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Personality in Social Psychology 1

Personality in Social Psychology


Entry prepared for:

Gilbert, D. & Fiske, S. (Eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology (5th Ed.).

David C. Funder

Lisa A. Fast

Department of Psychology

University if California, Riverside

Riverside, CA 92521



Personality in Social Psychology 2

Personality in Social Psychology


Social psychology and personality psychology have the same job: to seek to

understand the meaningful, consequential, and for the most part social behaviors of daily

life. Cognitive psychology examines component processes such as memory, perception,

and cognition. Biological psychology seeks to understand the physical underpinnings of

behavior in the anatomy, physiology, functional organization, genetic basis and

evolutionary history of the nervous system. Developmental psychology explores the

roots of behavior in genetics and early childhood experience, and changes across the life

course. All of these fields could be viewed as foundational for the common concern of

social and personality psychology, which is to understand what people do every day. In

this light, it is unsurprising that courses in social and personality psychology are among

the most popular offerings on most college campuses; their subject matter is not only

important, it is personally relevant and intrinsically interesting.

Social and personality psychology began to come into their own about the same

time – the 1920’s and 1930’s – through the work of many of the same people, such as the

Allport brothers, Floyd and Gordon (F. Allport, 1924; G. Allport, 1931, 1937; F. Allport

& G. Allport, 1921). What is surprising, in retrospect, is how the two fields diverged over

the subsequent decades. Social psychology came to specialize in the study of what

people have in common; in particular how aspects of situations can change what people,

on average, will do. Personality psychology came to specialize in the study of how

people differ from each other psychologically, and on ways to characterize and measure

these differences. This division of labor makes a certain amount of sense, but problems
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arose as the fields gradually became so specialized that many practitioners of each field

became unaware of the basic principles, findings and methods of the other, and grew

worse when social psychologists began to suspect that personality psychology’s emphasis

on individual differences was misguided. In his memoirs, the eminent social psychologist

Roger Brown described one memorably awkward encounter between the two traditions:

As a psychologist, in all the years… I had thought individual differences in

personality were exaggerated… I had once presumed to say to Henry A. Murray,

Harvard’s distinguished personologist: “I think people are all very much the

same.” Murray’s response had been; “Oh you do, do you? Well, you don’t

know what the hell you’re talking about!” And I hadn’t. (Brown, 1996, p. 169)

This little exchange illustrates the odd historical fact that although social and

personality psychology were born about the same time, of the same or closely related

parents, the relationship between these sibling sciences often has been uneasy, bordering

at times on outright estrangement. This is unfortunate given that the two fields not only

share a common goal, they offer complementary – not conflicting – methodological


At their core, social and personality psychology focus on two orthogonal main

effects. One the one hand, the classic method of social psychology uses experimental

designs that manipulate elements of situations to show how those elements affect what

people do. On the other hand, the classic method of personality psychology uses

correlational methods to assess how psychological properties of people – personality

traits – covary with individual differences in behavior. Arguments about whether the

situational effects uncovered by social psychological research are or are not stronger than
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the dispositional effects uncovered by personality research dominated an important subset

of the psychological literature for decades. In fact, the best currently available evidence

indicates that at a hugely aggregate level the effect sizes in both fields average out to be

about the same (Richard, Bond, & Stokes-Zoota, 2003). But that is getting ahead of our

story. Ordinary observation of the social world is enough to verify that (a) people do

different things in different situations and (b) even in the same situation, different people

often do different things. And those two conclusions are enough to verify that a complete

understanding of why people behave the way they do naturally requires personality and

social psychology to be informed by one another.

The goal of the present chapter is to help to rebuild the bridge between social and

personality psychology. The chapter is organized into six parts. The first three parts

provide a basic outline of personality psychology and an overview of some current

research. Part I defines the field and Part II describes the basic conceptual and theoretical

approaches to studying personality. It is proposed that, to the degree that each basic

approach to personality represents empirical science, they all depend on the assessment

of individual differences through behavior. This dependency puts the trait approach at the

center of personality psychology. Part III discusses current research and outlines some of

the ways that behavior has been used to assess personality. These include the prominent

method of self-report, but also include peers’ judgments and other, wider-ranging and

creative techniques for observing and measuring behavior. The last three parts deal with

the competition that has characterized the relationship between personality and social

psychology for the past 40 years or so. Part IV describes the intersection of personality

and social psychology. It focuses on research in person perception and accurate

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personality judgment, and the contrast between these two traditions. Part V outlines the

basis and unfortunate evolution of the estrangement between personality and social

psychology, which appears to be slowly ending. Finally, Part VI offers suggestions for re-

integrating these fields towards a relationship that can be become more cooperative and

less competitive.

Part I: Personality Psychology

Personality can be defined as an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought,

emotion, and behavior, together with the psychological mechanisms – hidden or not –

behind those patterns (Funder, 2007). The ultimate goal of personality psychology is to

explain every individual from the inside out. The mission includes describing, measuring

and explaining how people differ from one another, uncovering the conscious and

unconscious thoughts and feelings that drive behavior, and predicting what people will do

in the future, among other goals. But this mission has one problem: it is impossible. The

complete study of the individual encompasses too many considerations at once to be

feasibly pursued by investigators with human limitations of time and intelligence.

One way to make personality research more manageable is to divide it into

organized chunks. Rather than trying to look at every possible aspect of personality at the

same time, personality research proceeds along different theoretical avenues. Some

researchers examine the biological underpinnings of personality, others look at

developmental trajectories, others examine how the environment affects personality, and

others study how people differ in how they perceive and process information, and still

others – and all of them, in some sense – seek to discover and assess the basic
Personality in Social Psychology 6

psychological dimensions along which individuals differ. All of these areas of research

are similar in that they focus on individual differences and patterns of behavior, but are

guided by different paradigmatic frameworks that specify which phenomena are the focus

of attention (e.g., particular traits and behaviors) and which mechanisms are used for

explanation (e.g., genes vs. the environment vs. cognition). The basic approaches to

studying personality are biological, psychoanalytic, humanistic, learning-based,

cognitive, and trait-based (Funder, 2007).

Although the different approaches sometimes compete with one another for the

ultimate status of explaining everything there is to know about personality, the reality is

that different research questions are better addressed through different paradigmatic

perspectives. For example, the principles of behaviorism can be used to explain how

gambling behavior is maintained, but say nothing about why those who have gambling

addictions are often unable to admit that they have a problem. In contrast, psychoanalysis

has much to say about denial and other defense mechanisms, but offers little toward

understanding how the intermittent reinforcement schedule associated with gambling can

make this maladaptive behavior so persistent. For this reason, it makes more sense to

view each approach as useful for addressing its own key concerns, rather than viewing

them as mutually exclusive alternatives.

Part II: The Basic Approaches to Studying Personality

Biological Approach

The biological approach to studying personality searches for the organic roots of

individual differences using anatomy, physiology, genetics, and evolutionary theory.

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Anatomy. Research focusing on anatomy attempts to identify brain structures that

play a role in various personality traits. For example, research using functional magnetic

resonance imaging (fMRI) has shown that shy people, compared to people described as

more “bold,” respond to pictures of unfamiliar people with bilateral activation of the

amygdala, and to pictures of familiar people with activation on just the left side of this

organ (Beaton, Schmidt, Schulkin, Antony, Swinson & Hall, 2008). Bolder individuals

respond to pictures of familiar and unfamiliar people with stronger activation in their

nucleus accumbens, compared to shy people. Research by Barrett (2006) also shows that

the amygdala plays an important role in positive emotions such as sexual responsiveness.

Another intriguing finding is that activity in the left frontal lobe appears to be associated

with pleasant emotion and motivation to approach attractive people and objects, while

activity in the right frontal lobe seems to be associated with unpleasant emotion and

motivation to withdraw (Davidson et al, 1990; Hewig et al., 2004). Areas of the brain

traditionally associated with emotional responsiveness (e.g., the posterior cingulate, the

insula) appear to be particularly active in response to images relevant to rejection, in

individuals who suffer from a syndrome known as rejection sensitivity (Kross, Egner,

Ochsner, Hirsch & Downey, 2007).

Findings like these continue to accumulate rapidly in the research literature, and

are yielding the beginning of a map of locations in the brain that might be the basis of

specific personality traits – the amygdala for emotionally relevant traits, hemispheric

dominance for overall positive and negative affectivity, the posterior cingulate for

rejection sensitivity, and so on. The findings are complex, however, and the intricate

experimental controls that this kind of research requires and the typical focus, in a single
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study, on just one or a few brain regions makes interpretation and firm conclusions


Moreover, the larger implications for personality theory have yet to become clear.

To put the matter bluntly: if shyness is indeed associated with specific processes in the

amygdala, for example, what difference does that make? In what way does this finding

lead us to think differently about shyness? Indeed, some researchers have worried that

fMRI and other imaging technology yields a “new phrenology” that produces brain maps

in lieu of psychological insight (Uttal, 2001). The challenge for the next generation of

research will be to use these intriguing findings to illuminate aspects of personality that

were not previously apparent, and to outline psychological processes and interactions

among them that are not detectable from overt behavioral data alone. Modern imaging

technology offers a theoretical promissory note that will someday be paid but, to date,

remains to be cashed.

Physiology. Biological research on personality also addresses physiology,

examining biochemicals (neurotransmitters and hormones) that might be associated with

individual differences in behavior. Dopamine and serotonin are widely studied

neurotransmitters. Research suggests that dopamine is involved in the experience of

reward and the reinforcement of behavior (Blum et al., 1996), while serotonin plays a

role in emotional regulation and feelings of well-being (Knutson et al., 1998). The

hormone testosterone has received considerable attention and appears to play an

important role in sexual behavior and aggression (Zuckerman, 1991; Dabbs & Morris,

1990, respectively). Cortisol, the well-known “fight or flight” hormone associated with

anxiety, fear and aggressive response, appears to be surprisingly low in shy individuals
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(Beaton, Schmidt, Ashbaugh, Santesso, Antony, McCabe, Segalowtiz & Schulkin, 2006).

But it also is low in people high on the trait of sensation-seeking, so the situation, as

always, is complicated (Zuckerman, 1998). Like the fMRI work surveyed earlier, these

studies are tantalizingly suggestive of the possible chemical bases of aggression, sexual

response, and motivation, and of personality traits such as aggressiveness, hypersexuality,

depression, emotional resiliency, and shyness. Their findings can have direct

implications for therapeutic interventions; for example, drugs to increase levels of the

neurotransmitter serotonin (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Prozac,

generically fluoxetine) and doses of the hormone testosterone have been used in the

treatment of depression.

Although psychophysiology has provided insights about the biological basis of

behavior and individual differences in personality traits, researchers must be careful

about inferring causal relationships. For example, Bernhardt et al. (1998) found that after

watching a World Cup playoff game, fans of the winning soccer team had higher

testosterone levels than fans of the losers. And psychotherapy can change measurable

aspects of brain activity (Isom & Heller, 1999). Findings like these suggest that biology

is not just a cause of individual differences in behavior and psychological experience; it is

also an effect. Neuroanatomy, physiology, and patterns of behavior and experience are

complicated phenomena in and of themselves, and the relationship between personality

and biology is surely even more complex, with causal arrows pointing in both directions.

Behavioral Genetics. Behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology both

focus on the inheritance of individual differences in behavior. For the good and the bad,

we are more similar to people with whom we share more genes (e.g., our parents) than
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fewer genes (e.g., our cousins). We look like our parents, we are more likely to have high

blood pressure if our parents do, and we even have an IQ level similar to our parents.

Behavioral genetics extends this knowledge and studies the question: Are those who are

more genetically similar (e.g., monozygotic twins) more similar in personality compared

to those who are less genetically similar (e.g., dyzygotic twins)? Decades of research has

established that most and perhaps all personality traits are heritable to some degree.

Indeed, one authoritative researcher seriously suggested that “the first law of behavioral

genetics” should be everything is heritable (Turkheimer, 1998, p. 789). Genes matter, to

at least some degree, to any psychological outcome and certainly any personality trait.

Having established this fact, current research is directed towards more fine-tuned

questions, such as, how do genes affect personality and how do genes and the

environment interact to influence personality outcomes. For example, Caspi et al. (2002)

found that boys whose genes caused a low level of expression of an enzyme called MAO

were more likely to be antisocial if they were maltreated as children. If, however, their

genes caused a high level of expression of MAO, they were protected to some degree

from such adverse effects. As the field of behavioral genetics continues to develop, the

goal will be to generate increasingly fine-grained accounts, such as the one just emerging

concerning MAO, of how genes interact with the environment to create brain structures

and aspects of physiology that lead to individual differences in behavior.

Evolutionary Psychology. Evolutionary psychology studies behavioral patterns

proposed to have been adaptive during the development of the human species. It assumes

that behaviors that are common to humans (a) have a genetic basis and (b) increased the

likelihood of survival and/or reproduction during evolutionary history. The more a

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behavior helps an individual to survive and reproduce, the more likely the behavior is to

be genetically transmitted, and therefore, appear in subsequent generations. Evolutionary

psychology has particularly focused on variation in sexual behavior between males and

females. It is commonly hypothesized that gender differences in behavior that are still

present today exist because, in the history of evolution, the behaviors that increased the

likelihood of reproduction for males were different from the behaviors that increased the

likelihood of reproduction for females.

Sexual jealousy has been a hot topic in evolutionary research. Buss et al. (1992)

observed that females are more distressed by imagining their mate being emotionally

unfaithful than sexually unfaithful, whereas males are more distressed by imagining

sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity. The explanation for this gender difference is

that attending to cues of sexual infidelity (becoming distressed) resulted in greater

reproductive fitness for males in evolutionary history because males face paternal

uncertainty. It was more costly for a male to mate with a female who might be mating

with other males and possibly invest in offspring who were not his own than to mate with

a female who might form an emotional attachment with another male. Attending to cues

of emotional infidelity, however, resulted in greater reproductive fitness for females

because females do not face parental uncertainty. It was more costly for a female to mate

with a partner who might form an emotional bond with another female and fail to provide

resources for her offspring than to mate with a male who might have other sexual

partners. Although the male might have other offspring, his emotional attachment will

ensure that he provides resources to the females’ offspring and thus promotes her genetic

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Are the conclusions of evolutionary psychology relevant to personality? If one

assumes that men and women have different “personalities” – and they certainly are

individuals who, as a group, differ from one another – then the answer would seem to be

yes. Evolutionary theorizing provides an explanation of one area of behavior where the

big two groups of humans appear to be characteristically different. But mostly

personality is defined at a level more specific than “typical male” or “typical female” and

it is less clear how to apply evolutionary theorizing to explanations of personality traits.

Indeed, some researchers have argued that evolutionary theory almost implies that

individual differences do not matter, because any traits that were disadvantageous for

survival and reproduction should have been selected out of the gene pool long ago

(Tooby & Cosmides, 1990).

However, a trait that is disadvantageous in one context may be helpful in another.

A tendency to be agreeable might make one more susceptible to being swindled, but also

allow one to make more friends. As a result, through the generations, people high and

low in agreeableness will both tend to succeed, in different settings, and across

individuals differences between people high and low on this trait will continue to be


Another evolutionary explanation for the existence of individual differences is

that some traits may evolve as responses to particular environmental contingencies and

are designed to come “on line” only under certain circumstances, just as one will develop

calluses on one’s hands only if they are used in manual work (Buss & Greiling, 1999).

For example, many of us might have a latent tendency to be aggressive but only a few

have experienced environments that have brought that trait into behavioral reality –
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presumably, environments that in evolutionary history were those where aggressiveness

was advantageous. In a similar fashion, potential traits might or might not develop

depending on whether they will promote outcomes for particular individuals. The

aggressive style works better for boys who are big and strong rather than for boys who

are small and weak; this might be the reason why the former are more likely to become

juvenile delinquents (Glueck & Glueck, 1956). Still other traits might have evolved to be

frequency dependent, meaning that they appear depending on how prevalent the trait

already is in the population at large. One theory of primary psychopathy claims that this

style of conscienceless and exploitative behavior is biologically controlled to appear only

in a small number of individuals, because if it grew to be more widespread the behavior

would become completely self-defeating (Mealy, 1995).

Whatever one thinks about its accounts for specific traits and behaviors,

evolutionary theorizing does offer a distinctive route for explaining why people do what

they do. Considering the question of why a behavior might have been or still be

evolutionary adaptive – especially in cases where the answer is not immediately obvious

– can be illuminating. And the more complex questions concerning when certain

behaviors might be or have been adaptive can be even more interesting.

Beyond the explanatory stories it offers, evolutionary psychology also can serve

one other purpose: as a constraint on theorizing. Psychological scientists are used to

evaluating theories on the basis to which they are internally consistent and offer

parsimonious accounts. Evolutionary theory offers an additional criterion for evaluating

theories, the degree to which they are evolutionarily plausible. For example, versions of
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psychoanalytic theory that posit a drive towards seeking one’s own death and destruction

obviously fail this elementary test.

For another example, a tradition in cognitive psychology and some parts of social

psychology examines the inferential capabilities of the human mind, and concludes that

in some respects these capabilities are fundamentally flawed (e.g., Ross, 1977; Gilovich,

1993). Evolutionary considerations suggest that any such suggestion must be examined

very closely. On the one hand, evolutionary reasoning does not suggest that the mind

should have evolved to be perfect, any more than it suggests that our biceps should have

evolved to lift unlimited amounts of weight. Some objects are too heavy for us to lift;

presumably we have evolved to be strong enough to lift what our ancestors had to deal

with. In a similar vein, our minds make many mistakes of memory and inference but a

mind that wasn’t smart enough to make essential decisions relevant to survival and

reproduction would not have allowed its body to pass genes to succeeding generations.

This line of reasoning suggests that the basic mechanisms of cognitive inference that

have survived millennia of harsh environments and reproductive competition are more

likely to be adaptive, by and large, than fundamentally flawed (Gigerenzer, Todd & the

ABC Research Group, 2000; Haselton & Funder, 2006). In this and other ways,

evolutionary considerations offer new ways to look at established theories in social and

personality psychology and new grounds on which to evaluate them.

Psychoanalytic Approach

While biological research seeks to identify the specific physical foundations of

behavior and personality, the psychoanalytic approach often operates on a level of almost

metaphysical abstraction – one that, nonetheless, leads to unique insights and, on

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occasion, testable hypotheses. Psychoanalysis seeks to understand personality at the

deepest psychological level and takes on the unique challenge of explaining what is going

on in the hidden and sometimes dark recesses of the human mind. From a psychoanalytic

perspective, personality is shaped by early childhood experiences and behavior is

ultimately determined by the outcomes of unconscious processes and conflict. The

psychoanalytic approach focuses on constructs such as the unconscious mind, defense

mechanisms, attachment, and ego-strength.

Psychoanalysis has long been criticized for being unscientific because it was

historically based on subjective interpretations of patients by clinical practitioners – most

notably Sigmund Freud – using the case study method. However, aspects of

psychoanalytic theory sometimes have received empirical tests, and some of those tests

have been successful (for reviews, see Baumeister, Dale & Sommer, 1998; Westen,


Freud died in 1939 but his theory lives on, in several forms. In one form Freud

himself is still the issue. A small psychoanalytic community continues to take Freud’s

writings literally as infallible sources of truth; a counter-community continues to attack

everything from his research methods to his personal life (Crews, 1993; Masson, 1984).

Both of these effectively allied groups miss the point because psychoanalytic theory

continues to evolve and has become detached from and largely independent of its long-

deceased creator. This development was seen in the neo-Freudians (who are themselves

no longer “neo” or even, mostly, alive) such as Adler, Jung, Erikson and Horney, and in

the growth of psychoanalytically-inspired approaches such as object relations theory

(Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983) and attachment theory (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007).
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The most interesting modern manifestation of psychoanalytic theory has arisen

among researchers who are currently using rigorous methodologies to test psychoanalytic

ideas, with or without acknowledging their Freudian roots. According to Westen (1998,

pp. 334-335), five key postulates of psychoanalytic theory are frequently studied and

generally supported:

1. Much of mental life is unconscious, which means that people may do or

think things that they do not themselves understand.

2. Different mental processes can operate at the same time and this parallel

processing can produce conflicting thoughts and behavioral impulses.

3. The roots of adult personality can be found in childhood, and early

experience has especially important implications for how individuals

form later social relationships.

4. Social interactions are shaped by psychological representations of the

self, others, and relationships.

5. Personality development involves learning to regulate sexuality and

aggression as an individual moves from immaturity and dependence on

others to maturity and independence.

Among the research that supports one or more of these tenets are studies that

show that a part of the mind (i.e., the unconscious) perceives things that the conscious

mind does not (Erdelyi, 1974; Bornstein, 1999; Dijskterhuis, this volume), behavior and

consciousness is a result of numerous independently operating mental subsystems

(Rumelhart, McClelland, & The PDP Research Group, 1986), the unconscious mind can

prevent the conscious mind from perceiving anxiety-provoking stimuli (Erdelyi, 1985),
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and childhood attachment with one’s parents may translate into styles of adult romantic

attachment with important consequences for emotional life (Hazan & Shaver, 1990;

Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). Overall, psychoanalysis is the most widely and heavily

criticized of all the approaches to studying personality; however, it continues to provoke

interest and raises questions that the rest of psychology sometimes ignores.

Humanistic Approach

The humanistic approach was originally based on an even less scientific tradition

than psychoanalysis. Early pioneers, such as Carl Rogers (1951) and Abraham Maslow

(1987), believed that personality is a special entity that cannot be studied dispassionately

from a distance. They argued that unlike rocks and trees, people can perceive, think, and

feel, and this fact makes the study of people fundamentally different from other sciences

and more difficult than is usually acknowledged. The humanistic approach proposes that

the key to understanding behavior requires appreciating each individual from his or her

own unique perspective. Humanism is also different from the other approaches in that it

focuses on human strength, growth, and well-being, rather than human weakness.

Although early humanism was most influential within clinical and developmental

psychology, it has inspired modern empirical personality research that, unlike its

humanistic precursors, uses rigorous empirical methods. Core ideas from the humanistic

perspective can be found in current research in “positive psychology” and cross-cultural


The newly emerging area of positive psychology identifies human strengths and

studies how they can be used to increase well-being and happiness. Positive psychology

has provided useful insights about how cognitive processes affect individual differences
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in happiness. For example, studies suggest that people who engage in unproductive

rumination and do not take the time to appreciate the good things in life are less likely to

be happy (Lyubomirsky, 2001; Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005). A more basic

question concerns the definition of happiness or well-being. Some researchers have

defined happiness in terms of high positive affect, low negative affect, and high life

satisfaction (hedonic well-being), while others have defined happiness in terms of

striving toward meaning and self-actualization (eudaimonic well-being). These

conceptualizations are theoretically distinct and lead to different predictions about how

happy people feel and behave. For example, those who are higher in eudaimonic well-

being may not necessarily be low in negative affect because striving for meaning in life

can involve enduring struggle and adversity. Although the different conceptualizations of

happiness seem to have different implications, self-reports of hedonic and eudaimonic

well-being have been observed to have highly similar external correlates, and for this

reason, they might overlap empirically more than they do theoretically (Nave, Sherman,

& Funder, 2008; Ryan & Deci, 2001).

Humanistic psychology’s core concern with how people construct their views of

reality is echoed in cross-cultural research, which involves understanding the ways in

which people from different cultures may have fundamentally different views of the

world. Triandis (1994, 1997) proposes that one of the ways in which members of

different cultures might experience reality differently concerns the degree to which the

cultures are individualistic versus collectivistic. Individualistic cultures (including mostt

Western cultures) have a sharp boundary between the self and others and value

independence over inter-dependence. In collectivistic cultures (including most Eastern

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cultures), the boundary between self and others is more blurry and the well-being of the

group is seen as more important than any individual. In support, research suggests that

people in collectivist cultures are more likely to report experiencing other-focused

emotions (e.g., sympathy), while people in individualist cultures are more likely to

experience self-focused emotions (e.g., anger) (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). More recent

research branches out in various directions, including the study of cultural groups that go

beyond the traditional East-West dichotomy (e.g., Tsai & Chentsova-Dutton, 2003;

Nisbett & Cohen, 1996), a closer examination of multi-cultural individuals (e.g., Benet-

Martínez & Haritatos, 2005), and a renewed focus on the elements of human nature that

are similar as well as different across cultural contexts (e.g., Matsumoto, 2007; Oishi,

Diener, Napa Scollon & Biswas-Diener, 2004).

Learning-based Approaches

Classic behaviorists ignore concepts like happiness and construals of reality

because their approach strictly dictates that they study only that which can be directly

observed. Behaviorism is a learning-based approach to studying personality and it places

heavy emphasis on overt behavior and the rewards and punishments in the environment

that condition individuals to behave in certain ways. From this perspective, personality is

simply the behaviors that an individual performs as a result of environmentally imposed

reinforcement contingencies. Although some researchers still conduct classic behavioral

research (e.g., Applied Behavioral Analysis), most psychologists now recognize that pure

behaviorism leaves out important psychological ingredients. For example, one’s beliefs

about reinforcements, not just the reinforcements themselves, play an important role in

determining behavior. In particular, the evaluative properties of rewards can be as

Personality in Social Psychology 20

important as the rewards themselves and can, depending on the circumstances, undermine

or enhance their effects (Harackiewicz & Sansone, 2000). People also learn how to act

from watching the behaviors and consequences of the behaviors of others. Considerations

such as these led to the development of the social learning theories.

Social learning theories stay true to behaviorism in acknowledging the importance

of environmental influences on behavior, but they add unobservable elements that make

their theories more attractive, and perhaps more plausible. Julian Rotter’s (1954, 1982)

social learning theory discusses the importance of expectations for behavior and proposes

that behavioral decisions are based on one’s beliefs about the attractiveness of

reinforcements and the perceived likelihood of attaining reinforcements. Like Rotter,

Bandura’s (1971, 1977) social learning theory recognizes the importance of expectations

of reinforcements, but his theory also emphasizes expectations about the self. Bandura’s

version explains how beliefs about one’s own capabilities (e.g., self-efficacy) influence

what one attempts to do and how watching the behavior of others (e.g., observational

learning) influences one’s own actions.

Walter Mischel’s “cognitive affective personality system” (CAPS) is a social-

learning theory specifically intended to explain personality (Mischel & Shoda, 1995;

Mischel, 1999). CAPS proposes that personality is a system composed of several person

variables that interact with each situation in which a person finds himself or herself.

Person variables include mental abilities and behavioral skills, ways of construing reality

and efficacy expectations, procedures for controlling behavior, and affects or emotions.

According to the CAPS theory, each individual can be characterized by a unique set of

“If… then” statements that describe what a person will do in different situations. For
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example, “if” a conflict arises, one person might “then” become confrontational and

escalate the hostilities, whereas “if” in conflict another individual might “then” seek to

withdraw from the situation. Thus, the situation is the “if” and the behavior is the “then,”

and every individual is characterized by a pattern of characteristic reactions to particular

situational stimuli (a description of personality that is, in some ways, reminiscent of the

S-R personality theory of John Watson (1930)).

Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach, which evolved from and overlaps with the social learning

theories, focuses on perceptual processes, thoughts and beliefs, and motivational

processes that form the basis of personality and behavior. One way of conceptualizing

personality traits is to think of them as dimensions along which people think and perceive

information differently. For example, one person might have the disposition to have

positive thoughts more readily accessible, whereas another person might have the

disposition to have negative thoughts more accessible. Gordon Allport pointed out this

possibility many years ago, when he wrote:

For some the world is a hostile place where men are evil and dangerous; for

others it is a stage for fun and frolic. It may appear as a place to do one’s duty

grimly; or a pasture for cultivating friendship and love. (Allport, 1961, p. 266).

Individuals who perceive the world differently might be expected to behave

accordingly, and research has confirmed this expectation. Downey and Feldman (1996)

proposed that individuals who are higher in the trait of rejection sensitivity, for whom

thoughts of rejection are readily available, are more likely to interpret any ambiguous

signal as confirmation that their partner is about to abandon them. The slightest
Personality in Social Psychology 22

expression of irritation from a partner invokes panic, and because the person has a

negative reaction toward his or her partner every time a threat is perceived, the person

indeed becomes more likely to be rejected. Such individual differences in “chronic

accessibility” may also be involved in aggression. Dodge and Frame (1982) found that

aggressive boys were quick to perceive hostility in the characters of a short story,

whereas nonaggressive boys generally reached a more benign interpretation.

Trait Approach

The trait approach to studying personality places individual difference constructs

(i.e., personality traits) front and center. According to Allport (1931), traits are

psychological mechanisms that determine people’s responses to stimuli. He believed that

traits motivate and organize an individual’s behavior and knowing an individual’s traits

requires observing his or her behavior repeatedly. Such observation will reveal the

consistent behavioral patterns from which the underlying psychological mechanisms can

be inferred.

From this perspective, traits are like gravity. Gravity is a concept that describes

the force of attraction between objects and explains a wide range of astronomical

observations (e.g., how planets orbit the sun). Similarly, traits are psychological concepts

that are used to describe individual differences in behavior and give coherence to a wide

range of psychological observations. For example, “narcissism” is a construct that ties

together a complex pattern of attitudes and behaviors of people who believe they are

exceptional individuals entitled to exploit others for their own advantage (Morf &

Rhodewalt, 2001; Vazire & Funder, 2006). Nobody has ever seen either gravity or

narcissism directly, but perhaps their nature can be discerned from their effects.
Personality in Social Psychology 23

The main aims of trait research include identifying and conceptualizing important

personality traits, accurately measuring individual differences in traits, and ultimately

using traits to understand behavior. Trait research also examines the developmental

antecedents of personality and seeks to predict short-term behaviors (e.g., delay of

gratification and cooperation with others in a group task) and long-term outcomes (e.g.,

job performance, health, and divorce). Perhaps the most well-known area of trait research

concerns the Big Five personality traits: extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness,

agreeableness, and openness or intellect or culture, which can be measured by any of

several different, widely-used questionnaires (McCrae & Costa, 1987; Saucier &

Goldberg, 2003). Research suggests that individuals’ standing on the Big Five begins to

stabilize in their thirties (Caspi, Roberts, & Shiner, 2005), but continue to change to a

smaller degree thereafter. Basic traits (including traits in addition to the Big Five) that

continue to rise between ages 30 and 70 include social dominance, agreeableness,

conscientiousness, and emotional stability. Openness to experience appears to remain

about stable, on average, and social vitality goes down over this period (Roberts, Walton

& Viechtbauer, 2006). Traits like these predict a wide-range of important behaviors and

life outcomes, such as happiness, social adjustment, marital satisfaction, career choice,

job performance, and civic engagement (Ozer & Benet-Martinez, 2006; Roberts, Kuncel,

Shiner, Caspi & Goldberg, 2007).

One common critique of traits is that while they describe patterns of behavior,

they do not explain where those patterns come from (Pervin, 1994). For example, a

person who constantly worries and has an intense reaction to stress could be described as

high in neuroticism. But where does neuroticism come from in the first place? What are
Personality in Social Psychology 24

the psychological mechanisms that produce and maintain neuroticism? Although traits are

insufficient, by themselves, to fully explain behavior, they provide (a) an efficient means

for describing how individuals are different from one another (e.g., not all individuals are

neurotic, which is interesting in and of itself), (b) offer a basis from which to predict

future behavior (e.g., you can expect someone high in neuroticism to be upset regardless

of what is going on in his or her life), and (c) provide a useful explanatory resting point

(Funder, 1994). That is, once traits have been identified and validly measured, research

can be directed toward deeper explanation. The other approaches to studying personality,

discussed earlier, are in part an attempt to push the explanatory regress one or more steps

deeper, but they all depend on this first step, of identifying and measuring consistent

individual differences in behavior.

All but one of the basic approaches to personality are committed to a particular

way of explaining these differences: the biological approach in anatomy, physiology,

genetics and evolution, the psychoanalytic approach in unconscious processes and early

experience, the humanistic approach in individual construals of reality, the learning

approaches in responses to reward and punishment, and the cognitive approach in

processes of perception and thought. The exception is the trait approach, which is

primarily methodological (as seen in its emphasis on psychometric technology) and

stands apart from a commitment to any particular explanation of the individual

differences it identifies and measures. This atheoretical stance might be viewed as a

weakness, but it puts the trait approach at the center of personality psychology because it

provides an outlook and technology that is critical to all the approaches, and indeed to
Personality in Social Psychology 25

any researcher who would seek to understand how individuals are psychologically

different from one another.

For example, a positive psychologist who studies happiness must create a valid

method of measuring it and observe how individual differences in happiness are

associated with differences in behavior. Similarly, a behavioral geneticist who is

interested in the inheritance of psychopathology must find an appropriate way to measure

individual differences in various aspects of maladjustment. In short, if one is interested

in psychological dimensions along which people differ, then there is no escaping the

basic issues of psychometrics, whether one chooses the label one’s construct as a “trait,”

a “person variable,” or some other near-synonym.

Moreover, descriptions of person variables or other individual difference

constructs labeled with terms other than “trait” often amount to restatements. For

example, the cognitive measures such as self-descriptive reaction time associated with

“self-schemas” in the research by Markus (1977) are similarly associated with scores

from conventional self-report scales such as the California Psychological Inventory

(Fuhrman & Funder, 1995). One can also observe that the “if… then” statements that

characterize the CAPS theory largely amount to operational definitions of personality

traits. Whereas in trait terms one might say that a person who is more extraverted is more

likely to be talkative in social situations, the CAPS theory would more specifically claim

that “if” a particular person perceives a situation as social, “then” he or she will talk.

There is not much difference between these statements, and one might even suggest that

the trait description is more economical. For this reason, the remainder of the present

chapter will be oriented towards trait psychology. It focuses on the conceptualization and
Personality in Social Psychology 26

measurement of individual differences, which is a core issue in personality research

regardless of one’s deeper theoretical preference.

Part III: Behavioral Assessment of Personality

The foundation of empirical personality psychology is the observation of behavior

– the only way to examine a personality construct is to propose a behavioral

manifestation and then observe it. This is true regardless of the nature of the construct,

which, as we have seen, might be anything from stimulus generalization, to rejection-

sensitivity, to self-esteem, to conscientiousness, to gender identity. The scientific study of

personality rests on the following simple formula: P → B. A researcher might

theoretically view P as causing B, or view P as a summary of B, but the method of study

remains the same.

A wide range of techniques can be used to examine the behaviors associated with

personality, but in practice the most common method is self-report. Self-report has at

least three advantages for personality assessment (along with some important

disadvantages that will be considered later). First, a person lives his or her life in many

different situations and is the only one who has had a chance to observe his or her own

behavior in all of them. The self is also the only observer with direct access to his or her

inner mental life, which is largely invisible from the outside. In short, the self has more

information than anyone else, and has unique access to some. Second, self-views tend to

have a causal force. Research on self-verification (Swann, Chang-Schneider & Angulo,

2007) suggests that people actively seek to behave in ways that confirm what they believe

to be true about themselves, and studies of self-efficacy (e.g., Bandura, 1977) show how
Personality in Social Psychology 27

what people attempt to do depends upon they believe about their capabilities. Finally, and

perhaps most importantly in practice, self-reports are the simplest and easiest type of data

to obtain. Gathering observational behavioral data, assessing life outcomes, or recruiting

friends or family to provide personality judgments of target individuals is expensive and

time-consuming. Self-report allows researchers to quickly collect information about

many people at relatively little cost.

Self-reports yield behavioral data, in two senses. First, many questions on self

report inventories are questions about behavior, ranging from whether the person goes to

many parties to how often he or she gets angry. To the extent that the answers to these

questions are accurate, self-report offers an efficient method to gather wide-ranging

information about what people do in daily life. Second, self-report is itself a behavior

(Hogan & Nicholson, 1988). The act of claiming that one is friendly or hostile is a self-

presentation that may be interesting in its own right. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of

self-report personality questionnaires are currently available and are widely used in

research, business, and clinical settings. Some self-report inventories measure one

specific personality trait, others measure a wide variety of traits, and others measure a

few essential traits.

Single Traits

When a researcher develops a personality test that measures a single trait, the trait

is usually one that that seems particularly important and a huge effort may be made to

explore all possible implications. The traits that receive this kind of attention vary over

the years, for reasons that may be less than clear. Some traits appear to become well-

known and widely researched because they address a social issue that seems particularly
Personality in Social Psychology 28

important at the time. For example, the post-World War II years saw an explosion of

research on authoritarianism (Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson & Sanford, 1950), a

trait hypothesized to underlie the combination of racism and reverence for traditional

authority that allowed the Nazi atrocities. Other traits might come into prominence

because of the ingenuity of their researchers, such as the creative investigations Richard

Christie (Christie & Geis, 1970) conducted while illuminating the trait of effective

manipulative-ness that he called Machiavellianism. Or perhaps they just fit the cultural

zeitgeist for some ineffable reason, such as may have been manifested by the surge of

interest in locus of control during the 1960’s and 1970’s (Rotter, 1954, 1982).

Three traits that are of current interest, probably for a combination of all these

reasons, are self-esteem, self-monitoring, and attributional complexity. The concept of

self-esteem (see Swann, this volume) originates in the humanistic tradition. Carl Rogers

(1951) laid the theoretical groundwork when he introduced the concept of unconditional

positive regard. According to Rogers, people who accept themselves as they are and

regard themselves in a positive manner unconditionally will enjoy better psychological

health. Years later, Rosenberg (1965) developed a self-report questionnaire that measures

individual differences in self-esteem such that those who score higher are hypothesized to

have a positive orientation toward themselves and believe they have value and worth.

Indeed, research suggests that low self-esteem is related to a variety of negative outcomes

such as depression, hopelessness, dissatisfaction with life (Crocker & Wolfe, 2001), and

loneliness (Cutrona, 1982). Self-esteem was regarded as so important that the California

legislature set up a task force to increase self-esteem, as part of a phenomenon known as

the self-esteem movement.

Personality in Social Psychology 29

More recently, research has suggested that self-esteem cuts both ways. While low

self-esteem is unhealthy, extremely high self-esteem may lead to abusive, even criminal

behavior. Baumeister, Bushman, and Campbell (2000) argue that extremely high self-

esteem, or inflated beliefs about one’s superiority over others, underlies aggression, and a

literature review provided evidence that extreme favorable self-regard is related to a

variety of violent behaviors such as murder, rape, and spousal abuse (Baumeister, Smart,

& Boden, 1996). One reason unrealistically high self-esteem could be bad is that low

self-esteem may be an adaptive danger signal. According to sociometer theory (Leary,

1999), self-esteem is a mechanism that allows people to gauge how well they are doing

socially. It tends to be lower when one has disappointed his or her social group and the

negative feeling that accompanies low self-esteem should motivate a person to restore his

or her reputation. For this reason, a person with unrealistically high self-esteem might fail

to detect when others are unhappy with him or her and fail to respond in an appropriate

manner. Overall, it seems that adaptive self-esteem is based on legitimate

accomplishment, rather than having an extremely high or low level independent of


Self-monitoring is another personality trait that has been widely studied, its

prominence pushed along by a highly productive original investigator (Mark Snyder) and

a variety of creative studies by him and others. The self-monitoring scale measures

individual differences in the degree to which a person is concerned with the impression

he or she makes on others and adjusts his or her behavior to each social situation to bring

about the desired impression (Snyder, 1974). According to theory, high self-monitors are

sensitive to situational cues and monitor their behavior to behave in socially desirable
Personality in Social Psychology 30

ways. In contrast, low self-monitors are less concerned with the social climate and act

more consistently, regardless of the situation. Not surprisingly, high self-monitors are

more likely to be described as popular, expressive, and socially poised, whereas low self-

monitors are more likely to be described as introspective and independent (Funder &

Harris, 1986). Individuals higher in self-monitoring also perform better in job interviews

(Osborn, Feild, & Veres, 1998), use more strategies to influence their co-workers

(Caldwell & Burger, 1997), and are more willing to lie to get a date (Rowatt,

Cunningham, & Druen, 1998). Finally, research suggests that high self-monitors are more

likely to look to the social environment to gauge how they are feeling, whereas low self-

monitors are more likely to look within (Graziano & Bryant, 1998).

Attributional complexity is an individual difference construct that may have

arisen to exceptional prominence because of the innovative way it attempts to bridge

traditional concerns of personality and social psychology. The Attributional Complexity

Scale (ACS: Fletcher et al., 1986) was developed to reconcile two opposing views

concerning how lay social perceivers determine whether the causes of another person’s

behavior are internal, external, or a combination of the two. One view proposes that

people are cognitive misers who rely on simple heuristics when attributing the causes of

other’s behavior (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974), while the other view holds that the

attributional process is complex (Ross & Fletcher, 1985). Rather than viewing all social

perceivers as either simple or complex, the ACS measures individual differences in the

motivation and preference for complex attributions. Those higher in attributional

complexity are more likely to consider both dispositional and situational factors when

trying to understand others’ behavior, while those lower in attributional complexity are
Personality in Social Psychology 31

less likely to think about the causes of behavior or to consider multiple causes. Research

has shown that, compared to those lower in attributional complexity, individuals higher in

this trait are relatively less likely to fall prey to various errors of social judgment

(Schaller et al., 1995; Follett & Hess, 2002) and, under some circumstances, are better at

“mind reading” the thoughts of others in social interaction (Thomas & Fletcher, 2000).

Research also suggests that individuals who are higher in attributional complexity are

more likely to be described as thoughtful, empathic, open to experience, and generally

likeable (Fast, Reimer, & Funder, 2008).

Multiple Traits

Other widely-used personality tests measure a large number of traits at once. The

“many-trait” inventories are typically used to examine the many possible psychological

characteristics that are related to an important behavior or life outcome. For example, the

California Adult Q-set1 (CAQ: Block, 1978, 2007; Bem & Funder, 1978) consists of one

hundred descriptions of specific psychological attributes (e.g., Is critical, skeptical, not

easily impressed; Is a genuinely dependable and responsible person). Raters use the CAQ

by sorting the items into nine categories that range from “highly characteristic” (category

9), “neither characteristic nor uncharacteristic” (category 5), to “highly uncharacteristic”

(category 1). The resulting set of ratings is quasi-normally distributed because the

technique prescribes that a pre-determined number of items be placed in each category.

The largest number of items must be placed in category 5 and only a few items can be

placed in the extreme categories (1 and 9). The advantage of the Q-sort rating method is

Terminological note: A set of items that are sorted into a predetermined, forced distribution is called a “Q-
set”; the act of rating them in this format is “Q-sorting,” and a completed set of ratings is a “Q-sort.”
Personality in Social Psychology 32

that it forces raters to make fine-grained distinctions about the person being rated and

reduces social desirability and various response sets (Block, 1978, 2007).

Raters completing the CAQ may include acquaintances of the individual,

therapists, researchers, or the individuals themselves. The CAQ has been used to study

the psychological correlates of many behaviors. Funder, Block, and Block (1983) used

the CAQ to examine sex differences in delay of gratification. They found that boys and

girls described by teachers and researchers as reflective and planful are more likely to

delay gratification; however, girls who delay are also more intelligent, competent, and

resourceful, whereas boys who delay are more shy, compliant, and anxious. The

explanation offered for this finding was that girls are taught by society to be controlled,

whereas boys are taught to be more rambunctious. Therefore, boys who delay

gratification may be slightly less adjusted in terms of the social lessons that they absorb.

The CAQ has also been used to examine the developmental antecedents of

political orientation. Block and Block (2005) reported that children who were described

by their teachers (using a version of the Q-set adapted for use with children) as anxious,

unable to handle stress, and tending to feel guilty were more likely to describe themselves

as politically conservative 20 years later. On the other hand, children who grew up to see

themselves as liberal were described years earlier as self-reliant, confident, and

independent. These findings suggest that psychological attributes already apparent in

childhood can anticipate adult political orientation, and are consistent with independent

findings that political conservatism in adults is associated with traits including death
Personality in Social Psychology 33

anxiety, intolerance of ambiguity, (low) openness to experience, and fear of threat and

loss (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003).2

Essential Traits

Finally, some personality research is motivated by the question: Which

personality traits are the most important? Currently, the most widely accepted answer to

this question is the Big Five. The Big Five represent the culmination of more than a

hundred years of research aimed at reducing the many possible personality traits to an

essential few (Galton, 1884; Thurstone, 1934; Allport & Odbert, 1936; Cattell, 1943;

Fiske, 1949; Tupes & Christal, 1961; Norman, 1967; McCrae & Costa, 1987; Goldberg,

1990; Digman, 1990). Research on the Big Five traits is based, in part, on the lexical

hypothesis (e.g. Goldberg, 1981), which proposes that anything truly important to human

life will be labeled with words. This idea suggests that the most important personality

traits will be encoded in language. Therefore, researchers extracted trait-adjective words

from the Oxford Dictionary and factor analyzed ratings of them, many times over, along

with scores on a multitude of personality inventories. Eventually, a consensus emerged

that much of the variance in trait words and personality ratings is captured by the Big

Five. Ozer and Benet-Martinez (2006) conducted a massive research synthesis and

summarized the most robust correlates of these traits.

 The first factor, extraversion, refers to the degree to which an individual is

outgoing, energetic, and experiences positive emotion.3 Those who describe

themselves higher in extraversion are more likely to attend parties, are higher in
There is clearly more to this story, though, because conservatives also apparently are happier than liberals
(Taylor, Funk & Craighill, 2006). Maybe this is because they are good at rationalizing inequality (Napier
& Jost, 2008), but it should be observed that characterizing a particular, widely-held political belief system
as essentially pathological entails philosophical and ethical issues (see Haidt, 2008).
Different researchers emphasize slightly different aspects of the Big Five traits, but in the current chapter,
we emphasize the aspects of each trait that are common across researchers.
Personality in Social Psychology 34

subjective well-being and happiness, are more likely to attain positions of

leadership, are more popular, and live longer.

 Neuroticism involves the degree to which an individual worries, is reactive to

stress, and experiences negative emotion. Those who are higher in neuroticism are

more likely to become unhappy, depressed, and anxious, and are more likely to

have family problems, to be dissatisfied with their jobs, and to experience conflict

in romantic relationships.

 Conscientiousness involves the degree to which an individual is dependable,

organized, and punctual. People who describe themselves as higher in

conscientiousness are less likely to engage in risky behavior, which is possibly

one reason why they live longer, and they perform better and have more success

in the workplace.

 Agreeableness refers to the degree to which an individual is cooperative, warm,

and gets along well with others. Not surprisingly, those who describe themselves

as higher in this trait enjoy better peer acceptance. They also are more satisfied

with their dating partners, more likely to volunteer and less likely to suffer heart


 Finally, openness to experience is the most controversial trait of the Big Five in

that researchers have disagreed about which characteristics should be subsumed

by this factor and what it should be called (e.g., openness vs. intellect vs. culture).

However, in general, this trait involves the degree to which an individual is

creative, open-minded, and aesthetic. Those who describe themselves higher in

Personality in Social Psychology 35

openness are more likely to pursue investigative and/or artistic careers and are

more likely to have left-wing, liberal values (Ozer & Benet-Martinez, 2006).

Beyond Self-report

Although self-report questionnaires have traditionally dominated the literature and

probably deserve credit for having contributed most of what has been learned about

personality, they entail two major disadvantages. First, people may sometimes be

unwilling to reveal undesirable aspects of their personalities. Second, people are not

always aware of every aspect of themselves. Several studies suggest that people rate

themselves higher on socially desirable characteristics (e.g., trustworthiness) and rate

themselves lower on undesirable characteristics (e.g., laziness). For example, Funder and

Dobroth (1987) found that people’s self-ratings of extraversion (a relatively neutral trait)

tended to agree better with their friends’ ratings of their extraversion than self-ratings of

neuroticism and friends’ ratings of neuroticism (a relatively undesirable trait). Perhaps

more telling, people’s reports of their own behavior do not always agree with direct

observations (Gosling et al., 1998; Vazier & Mehl, in press). For these reasons,

personality psychology increasingly emphasizes two methods that go beyond self-report:

acquaintances’ judgments of personality, and direct behavioral observation.

The people who share one’s social space are in a position to observe many

behaviors under realistic, meaningful, and consequential circumstances. In various

studies, these observers have included friends, acquaintances, teachers, interviewers, and

therapists. As a result of their observations, considerable evidence shows, their

judgments of personality tend to be accurate. Peers’ judgments of personality largely

agree with self-judgments, with some exceptions (Funder & Colvin, 1997), and are
Personality in Social Psychology 36

predictive of directly observed behavior in the lab (e.g., Funder & Colvin, 1991) and in

daily life (e.g., Vazire & Mehl, in press). Teachers’ ratings of children’s personality can

predict personality, behavior and important life outcomes such as physical health and

even longevity, years later (e.g., Friedman et al., 1995; Hampson, Goldberg, Vogt &

Dubanoski, 2006).

Turning to direct behavioral observation, a study by Borkenau et al. (2004)

suggests that personality information can be revealed in seemingly trivial scenarios that

observers view only briefly. Participants were videotaped performing 15 different tasks

that varied from 1 minute to 12 minutes in length. Tasks included telling a joke to a

confederate, introducing a stranger to the experimenter, inventing a definition for a

neologism, reading newspaper headlines, and singing a song. These videotapes were later

viewed by judges who had never met the participants. Each judge viewed only one

videotaped task of each participant. Judges then rated the participants along the Big Five

traits and intelligence. Results indicated that judges’ personality ratings were positively

correlated with participant’s self-ratings as well as ratings provided by the participants’

close acquaintances.

The authors also examined the possibility that some of the 15 tasks might be

especially diagnostic of personality traits. Results indicated that judges’ ratings of

extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and agreeableness agreed with self and

acquaintance ratings equally well across all tasks. However, judges’ ratings of openness

agreed most strongly with self and acquaintance ratings when judges viewed the task in

which participants described multiple uses of a brick using pantomime. Also, judges’

ratings of intelligence were more strongly correlated with participant’s objective

Personality in Social Psychology 37

intelligence scores in the tasks where participants read newspaper headlines and invented

a definition for a neologism. This suggests that social aspects of personality generally

leak out regardless of what one is doing, but that judging an individual’s intelligence and

openness requires specific observations of ability-demanding behavior.

Gosling et al. (2002) examined the possibility that the environments that people

construct for themselves contain information about their personalities. They argued that

people craft their environments to be consistent with and reinforce their self-views and to

display their identity to others. Judges viewed the offices or bedrooms of participants and

then rated the participants along the Big Five traits. Judges’ personality ratings were

found to positively correlate with participant’s own personality ratings as well as ratings

provided by close acquaintances. Judges’ ratings of openness were most strongly

correlated with self and peer ratings, followed by conscientiousness, emotional stability,

extraversion, and agreeableness.

Furthermore, many of the cues from the offices and bedrooms that judges utilized

to form their personality judgments were found to be valid. For example, judges reported

that their ratings of openness were based on cues such as number of and variety of books

and magazines, and indeed, individuals higher in openness were found to have a higher

number of and wider variety of books and magazines. Also, judges’ personality ratings of

extraversion were validly based on cues such as clutter and colorfulness and personality

ratings of conscientiousness were validly based on cues such as organization and

cleanliness. This study suggests that the environments that people inhabit contain a

wealth of information about their personalities and that casual observers of these

environments are sometimes able to detect and utilize this information.

Personality in Social Psychology 38

Using an even more subtle possible behavioral indicator of personality,

Asendorpf, Banse, and Mücke (2002) employed the Implicit Association Task (IAT:

Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998; Banaji, this volume) to examine the possibility

that explicit and implicit measures of shyness might be differentially related to more and

less controllable aspects of shy behavior. They reasoned that because shyness evokes a

moderately negative evaluation in Western cultures, individuals might downplay their

shyness on explicit self-report questionnaires and use impression management strategies

to conceal their shyness. Explicit shyness was measured by asking individuals to rate the

degree to which shyness adjectives described them. Implicit shyness was measured via

reaction time, such that participants who were quicker to associate self-relevant words

(such as “self”) than other-relevant words (such as “them”) to the word “shy” were

considered higher in implicit shyness. Shy behavior was coded from a videotaped

situation in which participants were told to get to know an interaction partner for 5

minutes. The authors hypothesized that duration of speech within the interaction was a

relatively controllable shy behavior, whereas self-stimulation and body tension were less

controllable shy behaviors. Results indicated that explicit ratings of shyness were more

highly correlated with observations of controlled shy behavior than were implicit ratings,

and implicit ratings of shyness were more highly correlated with observations of

uncontrollable shy behavior than were explicit ratings. This study broadly suggests that

people may be unable or unwilling to accurately assess certain aspects of their own

personalities, which might still leak out via behaviors that they are unable to consciously

Personality in Social Psychology 39

Finally, Fast & Funder (2008) examined the possibility that personality is

manifested in the words that people use. This study was based on the idea that words are

one of the most explicit means through which people express their thoughts and

emotions, and therefore, the frequency with which people use different kinds of words

might reveal aspects of their personalities. Word use was measured by counting the

number of words that each participant used in 66 different categories (e.g. positive

emotion words, negative emotion words, achievement words). The frequency with which

individuals used words in categories was correlated with self-reports of personality,

personality judgments by close acquaintances, and direct observations of behavior. For

example, those who used more sexuality words (e.g. horny and nude) were described by

themselves, acquaintances, and directly and independently observed to be high in the

need for attention, and those who used more certainty words (e.g. absolutely and clearly)

were rated as and directly and independently observed to be generally more smart,

thoughtful, and likeable. This study suggests that word choice is a subtle manifestation of

personality that relates to how people view themselves, how they are described by their

acquaintances, and how they are observed to behave.

In summary, several methods can be used to study personality and each type of

behavioral information provides a different perspective. Self-report is by far the most

common type of data gathered in personality research, however, researchers are

increasingly using reports by friends, acquaintances, teachers and other observers, and

putting serious effort into the development of direct and subtle behavioral indicators of

Personality in Social Psychology 40

Part IV: Person Perception and Accuracy

The way that an individual is perceived by others is highly consequential.

Reputation determines the opportunities that others will make available to the individual

and the expectations they will hold. A person with a good reputation will be trusted and

find that other people like him or her; a person with a bad reputation probably not get the

job that he or she wants, not attract his or her love interest, and be generally disliked.

Moreover, a people tend to live up or down to their good or bad reputations because they

tend to behave in ways that confirm the expectations of others (Rosenthal & Rubin, 1978;

Snyder & Swann, 1978). The study of how people perceive one another is a major

research topic in social and personality psychology (Macrae, this volume). It is called

“person perception research” within social psychology and “accuracy research” within

personality psychology and the difference in labels is more than superficial. The two

research paradigms are based on fundamentally different philosophical perspectives,

focus on different aspects of social perception, and are studied using different


Person Perception

Person perception research in social psychology is based on social constructivism,

in the sense that it treats the views people have of one another as mental constructions, a

property of the social perceiver rather than of the person who is described. Therefore, the

focus of person perception research is on the cognitive processes that underlie the

construction of impressions. One common methodology used to examine such processes

involves creating an artificial social stimulus (such as description of a hypothetical

person), proposing an optimal model for how the stimulus ought to be processed, and
Personality in Social Psychology 41

observing whether or not participants process the stimulus in the proposed optimal

manner. To the extent that participants fail to process the stimulus correctly in this sense,

they are presumed to be in error and the cognitive processes that led to the error are

inferred by the researcher (Krueger & Funder, 2004).

In a classic study, Jones and Harris (1967) asked participants to read essays for

and against favor of Fidel Castro that, participants were told, were written by individuals

who had been instructed in which position to take. The participants then estimated the

essay-writers’ actual opinions. They tended to conclude that pro-Castro authors held

relatively pro-Castro opinions, compared to anti-Castro authors, despite having been told

the authors had no choice in what to write, and therefore were deemed by the

experimenters to have committed an attribution error that Gilbert and Jones (1986) later

called the “correspondence bias.” In other writings the bias was dubbed the

“fundamental attribution error” (FAE) and the original study was described as

establishing “people’s overwillingness to ascribe behavior to enduring dispositions”

(Nisbett & Ross, 1980, p. 131). We shall consider the fundamental status of the error

later, but for now the methodological point concerns the way this study exemplifies a

research design in which hypothetical stimuli are used to test putatively optimal models

of information processing, which participants generally fail to follow. This design is

typical of much research in person perception.

An essential characteristic of this design is that it provides little or no information

about the variables that might influence accuracy outside the laboratory. For example, in

the study by Jones and Harris participants were clearly wrong to ascribe different

attitudes to the pro and anti-Castro essay writers, because in similar experimental
Personality in Social Psychology 42

contexts near everybody agrees to write the prescribed essay regardless of his or her

actual opinion. In real life, however, people perhaps more often say (and write) what

they actually believe4. Even though a strategy of inferring corresponding beliefs from

written statements leads to error in Jones and Harris’s experiment, therefore, the same

strategy might produce correct judgments, more often than not, in realistic contexts. An

analogous situation is found in demonstrations of visual effects such as the Ponzo or

“railroad lines” illusion (Funder, 1987). Looking at Figure 1, a subject who believes the

upper line to be longer than the lower line is simply wrong. In real life settings with a

similar appearance, however, such as two objects sitting on a set of actual railroad tracks,

the upper object really would be larger.

Figure 1. The Ponzo illusion5.

In general, a bias to ascribe behavior to dispositional causes will promote

accuracy in real life to the extent that behavior really does tend to be dispositionally

determined, just as visual effects such as the Ponzo illusion reveal biases that cause two-

dimensional pictures to be misperceived, but allow correct judgments in three-

Under some circumstances, they also may come to believe what they have said and written (Bem, 1972).
Image credit: Tony Phillips. Downloaded November 26, 2008 from
Personality in Social Psychology 43

dimensional contexts. Person perception research is silent on this critical point. The

typical research design can demonstrate the direction of a bias but does not provide

evidence concerning the degree to which the bias undermines or promotes accuracy under

realistic circumstances. For just this reason, the pioneering person perception researcher

E. E. Jones once commented that the common experimental paradigm “solved the

accuracy problem by bypassing it” (Jones, 1985, p. 77). He did not intend this comment

as a complaint, or confession. Rather, he was expressing appreciation for the way person

perception research had managed to develop experimental methods that could address

interesting questions while bypassing the difficult issues entailed in the study of

judgmental accuracy. Ironically, however, subsequent work within this paradigm often

was interpreted as demonstrating shortcomings of human judgment.

Accuracy Research

Accuracy research within personality psychology follows a fundamentally

different strategy. It is based on critical realism (Rorer, 1990), a philosophical approach

which asserts that the best way to assess a judgment is in terms of multiple fallible

external criteria that probabilistically indicate the degree to which it is a true reflection of

reality6. Therefore, accuracy research focuses on establishing criteria by which to

evaluate accuracy and identifying the factors that make accurate personality judgment

more or less likely.

Methods of Accuracy Research. The primary methodology involves comparing

multiple sources of information about a person in order to evaluate the degree to which a

personality judgment is accurate. For example, if Person A is judged to be high in

The distinction between constructivism and critical realism was discussed as “logical” vs. “objective” by
Gilbert (1998).
Personality in Social Psychology 44

extraversion by his or her acquaintance, we can evaluate this judgment by comparing it to

Person A’s self-judgment of the degree to which he or she is extraverted, to direct

observations of Person A’s behavior (e.g., does Person A talk more than others?), and to

relevant life outcomes (e.g., does Person A successfully engage in an occupation that

requires being outgoing and energetic?). If sources of data converge with one another

(e.g., Person A describes himself or herself as extraverted, talks a lot, and is a successful

salesperson), we can be reasonably confident that Person A’s acquaintance has provided

an accurate personality judgment. Accuracy research differs from person perception

research in that the typical study uses real people as the target of judgment and gathers

personality judgments from people who know them in real life along with other

indicators such as self-judgments, behavioral observations and life outcomes.

History of Accuracy Research. Accuracy research in this sense has a history that

goes back more than 70 years (e.g., Allport, 1937, chapter 18). Early studies focused on

agreement between self and others’ judgments of personality, in search of correlates of

the “good judge” (Estes, 1938; Taft, 1955). Research activity in this area came to an

almost complete halt in the 1950s, however, for at least three reasons (Funder, 1995, p.

653-654). First, few consistent findings concerning the correlates of judgmental ability

emerged from a multitude of studies. Second, severe methodological critiques of the

methods used by almost all the studies of the time concluded that the numbers used to

index self-other agreement – the typical standard for accuracy – were possibly

confounded by actual and assumed similarity between judge and target, and response sets

such as positivity and acquiescence (Cronbach, 1955; Gage & Cronbach, 1955). While

the problems the critiques raised were not in fact insurmountable, the difficulty that
Personality in Social Psychology 45

appeared to be entailed in overcoming them discouraged many researchers from further

studies in the area. The third reason for the falloff in accuracy research was that it began

to be supplanted by experimental research in person perception (e.g., Tagiuri & Petrullo,

1958) – an approach that, as Jones noted, solved the problem of accuracy by bypassing it.

Accuracy research began to revive in the early 1980s, however, as investigators

turned their attention to the issues Cronbach raised and developed new methods for

addressing accuracy issues. Kenny (e.g., 1994) developed statistical tools (and associated

computer programs) for decomposing interpersonal judgments into their components,

along with a theoretical model of how information is combined to yield personality

judgments. A robust, general finding of his research has been that people generally judge

each other accurately on important traits such as aggressiveness (e.g., Kenny et al., 2007).

Other researchers showed how even brief observations of behavior called “thin slices”

can yield surprisingly valid judgments of personality and important interpersonal

outcomes (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1992, 1993; Rule, Ambady, Adams & Macrae, 2008).

Moderators of Accuracy. Research has identified four basic moderators that

affect the likelihood of making an accurate personality judgment: (1) properties of the

judge, (2) properties of the target individual who is being judged, (3) properties of the

trait that is being judged, and (4) properties of the information on which the personality

judgment is based.

The oldest and perhaps most frequently-studied moderator is properties of the

judge. Early studies suggested that judges who are highly intelligent and conscientious

render the most accurate judgments of personality; however, this was the research that

was harshly criticized for using inadequate methods (e.g. Colvin & Bundick, 2001;
Personality in Social Psychology 46

Cronbach, 1955). More recent research suggests that judges who are higher in

“communion,” invested in developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships, are

more accurate judges of personality (Vogt & Colvin, 2003). Another study suggests that

people who generally describe others in favorable terms (e.g. friendly and helpful) are

more likely to be accurate because most people actually are generally friendly and helpful

(Letzring & Funder, 2006).

Overall, the good judge seems to be someone who is socially engaged and

optimistic about people, however, there may be subtle differences in the personality

characteristics that are associated with accuracy between male and female judges. Kolar

(1996) found that the most accurate male judges of personality have a confident and

outgoing interpersonal style, while the most accurate female judges are more likely to be

open to and have a high interest in others. This finding hints that being a good judge has

important consequences for the judge him or herself, consistent with a recent report that

people who are good at identifying facial expressions associated with fear tend to act in

pro-social ways such as donating money or helping someone in need (Marsch, Kozak &

Ambady, 2007).

Another moderator of accuracy concerns the “target,” or the person who is

judged. Some people seem like an open book, while other people are more elusive and

difficult to know. Colvin (1993) found that individuals who behave in a more consistent

manner, regardless of the situation or the people with whom they are interacting, are

easier to accurately judge than people who seem to have a different personality for every

situation and person they encounter. Interestingly, Jourard (1971) hypothesized that

individuals who put on a psychological façade and for whom there is a large discrepancy
Personality in Social Psychology 47

between who they are on the inside and what they display on the outside, are more likely

to be psychologically maladjusted. This suggests that individuals who behave the same

regardless of who they are with or where they are may be better adjusted than individuals

who are more difficult to judge. In the end, the “what you see is what you get” factor

appears to be an important property of the target individual that affects the likelihood of

accurate personality judgment.

Personality traits also vary in the degree to which they are easy to judge. For

example, imagine someone you know and rate the degree to which that person is talkative

on a scale of 1 to 5. It seems easy enough. Now try to rate the degree to which that person

is deceptive. At first glance this task might seem easy, but further consideration reveals

that it is not straightforward. By definition, deception is a trait that describes people who

purposefully lead others to form false impressions of them. Therefore, if you know a

person who is skilled in deception, then you really do not know that person at all and

your personality judgment of him or her will be inaccurate. It is no surprise, then, that

those personality traits that are more evaluatively neutral (neither socially desirable nor

undesirable) and traits associated with observable behaviors are more likely to be judged

accurately (John & Robins, 1993; Funder & Dobroth, 1987). Talkativeness can be judged

with a high degree of accuracy because it is a trait that is relatively neutral and it can be

directly observed. Deception on the other hand usually cannot be judged with a high

degree of accuracy because, although it is possible imagine overt behaviors that would

allow deception to be identified (e.g., a behavior that contradicts a false impression),

these behaviors are purposefully concealed and are therefore not easily observed.
Personality in Social Psychology 48

A reader who wonders just which traits are visible and which are not, probably

already knows the answer. Funder and Dobroth (1987) asked undergraduates to rate the

degree to which each of the 100 personality attributes in the California Q-set was easy or

difficult to judge. The aggregate of their ratings correlated r = .42 (p < .001) with the

degree to which these attributes manifested good inter-judge agreement (between self and

others’ ratings, and between the ratings of different raters of the same target) in

judgments of real target people. Consistent findings have since been reported many

times, including studies by Bernieri et al. (1994), Borkenau & Liebler (1995), Kenny,

Albright, Malloy and Kashy (1994), McCrae (1982), Park and Judd (1989), Watson

(1989) others. The most visible traits tend to be relevant to attributes such as social skill

and extraversion, and the least visible traits are associated with relatively difficult-to-see

attributes as “motivation to work” (Gifford et al., 1985).

This finding might seem obvious, and it probably is, at least in retrospect. It

amounts to the profound conclusion that more visible traits are easier to see. However,

the research has two important implications. One stems from the finding that people in

general can rate trait visibility accurately. When set against research implying people are

poor interpersonal judges, it suggests at least one area in which people know when their

judgments are more and less likely to be accurate. A second implication concerns the

suggestion, sometimes raised, that personality judgments by acquaintances are based on

overheard reputation or superficial stereotypes rather than behavioral observation (e.g.,

McClelland, 1972). But artificially constructed reputations or superficial stereotypes

could concern non-visible traits as well as visible ones. The fact that much more inter-
Personality in Social Psychology 49

judge agreement is found for visible traits suggests that one basis of this agreement is

valid behavioral observation.

Finally, the information that personality judgments are based on plays an

important role in the degree to which they are accurate. Two properties of information

affect accuracy: quantity and quality. In terms of quantity, it generally seems that more

information is better. Personality judgments by close acquaintances have been observed

to agree much better with self-judgments of personality than judgments by strangers

(Funder & Colvin, 1988), and longer periods of observation lead to greater accuracy

(Blackman & Funder, 1998). However, there seems to be at least one circumstance under

which judgments by strangers can be as accurate as judgments by acquaintances. Colvin

& Funder (1991) found that the advantage of acquaintances over strangers vanishes when

their personality judgments are used to predict the behavior of a target person in a

situation that is similar to one in which the stranger has observed the target, but the

acquaintance has not. For example, your parents have known you throughout your entire

life, but might not ever have seen you deliver an academic lecture. If your mother was

asked to predict how you would act during a lecture and one of your students was asked

the same question, Colvin and Funder’s findings suggest that your mom and the student

would make approximately equally accurate predictions. However, if asked how you

would behave in any other situation, the prediction by your mom would likely be more

accurate than the prediction by the student.

The quality of the information also affects accuracy. Information that is gathered

in relatively weak situations may be better for purposes of personality judgment than

information that is gathered in strong situations (Snyder & Ickes, 1985). Strong situations
Personality in Social Psychology 50

have social norms that restrict how people behave in them so they dilute individual

differences and personality relevant information, whereas weak situations are less

socially scripted and allow for wider variation in behavior. For example, a person’s

behavior during Sunday Mass is largely a function of the rules of the situation and

observing his or her behavior would not likely yield much information about his or her

personality; however, a person is relatively free to behave as he or she wishes at a party

and observing his or her behavior in that situation would likely be more revealing.

Letzring, Wells, and Funder (2006) observed that people who met in an unstructured

situation, where they could talk about whatever they wanted, made more accurate

personality judgments of one another compared to those who met under more structured

circumstances, where they were given specific goals and instructions on what to do.

Situations that are relevant to the personality trait that is being judged are also more

likely to provide better quality information. For example, if you have never observed

someone in a situation that affords the opportunity to demonstrate courage, then it would

be difficult to make an accurate judgment of that person’s courageousness. Similarly, to

judge a person’s sociability, observations of that person at a party would be more

informative than observations while the person is studying alone at the library (e.g.,

Freeberg, 1969).

The Realistic Accuracy Model. The moderators that affect accuracy can be

explained in terms of the Realistic Accuracy Model, which proposes that the achievement

of accurate personality judgment has four necessary stages: relevance, availability,

detection, and utilization (Funder, 1995, 1999). First, the person being judged must do

something relevant. That is, the target of judgment must do something that is informative
Personality in Social Psychology 51

about the trait that is being judged. If we want to judge the degree to which someone is

narcissistic, that person must display a behavior that pertains to narcissism (e.g.

excessively brag). Second, the relevant information must be available to observe. If the

target of judgment excessively brags only in contexts that the judge does not share, then

the judge will not have access to this information. Third, the judge of personality must

detect the relevant and available information. If the judge is distracted or does not notice

the narcissist’s bragging, then the information will not figure into the judgment. Finally,

the judge must correctly utilize the relevant and available information that was detected.

If the judged noticed the narcissist bragging, but interpreted this behavior as charming

confidence, then accurate judgment has failed at the final stage.

relevance availability detection utilization

Personality Judgment

Figure 2. The Realistic Accuracy Model.

The Realistic Accuracy Model has several implications. The first is that accurate

personality judgment is difficult. Four hurdles need to be overcome to achieve accuracy

and a failure at any step in the process will lead to an inaccurate judgment. Second, the

model provides a way to anticipate and explain the four moderators previously discussed.

For example, a good judge of personality is someone who spends enough time around
Personality in Social Psychology 52

people to detect available and relevant information and is able to utilize this information

correctly. A good target is someone who emits genuine cues that are relevant to his or her

personality in a range of settings, enhancing the availability of these cues. A good trait is

one for which many relevant cues are available for detection and, finally, good

information involves exposure to relevant cues. The final implication of the Realistic

Accuracy Model is that it suggests four different ways to improve the accuracy of

personality judgment. Much of the person perception research in social psychology

focuses on cognitive errors and biases which occur at the utilization stage of the Realistic

Accuracy Model; however, accurate personality judgment is more than correct thinking

and judgment could be improved at the three other stages.

One way to be a better judge of personality is simply to pay more attention to

people (i.e., detection). If relevant and available cues are flying around but a judge is not

paying attention, then accurate judgment will fail. Another possible way to be a better

judge is to behave in ways that make other people feel comfortable being their true

selves. When people feel self-conscious or worried about the impression they are making,

they are probably less likely to emit personality relevant information. This is also

pertinent to gossip. When people feel that they are in the presence of someone who is

going to share every detail of what they say and how they behave with others, they are

probably more likely to suppress who they are and withhold relevant information. Finally,

another way to be a better judge is to spend a lot of time with the target that one wishes to

judge. Observing people in a large number of and wide variety of situations makes it

more likely that relevant cues will become available. For example, when trying to get to

know a potential love interest on a first date, it is probably not the best idea to take him or
Personality in Social Psychology 53

her to a movie. There is little chance to observe much about personality in this kind of

situation, whereas taking someone on a hike or to the zoo (situations that allow for

interpersonal interaction) would likely yield better information and a more accurate first


Part V: Competition

Although the accuracy and person perception paradigms differ in many ways,

they are potentially complementary. It is not difficult to imagine an interdisciplinary

effort that combined social cognition and accuracy research into one big theory that

ultimately explained how people perceive one another. However, deep philosophical and

methodological differences between social and personality psychology have stood in the

way of this integration.

The differences in research methodology are also associated with differences in

data analysis. Social psychology research almost always analyzes data using analysis of

variance, which prominently displays p-levels and obscures effect sizes7. In contrast,

personality psychology almost always uses correlational and regression analyses and

these analyses are fundamentally based upon and reported in terms of effect size. Effect

sizes and p-levels have an algebraic equivalence that allows one to be converted into the

other (the only additional piece of information needed is N, the sample size), but this

simple fact and its implications have not been universally appreciated. The blind spot

concerning effect sizes and the mutual failure of each field to fully appreciate the

Experimental research focuses on p-levels rather than effect sizes because laboratory studies aim to
demonstrate the existence of causal effects rather than their size, which in a laboratory is largely
determined by specific aspects of the experimental procedure (e.g., how prominently a stimulus is
displayed). The real-world importance of experimentally-discovered effects must be determined in field
studies, often with correlational design.
Personality in Social Psychology 54

methodological and philosophical approach of the other left the fields of personality and

social psychology vulnerable to two key influences: Walter Mischel’s (1968) critique of

personality traits and Lee Ross’ (1977) descriptions of the shortcomings of everyday

social perceivers.

Two Converging Critiques

Mischel (1968) reviewed a variety of empirical personality studies in order to

evaluate a core assumption of trait theory that, in his opinion, had not been adequately

addressed previously. He examined evidence concerning the degree to which behavior is

consistent across different situations and concluded that observations of similar behaviors

rarely correlate with one another greater than r = .30. Mischel cautioned readers against

being misled by a “significant” correlation of this size. He argued that a .30 correlation

could be significant if a sample size is large enough and that squaring a correlation (to

yield the percentage of variance explained) is more informative than focusing on p-levels.

This led to the conclusion that a correlation of .30 among behaviors is small because it

means that traits account for less than 10% of the variance. By subtraction, it was

implicitly assumed that the remaining 90% of variance in behavior must be accounted for

by details of the situation. In Mischel’s (1968) own words, “It is evident that the

behaviors which are often construed as stable personality trait indicators actually are

highly specific and depend on the details of the evoking situations” (p. 37). This message

– sometimes called “situationism” (Bowers, 1973) – was accepted by many readers and

created an adverse climate for personality research.

Meanwhile, research on person perception was blossoming in social psychology.

Although some researchers focused on demonstrating that social perceivers follow logical
Personality in Social Psychology 55

or rational models when making judgments (Kelley, 1967; McArthur, 1972), others

concentrated on demonstrating biases, errors, and imperfections and – Jones’s (1985)

comment notwithstanding – their findings were generally interpreted as showing how and

when people were wrong. People were observed to erroneously attribute the causes of

their failure to external sources and the causes of their success to internal sources (Davis

& Davis, 1972), erroneously use self-referent information as an anchor from which to

infer information about others (the false consensus effect; Ross, Greene, & House, 1977),

and as previously mentioned, erroneously assume a correspondence between an author’s

written opinions and his or her private opinions, even when armed with the knowledge

that the authors had no choice in the point of view they expressed (Jones & Harris, 1967).

Lee Ross (1977) summarized this literature and proposed that many errors in

social judgment could be explained by an underlying illusion common to everyday social

perceivers and personality psychologists alike. The fundamental attribution error (FAE),

he proposed, is the tendency for people to overestimate the influence of dispositional

factors on behavior and to underestimate the influence of situational factors. Ross (1977)

cited Mischel’s (1968) critique of trait theory as further evidence of this illusion and

proposed that an important direction for social psychology was to continue documenting

the ways in which everyday social perceivers and trait theorists fail to appreciate the

power of situations.

In principle, there is no necessary connection between the situationist critique of

personality and the promulgation of the fundamental attribution error within social

psychology. A particular trait might have a powerful influence on a particular behavior,

and people still might overestimate its effect, by believing it to be even stronger than it
Personality in Social Psychology 56

is8. However, such a connection was established. Prominent writers drew direct

analogies between the shortcomings of personality psychology identified by the

Mischelian critique, and the shortcomings of “lay personality theory” exemplified by the

fundamental attribution error (e.g., Ross & Nisbett, 1991, pp. 120-139). This

convergence led to the establishment of the fundamental attribution error as a foundation

of the way that social psychology came to view personality psychology. The main

message of social psychology became advertised as “the power of the social situation is

much greater than most people believe.” One major introductory textbook describes this

claim as “perhaps the single most important lesson from social psychology” (both quotes

from Gazzaniga & Heatherton, 2006, p. 634). A fairly direct implication of this lesson

would seem to be that personality matters less than most people believe.

A classic example that is often cited as strong evidence of situational power is

Milgram’s obedience study. Milgram (1963, 1974/2004) demonstrated that surprisingly

many people will administer lethal shocks to an innocent victim if a perceived authority

figure commands it. Furthermore, a panel of psychiatrists erroneously predicted that fully

98% of Milgram’s participants would disobey such an order. In textbook after textbook,

this study has been described as demonstrating the power of situations to elicit bad

behavior and the vulnerability of even expert psychological judges to the fundamental

attribution error.

Evaluating the Power of Personality

After 40 years of research, a wide variety of evidence indicates that personality

research was given a bad rap. Starting with Mischel (1968), his critique of traits was

based on a limited perspective on trait theory and an incomplete analysis of the

I thank the Editors for raising this important point.
Personality in Social Psychology 57

implications of effect sizes. The basic critique relies on the assumption that the viability

of trait psychology requires that a single trait completely predict a single behavior. For

example, Mischel reported a study in which the correlation between positive attention

seeking behavior (e.g. seeking praise) and negative attention seeking behavior (e.g.

disruption) in pre-school children was r = .23 (Sears, 1963). This correlation was deemed

low because both behaviors are thought to be indicators of the broader trait of

dependency. To the eyes of a trait theorist, however, .23 is a surprisingly high correlation

for the two behaviors because, although they might both be manifestations of

dependency, it is easy to imagine other traits that would independently influence each of

them. A highly agreeable child who is high in dependency would probably seek positive

attention but not negative attention, and a highly aggressive child who is high in

dependency would probably seek negative attention but not positive attention. In short,

trait theory does not assume that one trait can perfectly predict one behavior; rather, it

expects that any number of traits can influence a single behavior.

Ahadi and Diener (1989) used Monte Carlo simulations to determine the

maximum possible correlation that a personality researcher could hope to find given that

multiple traits influence a given behavior. They found that when three traits influence two

behaviors and the two behaviors are influenced by one common trait, the upper bound

correlation between the two behaviors is approximately r = .30. When they adjusted the

model so that four traits influenced two behaviors and the two behaviors were influenced

by one common trait, the upper bound correlation between the two behaviors was

approximately r = .25. These estimates (.30 and .25) are comparable to the magnitude of

correlation previously mentioned regarding dependency behaviors, and more importantly,

Personality in Social Psychology 58

the estimates are comparable to the correlations typically found in personality research.

Moreover, Ahadi and Diener’s (1989) data analytic model assumed that only five

personality traits exist and behavior is completely determined by those five traits, so their

model overestimates the correlations between behaviors that we would expect to find in

the real world where situations, moods, and a variety of other factors influence behavior.

Their findings suggest that the typical correlation between behaviors in different

situations, r = .30, is impressive rather than trivial.

A second problem with the critique involves the idea that r = .30 is a small effect

because squaring it reveals how little behavioral variance (e.g. 9%) is explained by traits.

Rather than squaring correlations, another, perhaps more informative way to evaluate an

effect size is to calculate the Binomial Size Effect Display (BESD: Rosenthal & Rubin,

1982). The BESD is an intuitively accessible way to display the practical importance of

an effect size in terms of dichotomous outcomes. For example, imagine that a researcher

has conducted a study examining the effect of a medication. One hundred participants

received the medication and 100 participants were in the control group. If the medication

had zero effect (e.g. r = 0), then people in the treatment and control groups would be

equally likely to live or die. This outcome is displayed in Table 1. However, let’s say that

the experimenter observed that participants in the treatment group were significantly

more likely to be alive at the end of the study than participants in the control group, and

the magnitude of effect for the treatment was r = .30. In order to display the effect size in

terms of the likely outcome in the four cells of Table 1, the following equation is used:

(.50 + r/2) x 100. The result would then be (.50 + .30/2) x 100 = 65, where 65 represents

the number of people that would be expected to live out of 100 people in the treatment
Personality in Social Psychology 59

group (the upper left-hand cell of the table). Because this table has one degree of

freedom, the numbers in the remaining cells can be computed by simple subtraction.

Thirty-five people in the control group would still be alive at the end of the study and 65

would be dead and these values are placed in the appropriate cells.

Table 1: The BESD for a study where a drug had no effect

Alive Dead
Treatment 50 50
Control 50 50

Table 2: The BESD for a drug study with an effect size of r = .30

Alive Dead

Treatment 65 35

Control 35 65

It should be apparent from Table 2 that a treatment with an effect size of .30

increases the survival rate from 35% to 65% and that is indeed a notable difference.

Would you want the treatment? In terms of personality coefficients, let’s say that a

researcher found that ratings of conscientiousness (e.g., high ratings vs. low ratings)

correlated with work performance (e.g., high performance vs. low performance) at r = .

30. As can be seen in Table 3, this means that a recruiter could greatly increase his or her

chances of correctly hiring a high performing employee by selecting applicants that score

high on conscientiousness (e.g. 65% of those who are high in conscientiousness will

perform well and 65% of those who are low in conscientiousness will perform poorly).
Personality in Social Psychology 60

The BESD illustrates how an effect size of .30 is large enough to be important under

many circumstances.

Table 3: BESD for a study of job performance with an effect size r = .30

High Performance Low Performance

High Conscientious 65 35

Low Conscientious 35 65

Finally, Funder and Ozer (1983) examined three prominent studies in social

psychology that are universally recognized as impressive demonstrations of the influence

of situational factors on behavior. These studies included Festinger and Carlsmith’s

(1959) study of attitude report as a function of incentive for counterattitudinal advocacy,

Darley and Latané’s (1968) and Darley and Batson’s (1973) studies of bystander

intervention as a function of the number of other people who are present and the degree

to which one is in a hurry, and Milgram’s (1974/2004) study on obedience to instructions

to harm another person as a function of the proximity of the authority figure and

proximity of the victim. For each of these studies, analysis of variance procedures or t-

tests were originally used to demonstrate situational effects; however, Funder & Ozer

(1983) used the available published data to calculate the corresponding effect sizes and

found that they ranged from .36 to .42, a magnitude frequently observed in personality

research. Of course, these effect sizes were calculated from some of the most prominent

studies in the social psychological literature. A more thorough review found that the

average effect size of social psychological experiments is equivalent to an r = .21 (sd = .

Personality in Social Psychology 61

15; Richard, Bond & Stokes-Zoota, 2003). Personality traits and situations cannot be

distinguished from each other on the basis of effect size, at least not to the advantage of


The Fundamental Attribution Error Reconsidered

This conclusion suggests that the everyday social perception that people behave in

a relatively consistent manner is much more than mere illusion. Therefore, social

perceivers’ tendency to infer dispositional causes as the source of others behavior may

not be an error, much less a fundamental one. The present authors will not argue that the

FAE really runs in the opposite direction (that personality is more powerful than is

usually acknowledged), but a surprising number of studies as well as everyday

observations suggest this might sometimes be the case.

Empirical Considerations. For example, an intriguing early study by Strickland

(1958) found that supervisors trust employees less, the more they supervise them. In a

context where workers actually perform the same whether they are supervised or not,

supervisors overattribute the work they directly supervise to the situation – they believe

the workers are performing only because they are being watched – instead of (more

correctly) to the diligence of the workers themselves.

Overattribution to the situation occurs in the domains of emotion and happiness as

well as in the world of work. People overestimate the long-term effects of positive and

negative events on their emotional well-being; one team of researchers surmised on the

basis of their results that even the effects of seemingly strong situations as winning the

Nobel Prize or having one’s academic department abolished might have weaker long-

term effects than we tend to assume (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg & Wheatley, 1998,
Personality in Social Psychology 62

p. 617). Their research on “emotional forecasting” shows that people overestimate the

affective impact of life events. More generally, research from a number of laboratories

has consistently shown that people tend to overestimate the influence of the situation on

happiness, and underestimate the influence of dispositional factors (Lykken & Tellegen,

1996; Diener & Lucas, 1999; Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005). As one

investigator summarized the evidence:

…research shows that external life circumstances have a surprisingly small

effect on happiness and well-being. In contrast, personality traits and other

stable factors appear to play a more important role in happiness. Happiness is

heritable, stable over time, and moderately to strongly associated with

personality characteristics. (Lucas, 2007c, p. 168, emphasis added; see also

Lucas, 2008)

The study that most directly showed the FAE going opposite to the traditionally

expected direction was an experiment by Quattrone (1982). In a close replication of the

pioneering study by Jones and Harris (1967), Quattrone asked subjects to estimate the

situational forces that determined the essay-writing behavior by authors who, subjects

were clearly informed, had free choice of what to write. By making situational forces

instead of attitudes salient, and asking participants the opposite question from the one

employed in the classic study, Quattrone reversed the classic correspondence bias – in

this case, subjects overattributed to the situation.

Everyday experience suggests that such reversals occur outside the lab as well.

For example, recall the last time that you discussed politics with someone holding

contrary beliefs. Regardless of how elegant, rational, and convincing your arguments
Personality in Social Psychology 63

might have been, did this conversational situation change the other person’s mind about

anything? To frame this question in terms of the direction of attributional error, did your

lucid arguments affect the other person’s beliefs more, or less, than you expected? Other

illuminating examples arise when a parent tries to affect the behavior of his or her child

or spouses try to change one another’s behavior. Countless books offer advice on how to

parent children and how to change behavior in relationships; but ask any parent or couple

about their ability to effectively influence what the other person does – regardless of the

degree of control one has of that individual’s situation (which in the case of parents and

relationship partners is considerable) – and most likely you will hear frustrated reports

about a disappointing – and, somehow, always surprising – failure to bring about the

desired change.

A final example is provided by the many expensive governmental and other

programs intended to curb drug abuse, risky sexual activity, drunk driving and other

undesirable behaviors. Not to say that these programs are never effective, it does seem

safe to observe that they generally have less success than is hoped for and expected in

their optimistic early days. In all of these examples, the moral is clear: Persons often are

just going to do what they are going to do. Attempts to derail these tendencies through

manipulations of the situational context are difficult at best and, often, are more difficult

than would-be behavior changers expect.

Conceptual Considerations. A deeper, conceptual complication with the

“situations are more powerful than people think” mantra is that explanations for behavior

that exclusively attribute causality to either the person or the situation may not be as

coherent as they seem. Consider two possible ways in which a mother might explain the
Personality in Social Psychology 64

cause of her child’s behavior: “Joey didn’t finish his homework because it was too hard”

versus “Joey didn’t finish his homework because he gives up too easily.” Although the

first explanation seems to attribute causality to the situation (the homework) and the

second explanation seems to attribute causality to the person (Joey), an internal versus

external dichotomy oversimplifies what these explanations imply. The seemingly

situational explanation implies something about personality; it implies that Joey has a

disposition towards giving up when things are tough. Moreover, the seemingly

dispositional explanation implies a situational influence; it implies that there is something

about Joey’s homework (i.e., it must be difficult because it requires persistence) that

influenced his behavior. Almost any explanation for the cause of a behavior implies

something about the person and the situation. Especially smart psychologists (e.g., Ross,

1977; Gilbert, 1998) have long understood that the distinction between personal and

situational causation is fuzzier and more complex than it might seem at first.

Consider, again, the Milgram obedience study. Looked at broadly, the

experimental situation contains at least two situational forces and two dispositional ones.

The experimenter’s orders constitute an obvious situational force in the direction of

obedience; the victim’s cries are a situational force in the direction of disobedience. As

Milgram noted

…the principal conflict of the experiment…is between the experimenter’s

demands that he continue to administer the electric shock and the learner’s

demands, which become increasingly insistent, that the experiment be stopped.

(Milgram, 1974/2004, p. 26).

Personality in Social Psychology 65

Indeed, Milgram found that as each force increased it affected behavior in a

predictable manner: the closer the experimenter was to the subject, the more obedience

was obtained; the closer the victim was to the subject, the more disobedience was


In addition, the experiment evokes two dispositional forces towards compassion

and compliance, which also compete within every subject. As Milgram noted:

…there were both obedient and defiant outcomes, frequently accompanied by

extreme tension. A conflict develops between the deeply ingrained disposition

not to harm others and the equally compelling tendency to obey others who are

in authority. (Milgram, 1974/2004, pp 42-43).

The surprising degree of obedience ultimately obtained by Milgram can be explained

in one of four ways:

1. The situational forces towards obedience (e.g. the orders of the authority

figure) were stronger than the situational forces towards compassion (e.g. the

victim’s cries).

2. The subjects’ dispositions towards obedience were stronger than the subjects’

dispositions towards compassion.

3. The situational forces towards obedience were stronger than the dispositional

forces towards compassion.

4. The dispositional forces towards obedience were stronger than the situational

forces towards compassion.

Explanation 3 is the standard one found in many textbooks. Explanation 4 might

be considered heretical. However, explanations 3 and 4 are actually equivalent (they

Personality in Social Psychology 66

mean exactly the same thing) and, worse, they are both incoherent because they rely on a

simple internal versus external dichotomy that pits the person against the situation. The

reality is that at any given point in time, person variables and situational variables both

affect behavior and they both take part in the net result. One of them does not “win”

because each is necessary for the other. The situational force towards obedience in the

Milgram study would have no effect on someone lacking an inclination to obey, and an

inclination to obey produces no harmful effect in the absence of orders.

In contrast, explanations 1 and 2 are coherent and correct, but they are also

equivalent to each other. The situational forces towards obedience were stronger than the

situational forces towards compassion, and the disposition to obey was generally stronger

than the disposition to resist. Notice that these two statements are equivalent because,

again, situational forces work in inextricable tandem with the dispositions to respond to


Is there any way to separate situational from dispositional causation of behavior?

Ross (1977) provided an interesting solution to this conundrum. He suggested that

situational causes can be distinguished from dispositional causes by examining the degree

to which a behavior is unique or uncommon. When all or almost all people behave the

same way in a situation, it seems fair to conclude that the behavior was situationally

influenced. But when behavior varies within a situation (at the extreme, 50% of people

behave in one way and 50% in the other) then behavior would seem more influenced by

individual dispositions.

There is a good chance that Milgram himself would have agreed. He once wrote that the “social
psychology of the reactive individual, the recipient of forces and pressures emanating from outside
oneself…represents, of course, only one side of the coin of social life” (Milgram, 1977, quoted in Blass,
2004, p. 290).
Personality in Social Psychology 67

This method of distinguishing situational from dispositional causation is

illuminating and according to one writer, is “a logical standard [that] does not seem… to

have any serious competition” (Gilbert, 1998, p. 135). However, it has some surprising

implications. For example, it means that the widely-studied “false consensus bias” (Ross,

Greene & House, 1977), in which people see their own behavior as more common than it

really is, leads people to overestimate the influence of the situation on themselves rather

than, as is more commonly argued, underestimating the effect of the situation on other


The application of this standard to the fundamental attribution error in Milgram’s

study is even more surprising, because it sets the standard interpretation on its head.

When Milgram’s panel of psychiatrists predicted that 98% of participants would behave

the same way (by disobeying), they underestimated the amount of behavioral variance

and, therefore, overestimated the power of the situation. They expected a 98-2 split; the

real split was much closer to even.11 By the standard offered by Ross (1977) and Gilbert

(1998), the psychiatrists committed the inverse of the fundamental attribution error.

As we promised, the purpose of this discussion is not actually to argue that

personality factors are generally more powerful than situational factors or to assert that

the consistent direction of the FAE is opposite to the one traditionally claimed. Rather, we

hope to offer a reduction ad absurdum in support of the point that an adversarial contrast

between situations and persons has for too long defined much of the relationship between

personality and social psychology. A more productive direction will involve turning

Thus, this study could be added to the earlier list of reversals of the FAE.
In the two most famous conditions, in which the experimenter was present and the victim could be heard
but not seen, the rates of obedience were 63% (at Yale) and 48% (at “Research Associates of Bridgeport”);
the overall average rate of obedience across 18 experimental conditions was 37.5% (Milgram, 1974/2004,
Tables, 2,3,4,and 5; see Krueger & Funder, 2004, p. 327).
Personality in Social Psychology 68

attention to how situational and personality variables both and together determine

behavior. In another word, interactionism.

Part VI: Towards a Cooperative Social-Personality Psychology

The most useful way to consider situational and personal variables is as

interactional partners. This view was operationalized in Lewin’s (1936) well-known

formula: B = f (P,S), which explicitly defines behavior as a function of the person and the

situation. This equation implies that if we knew all of the relevant psychological

properties of a person and all of the relevant properties of his or her situation, we could

predict with high precision what the person would do.

Lewin’s equation can be further arranged to illuminate other associations between

behavior, personality, and situations (Bandura, 1978). P = f (B,S) implies that persons can

be conceptualized in terms of their behaviors in every situation of their lives. This

arrangement of the equation exemplifies classical Watsonian behaviorism (Watson, 1930)

and also characterizes Mischel and Shoda’s (1995) “if… then” statements. Another way

to arrange the equation, S = f (B, P), suggests that a situation can be understood in terms

of the behaviors that different people might perform in it. This idea formed the basis for

the template-matching technique introduced by Bem and Funder (1978). For example, it

is possible to describe a college campus in terms of the kind of people who commonly

attend it and do well there. A college campus in which students who are introverted,

philosophical, and intellectual do well is a very different situation than a campus where

better outcomes are attained by students who are extraverted, athletic, and rambunctious.
Personality in Social Psychology 69

The psychological triad represented by these three formulae suggests that persons,

situations, and behaviors should be studied in unison (Funder, 2006). A serious obstacle

to achieving this goal concerns the uneven development of conceptualizations and

measurement technologies. Although many methods are available for assessing

personality, relatively fewer methods have been established for studying behavior and

almost no methods for describing situations.

The conceptualization and measurement of personality traits is well developed

and ranges from the assessment of a small number of essential global traits (e.g. The Big

Five), to large, comprehensive sets of mid-level characteristics that describe many ways

in which individuals differ (e.g. The California Adult Q-set). Moreover, a large number of

trait measures come packaged with a theory that explains the behaviors and outcomes to

which the trait is purportedly related and an adequate validity literature that addresses

psychometric properties and observed external correlates.

In contrast, true behavioral measurement (i.e., direct observations of behavior by

independent observers who describe a behavior that they have actually seen someone do)

is rarer than one might think (Baumeister, Vohs, & Funder, 2007). Systematic attempts to

develop a taxonomy of behavior within a theoretical framework are even rarer. Behavior,

when it is actually observed, is almost always chosen to illustrate a particular theoretical

prediction and the typical study includes one behavior, which might be something as

detached from real-life action as a button press on a computer keyboard or a

questionnaire response. Although classic social psychology studies in the 1960’s and

1970’s sometimes directly observed single behaviors that were important and

consequential (e.g., bystander intervention and obedience), focusing on a single behavior

Personality in Social Psychology 70

provides a narrow view of the many different things that people might be doing at the

same time. For example, when people obey commands by an authority figure to shock a

victim, do they plead with the authority figure that shocking the victim seems wrong? Do

they ask the authority figure how dangerous the shocks are? Do they try to communicate

with the victim? (Milgram, 1974/2004, informally reported that his subjects did all of

these things, but did not provide any direct measurements.) In short, broader

conceptualization and measurement of behavior is sorely needed.

The Riverside Behavioral Q-set (RBQ; Funder, Furr & Colvin, 2000; RBQ 3.0) is

one possible, partial solution to this problem. The RBQ is a comprehensive set of 67

items that describe a broad range of socially relevant behaviors. RBQ items describe

behavior at a mid-level of generality so that the behaviors that are coded are not too

microscopic (e.g. eye blinks) or too macroscopic (e.g. socially successful). The items

were originally derived from the items of the California Adult Q-Set (CAQ: Block, 1961;

Bem & Funder, 1978) and were re-worded to emphasize behavioral display rather than

trait inference. For example, an item in the CAQ reads “is critical, skeptical, not easily

impressed” and the associated RBQ item reads “expresses criticism.” The RBQ is a

valuable tool for a researcher who is interested in measuring a variety of behaviors that

are relevant to a wide range of personality constructs and social situations. It has been

used to illustrate the independence of behavioral change and consistency (Funder &

Colvin, 1991), the behavioral correlates of various personality traits (e.g. Fast, Reimer, &

Funder, 2007), and for many other purposes.12

For the current version of the RBQ and other Q-sets, and a free computer program that simplifies the
process of Q-sorting, please see www.rap.ucr.edu/qsorter.
Personality in Social Psychology 71

Numerous researchers have complained about the lack of methods for describing

features of situations (e.g., Funder, 2000; Hogan & Roberts, 2000; Reis, 2008; Swann &

Seyle, 2005). In social psychological experiments, a situational manipulation is typically

chosen to test a specific theoretical prediction, not because it is necessarily viewed as an

important dimension of situations in general. Social psychology could be said to contain a

huge amount of information about how narrowly defined situations affect behavior, but

this knowledge is fragmented because there exists no method for organizing findings into

a coherent summary. What is needed is a way to conceptualize and measure the active

ingredients of situations. This goal requires identifying attributes that can be used to

describe all situations, a daunting task. Gilbert and Malone (1995) observed that “when

one tries to point to a situation, one often stabs empty air. Indeed, the constructs to which

the word situation refers often have little or no physical manifestation” (p. 25).

Thus far, researchers have suggested that situations can be described along three

conceptual levels (Block & Block, 1981; Saucier, Bel-Bahar & Fernandez, 2007). Level

1, the broadest level, involves objective aspects of situations that are relatively resistant

to differences in perception. According to Saucier et al. (2007), this includes factors such

as temperature and the number of people present. Level 2 involves describing situations

in terms of an over-arching characterization that most people in the situation would agree

upon, such as a research seminar, a funeral, a party, and so on. Level 3 is comparatively

subjective and involves properties of situations that are psychologically provoking and

for each individual the specific provoking properties may be different.

The problem with Level 1 description is that it is unlikely to capture the

psychologically active features of situations. Gilbert and Malone (1995) suggest that
Personality in Social Psychology 72

more subtle aspects, such as another person smiling or making eye contact with a person,

are likely to provoke psychological reactions. The problem with Level 3 is that it is too

solipsistic and renders the study of persons in situations impossible (Reis, 2008). Indeed,

it absorbs the analysis of situations into the analysis of persons, because it would require,

for example, that a “noisy party” be described as attractive for an extravert and aversive

for an introvert. Redescribed in that way, the noisy party disappears. In contrast, Level 2

is at a mid-level of analysis that has the potential to reveal psychologically active features

of situations in an empirical, reasonably consensual manner.

The Riverside Situational Q-set (RSQ: Funder & Wagerman, 2008; Wagerman &

Funder, in press) has recently been offered as a new method to describe situations at

Level 2. Similar to The Riverside Behavioral Q-set previously discussed, the items of the

RSQ derive from the items of the California Adult Q-Set (CAQ: Block, 1961; Bem &

Funder, 1978). The 100 CAQ items were examined for situational relevance and re-

worded to describe characteristics of situations that afford the opportunity to express each

of the corresponding personality characteristics. For example, the CAQ item, “is critical,

skeptical, not easily impressed” has an associated RSQ item that reads, “Someone is

trying to impress someone or convince someone of something.” The idea is that the

degree to which an individual is critical or skeptical might be revealed in a situation

where another person is trying to be impressive or convincing. The advantage of basing

the RSQ on the CAQ is that items are specifically intended to describe aspects of

situations that are personologically relevant.

It is possible and in fact likely that the particular items of the RBQ and the RSQ

fail to address all the essential attributes of behavior and of situations, and it is certain
Personality in Social Psychology 73

that their representation of these domains is incomplete. The development of theoretical

conceptions of behaviors and situations, and of the assessment tools to make these

conceptions addressable through empirical research, is a long-term project that will take

long years of work by many different investigators before it comes to fruition. The

intention of the present section of this chapter is simply to suggest that it is time to begin.


An important agenda for future research is to return our attention to important

behaviors in meaningful situations, where situational and personality variables are

assessed alongside each other and treated in an equivalent manner. A catalogue of the

main effect of situational variables on behavior, to place alongside the (too-thin, but

slowly expanding) catalogue of main effects of personality variables on behavior would

offer a useful contribution to psychological understanding.

It is worth pausing for a moment to realize how important an accomplishment it

would be to have a map of how a wide range of personality variables affect behavior,

alongside a map of how a wide range of situational variables (not just a few) affect

behavior. This endeavor might come to be the psychological equivalent of the human

genome project. This project would not itself be theoretical (neither is the human genome

project), but a wide ranging descriptive enterprise to gather descriptions of what people

actually do in the diverse situations of their lives.

The next step, mapping the interactions between personality and situational

variables, will also be necessary but difficult. Interactions only get the variance left over

after the main effects of persons and situations have had their way. So as any active
Personality in Social Psychology 74

researcher knows, they tend to be fragile things, difficult to find and more difficult to

replicate (Chaplin, 1991). Perhaps it is enough to ask, for the time being, for a renewed

research focus on these critically important main effects, of persons and situations on

behavior, about which we still know far too little. This enterprise may offer the best hope

of at last reuniting the long-estranged siblings of personality and social psychology in a

way that would have made their parents proud.

Personality in Social Psychology 75


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