Evolution of Research

Until the late 1960's, the field of personality psychology was dominated by trait and state theories. Their central assumption, that people have traits that produce enduring consistencies in their behavior, went unchallenged for many years. The widespread appeal of these trait assumptions notwith standing, since the late 1960's personality and social psychologists have been entangled in the "person-situation debate," a controversy over whether the presumed stability in behavior might be based more on illusion than reality. While doubts about the existence of traits were already raised in the middle of the twentieth century, the work of Walter Mischel was instrumental in bringing the controversy into the forefront of academic psychology. In reviewing a voluminous body of literature, Mischel showed in 1968 thatvirtu-ally all so-called trait measures, except intelligence, change substantially over time and even more dramatically across situations. Traits such as honesty, assertiveness, or attitudes toward authority typically showed reliability across situations of .20 to .30. This means that if the correlation of behavior presumably reflecting a trait in two different situations is .30, less than one-tenth (.30 x .30 = .09, or 9 percent) of the variability in the behavior can be attributed to the trait. Mischel therefore concluded that perceptions of behavioral stability, while not arbitrary, are often only weakly related to the phenomenon in question.

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