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MCAT Content / Personality / Situational Approach To Explaining Behavior

Situational Approach to Explaining Behavior

Topic: Personality

Behavior is a product of both the situation (e.g., cultural influences, social roles, and the presence of bystanders) and of the person (e.g., personality characteristics).

Walter Mischel (1930–present) is a personality researcher whose work has helped to shape the social-cognitive theory of personality. The social-cognitive perspective on personality is a theory that emphasizes cognitive processes, such as thinking and judging, in the development of personality. These cognitive processes contribute to learned behaviors that are central to one’s personality. By observing an admired role model, an individual may choose to adopt and emphasize particular traits and behaviors.

The conflict of ideas between trait theories and Mischel’s cognitive-affective model became known as the person-situation debate, or “trait vs state.” If someone is considered “nice,” are they nice in every situation? Is the trait more important in predicting behavior, or the situation? Some traits, like intellect, are stable across situations; however, people may change other aspects of their personality from situation to situation. Although his early research focused mostly on the importance of the situation, this controversy was stimulated specifically by Mischel’s later research showing that both trait and situation are important in predicting behavior. This argument contradicted the fundamental tenet of trait theory that only internal traits, not external situations, should be taken into account.

Mischel made the case that the field of personality research was searching for consistency in the wrong places. Rather than treating situational factors as “noise” that caused errors of measurement in personality, Mischel encouraged researchers to incorporate situational findings into their experiments and look for the consistencies that characterize an individual in a variety of contexts. He found that although behavior was inconsistent across different situations, it was much more consistent within situations—so that a person’s behavior in one situation would likely be repeated in a similar one.


Practice Questions

Khan Academy

MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Practice Exam 2 P/S Section Passage 5 Question 23

Key Points

• Walter Mischel suggests that an individual’s behavior is fundamentally dependent on situational cues; this counters the trait theories’ perspective that behavior is dependent upon traits and should be consistent across diverse situations.

• The conflict of ideas between Mischel’s model and earlier trait theories became known as the person-situation debate, or “trait vs state”. The topic debated is whether traits or situations are more influential in predicting behavior.

Key Terms

Social-cognitive perspective: a theory of personality that emphasizes cognitive processes, such as thinking and judging

Trait: personality characteristics that are stable, long-lasting, and within oneself

State: personality characteristics that are unstable, short-term and subject to change

Walter Mischel: a personality researcher whose work has helped to shape the social-cognitive theory of personality

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