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What Are Situations?

Three things modern research can tell us about situations

What were you doing yesterday at 10am? 2pm? 8pm? Why were you doing those things? A moment’s reflection on our day’s activities makes it obvious that situations impact our behavior. But what are situations actually? I’ve spent the past nine years doing research aimed at answering this very question. This post describes what we currently know about situations.

One obvious definition of a situation is that it constitutes everything that is outside the person. That is, a person is—psychologically speaking—made up of goals, motives, values, interests, skills, abilities, etc., and situations are everything else, including other people. This is, unfortunately in my view, the definition of situations that has long persisted in social psychology. When social psychologists say that “situations matter,” they are largely referring to just about anything and everything they can think of that is outside the person. They are not wrong, but this definition is a bit nebulous for anyone interested in seriously discussing the ways in which situations impact behavior, how situations can be compared across time and space, which kinds of people find themselves in one situation vs. another, and so on.

My long-time collaborators and I have worked to define three different kinds of situational information: Cues, Characteristics, and Classes.1 Cues consist of raw physical stimuli in the environment that are objective quantifiable. The number of people present, the room temperature, or the lighting are just a few examples. By definition, cues are themselves meaningless. They have also historically been useful in experimental social psychology (e.g., changing the number of people conforming; presence or absence of a social prime).

Characteristics are psychologically meaningful interpretations of situations formed from single or multiple cues once they have been implicitly or explicitly processed. Characteristics can be used to describe situations in a fashion similar to the way people can be described with personality dimensions. My colleagues and I recently proposed a taxonomy of situation characteristics that centers around 8 basic dimensions.2 The Situational Eight DIAMONDS are Duty (Does work need to be done?) Intellect (Is deep cognitive information processing required?), Adversity (Is someone under threat?), Mating (Does the situation involve romantic potential?), pOsitivity (Is the situation enjoyable?), Negativity (Could the situation cause emotional turmoil?), Deception (Can we trust each other?), and Sociality (Is meaningful social interaction and relationship building possible?). Characteristics such as the DIAMONDS allow people to communicate situational information that centers around psychological meaning.

Classes are types of situations that are grouped together because they tend to share similar constellations, or patterns, of characteristics. Religious ceremonies, parties, and work are just a few examples. Classes of situations are often useful in everyday communication because they allow people to quickly describe and exchange information about situations they have experienced. For example, if your friend tells you they were “in a meeting with the boss,” you have an idea of what that situation (work) is typically like. However, this example also demonstrates that, while situation classes can quickly convey large chunks of situational information, they often leave many important characteristics unspecified. That is, while “a meeting with the boss” almost certainly involves Duty, it is not clear if the situation also involves Intellect (does one need to think hard?), Adversity (is the boss criticizing me?), Mating (is the boss making a pass at me?), pOsitivity (am I being praised for good work?), Negativity (is information about pending layoffs looming?), Deception (can I trust what my boss is saying?), or Sociality (is it just socializing about family and life?). Thus, while classes are useful in everyday conversation, our research suggests that the most scientifically productive way to study and measure situations—if one is interested in behavioral prediction—is at the mid-level of situation characteristics.

Indeed, we have shown that situation characteristics do in fact predict behavior. In a recent study,3 we sent 56 text messages over a 1 week period to 200+ participants asking them about their current situation (at the time of the text) and their behavior in that situation. All eight of the DIAMONDS characteristics substantially predicted within-person variation (i.e., moment-to-moment change) in behavior in theoretically meaningful ways. For example, when a person was in a situation that was higher in Duty, he or she behaved in a more conscientious manner.

The foregoing discussion may leave some readers wondering: Are situations real or just inside the heads of observers? That is, if situation cues have to be interpreted to be translated into meaningful situation characteristics, aren’t situations just entirely made up? My answer to this question is unequivocally: yes and no. Yes, it is true that situation characteristics must be formed from observations and interpretations of situation cues. However, it is also true that many observers readily agree about the meaning of most situations.4,5,6 This suggests that situation characteristics represent socio-cultural norms and rules. Moreover, these norms and rules have real consequences. In situations that call for work to be done, the quality and quantity of the work that is done can have a major impact on you (e.g., if you don’t do the work, you may be fired). Finally, and despite the fact that people largely agree about what situations are like, people do exhibit relatively small—but stable—individual differences in situation perception in both laboratory and real-world studies.5, 6 For example, people who are open to experience tend to see situations as more aesthetically pleasing, people who are happy tend to see more pOsitivity in situations, and people who are narcissistic tend to see themselves more as the center of attention in situations.

So to summarize, (1) situations can be described by cues, characteristics, or classes, depending on one’s research goals or level of interest, (2) situations are real—at least in their consequences—and they impact our behavior all the time, and (3) people generally agree about what a given situation is like, but individual differences in situation perception do exist and they are related to personality.

Note: I am grateful to John Rauthmann for comments on a prior draft of this post.


1Rauthmann, J. F., Sherman, R. A., & Funder, D. C. (2015). Principles of situation research: Towards a better understanding of psychological situations. European Journal of Personality, 29, 363-381.

2Rauthmann, J. F., Gallardo-Pujol, D., Guillaume, E. M., & Todd, E., Nave, C. S., Sherman, R. A., Ziegler, M., Jones, A. B., & Funder, D. C. (2014). The Situational Eight DIAMONDS: A taxonomy of major dimensions of situation characteristics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107, 677-718.

3Sherman, R. A., Rauthmann, J. F., Brown, N. A., Serfass, D. S., & Jones, A. B. (2015, in press). The independent effects of personality and situations on real-time expressions of behavior and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

4Rauthmann, J. F. (2012). You say the party is dull, I say it is lively: A componential approach to how situations are perceived to disentangle perceiver, situation, and perceiver x situation variance. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 519-528.

5Serfass, D. S., & Sherman, R. A. (2013). Personality and the perceptions of situations from the Thematic Apperception Test. Journal of Research in Personality, 47, 708-718.

6Sherman, R. A., Nave, C. S., & Funder, D. C. (2013). Situational construal is related to personality and gender. Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 87-101.

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