The third assumption made by trait psychologists is that traits will exhibit some consistency across situations. Although the evidence for consistency in traits over time is substantial, the question of consistency in traits from situation to situation has been more hotly debated. Trait psychologists have traditionally believed that people's personalities show consistency from situation to situation. For example, if a young man is "really friendly ," he is expected to be friendly at work, friendly at school, and friendly during recreation activities. This person might be friendly toward strangers, friendly toward people of dif ferent ages, and friendly toward authority figures
Even though someone is really friendly, there are, of course, situations in which the individual will not act friendly . Perhaps a particular situation exerts an influenc on how friendly most people will be. For example, people are more likely to start conversations with strangers if they are at a party than if they are at a library . If situations mainly control how people behave, then the idea that traits are consistent across situations holds less promise as an approach to explaining behavior .
The issue of cross-situational consistency has a long and checkered history in personality psychology. Hartshorne and May (1928) studied a lar ge group of elementary school students at summer camp, focusing especially on the trait of honesty . They observed honest and dishonest behavior in several situations. For example, they observed which children cheated while playing field games at summer camp an which children cheated during some written exams in school. The correlation between honesty measured in each of these two situations was rather low. Knowing that a child cheated one night while playing kick-the-can at summer camp tells us very little about whether this child is likely to copy from a neighbor during a test at school. Hartshorne and May (1928) reported similar low cross-situational correlations for the traits of helpfulness and self-control.
Forty years later, in 1968, Walter Mischel published a groundbreaking book entitled Personality and Assessment. In it, he summarized the results of the Hartshorne and May (1928) study, as well as the results of many other studies reporting low correlations between personality scores obtained in dif ferent situations. After reviewing many such findings, Mischel concluded that "behavioral consistencies have not been demonstrated and the concept of personality traits as broad predispositions is thus untenable" (p. 140).
Mischel suggested that personality psychologists should abandon their ef forts to explain behavior in terms of personality traits and recommended that they shift their focus to situations. If behavior dif fers from situation to situation, then it must be sit-uational differences, rather than underlying personality traits, that determine behavior. This position, called situationism, can be illustrated with the following examples. A young woman may be friendly at school with people she knows but reserved with strangers. Or a young man may want to achieve good grades at school but may not care whether he excels in sports. The situationist position is that the situation, not personality traits, determines, for example, how friendly a person will behave or how much need for achievement a person displays. Mischel proposed that behavior was more a function of the situation than of broad personality traits.
Mischel's challenge to the trait approach preoccupied the field of trait psycholog for the 20 years following the publication of his 1968 book. Many researchers responded to Mischel' s situationist approach by formulating new theoretical perspectives and gathering new data designed to rescue the idea of traits (e.g., A. H. Buss, 1989; Endler & Magnusson, 1976). Mischel, in turn, countered with new ideas and new data of his own, intended to reinforce his position that the trait concept was limited in its usefulness (e.g., Mischel, 1984, 1990; Mischel & Peake, 1982).
Although the dust is still settling from this long-running debate, it is safe to say that both trait psychologists and Mischel have modified their views as a result. Mische has tempered his position that situations are always the strongest determinants of behavior. However, he still maintains that trait psychologists have been guilty of overstating the importance of broad traits. Prior to Mischel' s critique, it was common for trait psychologists to make statements about the predictability of people' s behavior from their scores on personality tests. Mischel points out that psychologists simply are not very good at predicting how an individual will behave in particular situations. Trait psychologists, too, have modified their views. Two of the most lasting changes that trait psychologists have embraced have been the notion of person-situation interaction and the practice of aggregation, or averaging, as a tool for assessing personality traits.
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