Predicting Behavior

Research has found circumstances under which people's behavior can be predicted from knowledge of their underlying personality characteristics. If one classifies personality characteristics and behaviors at a very general level, combining observations and predicting to a group of behaviors, prediction improves. For example, predictions would be more accurate if several measures of a person's conscientiousness were combined, and then used to predict an overall level of conscientious behavior in a variety of situations, than if one measured conscientiousness with a single scale and then attempted to predict behavior in one specific situation. Prediction on the basis of personality traits also improves when the situations in which one seeks to predict behaviors allow for individual variation, as opposed to being highly constrained by social norms. Five basic personality traits often emerge in investigations: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and culture (high scores on culture reflect characteristics such as intelligence and refinement). Some researchers view these trait terms as accurately describing consistent personality differences among people, while others view them as reflecting the "eye of the beholder" more than the core of personality.

Ultimately, people's personality traits and situations interact to produce behavior. Situations may often determine behavior, but people choose to place themselves in specific situations that elicit their traits. A child with a predisposition to aggression may provoke others and thus set the stage for the expression of aggression; one who is highly sociable may seek out others in cooperative situations. The relation between personality and behavior is very complex, and it is difficult to describe fully using standard research methods.

Research is highly unlikely to answer philosophical questions concerning human nature; however, considering people from the different points of view offered by various theories can be an enriching experience in itself. For example, a Freudian perspective on former United States president Lyndon Johnson might see his leadership during the Vietnam War as guided by aggressive instincts or even sublimated sexual instincts. On the other hand, a humanist might look at Johnson's presidency and find his decisions to be guided by the need for self-fulfillment, perhaps citing his vision of himself as the leader of the "Great Society" as an example of self-actualization. Social learning theorists would viewJohnson's actions as president as determined by the rewards, punishments, and observational learning of his personal learning history, including growing up relatively poor in Texas and accruing power and respect during his years in the U.S. Senate, as well as by the reinforcements and punishments Johnson perceived to be available in the situations in which he found himself during his presidency. In the final analysis, none of these interpretations could be shown to be blatantly false or absolutely true. Historians, biographers, and others might find each to be an enriching viewpoint from which to consider this complex individual.

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