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Personality in context: How perceptions of a situation influence us in the moment

Australian research, September 2012

The Power of “OUT” – LGBT in the WorkplaceThe English language is full of words describing personality, and though we might not always be aware of it, we use these regularly in our conversations to distinguish and describe the personal characteristics and behaviour of those around us. We might, for example, describe our energetic friend as the ‘life of the party’, or identify a stressed out co-worker as something of a ‘worrier ‘.

Underpinning our use of such terms is a common understanding that although people might behave differently between situations, there is a fundamental consistency in the way they behave. For example, we might expect that our stressed or anxious colleague would carry that behaviour into other contexts, such as while taking a holiday in a foreign country or making a speech at a wedding. 

Statistically speaking, this everyday understanding of personality is largely correct. General consensus within the field of psychology is that, personality is a relatively stable characteristic of an individual that can be described by five key traits: Extraversion (outgoing, sociable, assertive), Neuroticism (anxious, emotional, self-conscious), Openness (creative, imaginative, open to new experiences), Agreeableness (trusting, empathetic, amicable), and Conscientiousness (organised, dutiful, self-directed). 

What is lacking from much of the personality literature, however, is a consideration of the role of situations in influencing personality and behaviour at a particular moment in time. In part, the lack of research in this area has been due to the complexity of statistical models required to investigate situational differences in behaviour, as well as difficulty in classifying the many and various characteristics of a situation. 

Aim 

This paper by graduate student Andrew Comensoli and lecturer Carolyn MacCann, of the University of Sydney, is one of the first to address these concerns by leveraging research in stress and emotion, which suggests that people perceive (or appraise) various situations in terms of 7 main appraisal types:

  • Whether the situation is expected or surprising
  • Whether the situation is wanted
  • Whether the person is motivated at that moment to gain something positive or avoid something negative
  • How certain the outcome is
  • Whether the event is caused by oneself, someone else, or the situation
  • How controllable the situation is
  • Whether a negative situation is negative due to the nature of a person or object, or because the nature of the situation itself blocks the achievement of a positive goal.

Using a technique known as Hierarchical Linear Modelling, this paper investigates the relationship between a person’s appraisals of a situation, and their personality at that moment, and tries to determine whether that person’s overall personality influences this relationship.

Method 

126 university students were asked to recall a number of recent events that they had experienced in the past week, and then provide ratings of how they perceived each event across the 7 appraisal types identified above. Students additionally rated how well a number of personality adjectives described themselves in each event (to measure their ‘momentary’ personality), and completed a separate measure of their ‘overall’ personality. 

Findings 

Three main findings were identified:

1. A person’s overall personality predicts their personality in a particular moment. For example, a more highly extraverted person is likely to be more extraverted in a particular situation than a non-extraverted person. Likewise, a very anxious person is predicted to be more anxious across a variety of situations than someone who is emotionally stable. 

This finding is consistent with our everyday understanding of personality, and means that although personality might change in different situations, it fluctuates around a relatively stable average.


2. Appraisals of a situation predict personality in that moment, particularly for appraisals of i) whether an event is desirable ii) whether a person is motivated for something desirable or to avoid something undesirable and iii) how certain the outcome of the situation is.

This means that overall, our emotional reactions to situations are a good predictor (in the statistical sense) of how we behave in a situation. This is important from a theoretical perspective, because it means that the appraisal questions used in this study may be useful as a way of classifying situations in a comprehensive, yet simple way.


3. Perhaps the most interesting finding of this study is that (at least in some instances), a person’s average personality can affect how much their appraisals of a situation influence their personality during that situation. As an example, ratings of how conscientious an individual is in a particular situation are predicted by their motivation to achieve something positive. However, the amount to which the ‘motivation to achieve something positive’ influences conscientiousness during a particular situation depends on the overall conscientiousness of that individual.

An interesting consequence of this is that highly conscientious individuals (who statistically, are better performers at work than low conscientious individuals), may be less adaptable in changing situations than their less conscientious colleagues.

Implications

This study is one of the first to use appraisal types as a measure of a situation, and is the first to examine the relationship between appraisals and momentary personality across all of the five personality dimensions. Theoretically, this is an important step towards developing a more comprehensive understanding of personality that considers both stable and momentary influences on an individual. More practically, and although preliminary, the results of this study suggest that appraisals may be a useful target for health, and work-based behavioural interventions targeting aspects such as job performance, job satisfaction, and other outcomes that have previously been linked to personality.

For managers

The research highlights that although personality is a relatively stable characteristic of an individual, it does fluctuate in different situations depending on how we perceive those events. It is important, therefore, to be aware that although we can expect some consistency from those around us, individuals will respond differently when presented with various situations. An important consequence of this for managers is that managing perceptions of a situation at an individual level (rather than team level) can have an impact on behaviour, and is therefore a potentially useful tool for enacting behavioural change. Managers should also be cognisant that no two individuals will ever behave in exactly the same way, no matter how similar they might appear – personality, situations and behaviour are all interlinked in a complex and dynamic relationship that means we are all very much unique. 

Source: Comensoli, A., & MacCann, C. (2011). Personality in Context: A Multi-Level Investigation of the Relationship between Situational Appraisals and Personality. Unpublished honour’s thesis, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia.

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