questioned.[6] Even when observation studies were conducted, there was observer bias (e.g., traits are in the eye of the beholder).[4]
  3. The type of behavioral assessment and treatment procedures that were becoming popular at the time: These treatments and behavioral assessment methods focused on the situational influences on behavior, rather than personality traits.[6][10]
  4. Stability: behavior is not cross-situationally consistent, and any stability can be attributed to the consistency of the situation, not the person. Situationists questioned whether personality traits exist when behaviors are not consistent across situations; after all, why spend time studying a construct that has no validity? [4]

Because of the aforementioned points, situationists argued that the predictive ability of personality traits is severely limited. Opponents of the trait approach claimed that the idea of personality traits is fundamentally flawed and that behavior would be better understood through conditioning and learning processes.[6][3]

See alsoEdit


  1. Andrew Colman, What is Psychology?, p.98
  2. Mischel, Walter. (1968). Personality and Assessment, London, Wiley.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Funder, D.C. (2010). The Personality Puzzle. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Roberts, B.W. (2009). Back to the future: Personality and Assessment and personality development, Journal of Research in Personality 43. 137–145.
  5. Mischel, W. & Shoda, Y. (1995). A cognitive-affective system theory of personality: Reconceptualizing situations, dispositions, dynamics, and invariance in personality structure. Psychological Review, 102, 246-268.
  6. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Epstein
  7. Campbell, D. T, & Fiske, D. W. (1959). Convergent and discriminant validation by the multitrait-multimethod matrix. Psychological Bulletin, 56, 81-105.
  8. Edwards, A. L. (1957). The social desirability variable in personality assessment and research. New York: Dryden Press.
  9. Cronbach, L. J., & Meehl, P. E. (1955). Construct validity in psychological tests. Psychological Bulletin, 52, 281-302.
  10. Bandura, A. (1967). Behavioral psychotherapy. Scientific American, 216, 78-86.
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