Situationism is the theory that changes in human behavior are factors of the situation rather than the traits a person possesses. Behavior is believed to be influenced by external, situational factors rather than internal traits or motivations. Situationism therefore challenges the positions of trait theorists, such as Hans Eysenck or Raymond B. Cattell.
History and conceptions
Situationists believe that thoughts, feelings, dispositions, and past experiences and behaviors will not suggest what someone will do in a given situation, but the situation itself will. Situationists tend to assume that character traits are distinctive, meaning that they do not completely disregard the idea of traits, but suggest that situations have a greater impact on behavior than those traits. Situationism is also influenced by culture, such that the extent to which people believe that situations impact behaviors varies between cultures. Situationism has been perceived as arising in response to trait theories, and correcting the notion that everything we do is because of our traits. However, situationism has also been criticized for ignoring individuals' inherent influences on behavior.
Many studies have found evidence supporting situationism. One notable situationist study is Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment. Two groups of men participated in this simulated prison study. One group was assigned to be "prisoners" and the other group was assigned to be "guards", who were in charge of ordering and punishing the prisoners. After a few days, the guards had become so immersed in their roles that they were engaging in behaviors they had never done before. For example, they harassed and dehumanized the prisoners. The prisoners became so depressed, helpless, and self-deprecating that the researchers were forced to end the study early, exemplifying how strongly a situation can influence behavior.
Studies investigating bystander effects also support situationism. For example, in 1973, Darley and Batson conducted a study where they asked students at a seminary school to give a presentation in a separate building. They gave each individual participant a topic, and would then tell a participant that they were supposed to be there immediately, or in a few minutes, and sent them on their way to the building. On the way, each participant encountered a confederate who was on the ground, clearly in need of medical attention. Darley and Batson observed that more participants who had extra time stopped to help the confederate than those who were in a hurry. Helping was not predicted by religious personality measures, and the results therefore indicate that the situation influenced their behavior.
A third well-known study supporting situationism is an obedience study, the Milgram experiment. In this study, a participant was assigned to be a "teacher" and a confederate was assigned to be a "learner". The participant was unaware that the learner was a confederate. The participant would test the learner, and for each incorrect answer the learner gave, the participant would have to shock the learner with increasing voltages. The shocks were not actually administered, but the participant believed they were. As the shocks increased, the learner would scream and yell to stop the study. Milgram expected participants to stop the procedure, but 65% of them continued to completion, administering shocks that could have been fatal, even if they were uncomfortable or upset. Participants felt compelled to listen to the experimenter, who was the authority figure present in the room and continued to encourage the participant throughout the study.
There is also empirical evidence supporting the idea that internal traits underlie all human behavior. For example, people are capable of describing and recognizing traits within themselves. This supports the idea that there is some internal disposition that impacts behavior. People are also able to accurately describe the traits that a family member or friend possesses, which implies that there are internal driving forces behind behaviours that other people can recognize, understand, and describe.
Furthermore, twin studies have shown that identical twins share more traits than fraternal twins. This implies that there is a genetic basis for behavior, which directly contradicts situationist views that behavior is determined by the situation.
Current views: interactionism
In addition to the debate between trait influences and situational influences on behavior, a psychological model of "interactionism" exists, which is a view that both internal dispositions and external situational factors impact a person's behavior in a given situation. This model emphasizes both sides of the person-situation debate, and says that internal and external factors interact with each other to produce a behavior. Interactionism is currently an accepted personality theory, and there has been sufficient empirical evidence to support interactionism. However, it is also important to note that both situationists and trait theorists contributed to explaining facets of human behavior.
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