The Ghost of Situationism and Why Personality Is Not a Myth
Long discredited claims about the "myth" of personality keep reappearing.
Posted Sep 07, 2016
Does personality really exist? Of course it does. Yet there was a period a few decades ago, when psychologists seriously debated this question in the famous “person-situation debate” between social and personality psychologists. This debate ignited in 1968, based on claims that behavior is really controlled by situations and that personality traits are illusory, a view known as situationism. However, by the 1980s most of the people involved felt that the issue was resolved satisfactorily, as plenty of scientific evidence eventually accumulated that personality actually does have an important influence on how people behave, and scholars began to move on from this debate to other matters. Despite this, the idea that personality is simply an illusion that people believe in because they do not know any better continues to reappear from time to time, like a ghost that will not be laid to rest. The latest egregious example of this was a podcast on NPR call the ‘The Personality Myth’ that was filled with long-discredited arguments presented as up-to-date facts. However, it is not just irresponsible journalists that repeat these ideas, there even are a number of respected social psychologists who continue to propagate this nonsense, when they really should know better. Some scholars have suggested that the ghost of the person-situation debate refuses to be laid to rest because deeper moral and political values seem to be at stake, that are tied up with our understanding of human nature.
In June this year, NPR published an excerpt from “The Personality Myth” podcast called “Is Your Personality Fixed, Or Can You Change Who You Are?” by Alix Spiegel. The article is utterly one-sided and presents a most unflattering portrait of the field of personality psychology. The article cites claims by social psychologists Walter Mischel and Lee Ross to the effect that personality traits either do not really exist, or at least that they do not really matter, and that the apparent consistency people perceive in personality is an illusion that can be explained by the consistency of the environment we live in. Mischel’s arguments go back to 1968, and those of Ross date from the 1970s, yet not a single word is said about how personality psychologists have responded to these arguments, or what the current state of evidence suggests. Hence, a casual reader would be left with the misleading impression that these ideas represent the currently accepted scientific consensus. However, nothing could be further from the truth. A number of good responses to this article have already appeared (see my favorite reply here, as well as other very insightful replies here, here, and here); I would like to add a detailed rebuttal as well.
According to the story the author tells, Walter Mischel came onto the scene in the 1960s, and made the amazing discovery that there is no consistency in personality across situations. The main scholars in the field at the time are painted as pretty dumb:
At the time, personality researchers liked to argue about which traits were most important. But they never argued about the underlying premise of their field — that whatever traits you had were stable throughout your life and consistent across different situations.
I suppose they were all living inside a bubble if they “never argued” about the underlying premise of their field, as if no-one had ever before questioned the idea. Which is actually not true, personality psychologists, such as Gordon Allport, were responding to behaviorist criticisms of the concept of personality by well before 1968. But I digress. According to Spiegel’s narrative, Mischel provided incontrovertible evidence that “the idea that our personality traits are consistent is pretty much a mirage,” but that idea “was so hard for people to wrap their heads around” that try as he might, he could not make it stick. The reason why people continue to cling to this way out idea that people have stable personalities is because they are fooled by an illusion of consistency. She then cites social psychologist Lee Ross’ idea that:
"We see consistency in everyday life because of the power of the situation," he says.
Most of us are usually living in situations that are pretty much the same from day to day, Ross says. And since the circumstances are consistent, our behavior is, too.
She then goes to cite the famous Milgram obedience experiments as an example of the power of the situation to make people do things they are uncomfortable with.
The point, Ross says, is that ultimately it's the situation, not the person, that determines things. "People are predictable, that's true," he says. "But they're predictable because we see them in situations where their behavior is constrained by that situation and the roles they're occupying and the relationships they have with us."
Ross’ view has a number of problems. Firstly, it is based on a false dichotomy between persons and situations (something I have discussed in a previous post about the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment). Secondly, the idea that the apparent consistency in personality is an illusion created by the consistency of the situations we find ourselves in has been rather convincingly rebutted (Kenrick & Funder, 1988). If Ross’ explanation was true, then when people are placed in unfamiliar situations that are inconsistent with their usual daily lives, their personalities should become unrecognizable. However, this is not the case. Studies have actually shown that when strangers are asked to rate the personality traits of people in unfamiliar situations their ratings are reasonably consistent with ratings of those who know them well. Furthermore, although Milgram’s experiments have frequently been showcased as illustrating the ‘power of the situation,’ Milgram himself actually thought that obedience reflected a complex mix of personality and situational factors. Additionally, the fact that not everybody obeyed the experimenter, and in fact nearly a third of people disobeyed when pressure to obey was strongest, indicates that individual differences in behavior do occur even when people are in powerful situations. Moreover, a number of studies have actually shown that personality traits are related to behavior in obedience experiments (Bègue et al., 2014; Johnson, 2009).
Spiegel then presents the mandatory journalistic anecdote, in this case intended to illustrate that personality is not fixed but that people can change if they really want to. To summarize briefly, an extremely violent criminal in prison has an epiphany that violence is really bad, decides he wants to change his life, and after two years of effort manages to change his personality so much that he feels like he has “become a completely different human being.” This is followed by some very odd statements:
Even though Dan says he's no longer the man who committed the crime, he knows why he's in prison. "I have to atone for my crime. But I realize now I'm just paying for someone else's debt. The person who committed the crime no longer exists."
There's something more than a little disturbing about that sentence — being in prison now for someone else's crime. But just because it's disturbing doesn't mean it can't be true.
This raises some philosophical issues about identity and responsibility that are beyond the scope of this article. However, these statements imply that it is possible to completely transcend personhood altogether. For whatever such a story is worth, if taken seriously it contradicts the idea that “ultimately it's the situation, not the person, that determines things.” In this story Dan was in prison when he made his big change of heart. Therefore, he actually transcended not just his personality but the constraints of his situation: he became a new person even though his circumstances and environment did not change at all. In any case, from a scientific perspective, anecdotes are only useful as vivid illustrations of a phenomenon, they do not actually provide evidence of anything because one can select anecdotes to illustrate pretty much anything one likes.
The article concludes with the message that all that stands between a person and whatever situation they are in is their mind, and if a person can change their mind, they can even reconstruct themselves. Certainly an interesting idea. However, it does contradict the notion that the power of the situation determines everything.
I think the real question here is not why people continue to believe that personality exists. There is plenty of evidence that it does, that Spiegel completely ignores. The question I want to consider then, is why do some people want to deny the existence of personality? Furthermore, it is not just irresponsible journalists like Alix Spiegel who continue to say things like this. As an example, Richard Nisbett, a famous social psychologist who was a player in the infamous personality-situation debate, recently published a rambling article in which he states that social psychologists in the 1970s used Mischel’s work to show that personality psychologists were mistaken and that behavior is primarily driven by situational factors. Just like Spiegel he presents a completely one-sided view with no acknowledgement of any of the research in the last 48 years that has rebutted the situationist view. I have also noted in a number of other articles critiquing situationism that Phil Zimbardo has stated in his ironically titled book The Lucifer Effect that “situational power triumphs over individual power in certain contexts”, even though research from the 1980s (Funder & Ozer, 1983) and a more recent meta-analysis (Richard et al., 2003) has shown that the statistical effects of situations are actually not larger than those of personality variables. The very idea that situations “triumph” over individual characteristics is based on a false dichotomy between the two because “the power of situations depends on the characteristics of persons” (Johnson, 2009).
Even though most people regard the idea of personality as a matter of common sense, there are those who seem to find the idea of personality traits disturbing or offensive. There are several potential reasons why this might be the case. For example, some might prefer to believe that people are not limited by their innate dispositions and can choose to become whoever they want to be. Others might believe, as Funder (2006) notes “that one enjoys free will only when one can cast off of the shackles of selfhood and invent oneself anew in every situation one encounters.” Funder also mentions that some might prefer to give credence to “ideologies of victimization in which nothing anybody does is her or her fault because behavior is really caused by society, the media, or parental mistakes.” (Phil Zimbardo has repeatedly endorsed ideas to the effect that people are not to blame for their bad actions.)
In a number of books, the economist Thomas Sowell discusses two different views of human nature that he calls the constrained and the unconstrained visions of human nature. According to the constrained vision, the moral limitations of human beings, such as egocentricity, are simply accepted inherent facts of life. Hence, the smart thing to do is aim for the best possible outcomes within those constraints rather than wasting time trying to change them. This vision is tragic and accepts that life involves trade-offs rather than perfect solutions. According to the unconstrained vision, however, human nature is essentially plastic and can be perfected. This is a utopian vision in which there are basically no limits to what people can be.
The NPR article seems to propose something like an unconstrained vision of human nature, in which people are limited only by their minds, and are completely free to reinvent themselves at will. Perhaps people with such a view find the idea of personality traits distasteful because it implies that human nature is not completely malleable and that there may be some constraints on what people can become. This sounds like the venerable blank slate view of nature, in which a person’s character is determined by their environment rather than their inherent nature. Razib Khan notes that sociologists are notorious for this: “Because of their ideology that all things are social, they believe they can reshape the fabric of the universe through their own normative preferences.”
There is some evidence that personality is susceptible to change over time, and some recent studies suggest that people can effect modest changes in their personalities over the short-term if they are strongly motivated to do so (Hudson & Fraley, 2015). Yet even so, there is considerable evidence that personality is fairly stable for the most part. The idea that people can use their minds to reinvent themselves is intriguing and deserves to be explored further. The personality psychologist Johnson (2009) argued that more attention should be given to studying how “conscious volition manages both external pressures (situational demands) and internal pressures (desires and appetites) in the self-regulation of behavior.” However, ignorant denial of the facts about human nature in the service of the dream that “you can be anything you want to be” is unlikely to be helpful, and is more likely to create unrealistic expectations, setting people up for disappointment.
 One of Nisbett’s more irksome statements was that predictions of behavior from personality are “very weak” and the “predictability runs, at most, to a correlation of about .3, which is not a very strong relationship at all.” This correlation he speaks of, the so-called personality coefficient, refers to correlations between personality traits and a single instance of behavior. This coefficient was later revised to .4, a fact acknowledged in a book called The Person and the Situation by none other than Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett, a fact that goes unmentioned in the latter’s article. What also goes unmentioned is that a 1983 paper (Funder & Ozer) calculated the correlation coefficients for a number of famous experiments that supposedly demonstrated the awesome powers of the situation, including Milgram’s obedience studies, as well as classic studies on cognitive dissonance and bystander intervention. The average correlation for these experiments was .4 – about the same as the “very weak” and “not very strong at all” revised personality coefficient. Furthermore, other studies have found that when personality is correlated with many instances of behavior aggregated over time, the correlation rises to more than .70 (Epstein & O'Brien, 1985). On the other hand, according to a review of a century of studies in social psychology, the average correlation of experimental situations with behavior is around.2 (Richard, Bond Jr., & Stokes-Zoota, 2003). So much for the supposed weakness of personality and the vastly greater power of situations. A scholar of Nisbett's standing should be aware of all these things, yet he chooses to ignore them and presents outdated information instead.
Yūrei (Japanese Ghost) from the Hyakkai-Zukan by Sawaki Suushi, 1737
Bègue, L., Beauvois, J.-L., Courbet, D., Oberlé, D., Lepage, J., & Duke, A. A. (2014). Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm. Journal of Personality, in press. doi:10.1111/jopy.12104
Epstein, S., & O'Brien, E. J. (1985). The person–situation debate in historical and current perspective. Psychological Bulletin, 98(3), 513-537. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.98.3.513
Funder, D. C. (2006). Towards a resolution of the personality triad: Persons, situations, and behaviors. Journal of Research in Personality, 40(1), 21-34. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2005.08.003
Funder, D. C., & Ozer, D. J. (1983). Behavior as a function of the situation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1), 107-112.
Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Volitional Personality Trait Change: Can People Choose to Change Their Personality Traits? Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 109(3), 490-507.
Johnson, J. A. (2009). Wrong and right questions about persons and situations. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(2), 251-252. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2008.12.022
Kenrick, D. T., & Funder, D. C. (1988). Profiting from controversy: Lessons from the person-situation debate. American Psychologist, 43(1), 23-34. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.43.1.23
Richard, F. D., Bond Jr., C. F., & Stokes-Zoota, J. J. (2003). One Hundred Years of Social Psychology Quantitatively Described. Review of General Psychology, 7(4), 331-363. doi:10.1037/1089-26184.108.40.2061
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