The degree to which personality and/or behavior changes across situations.
Introduction and Background
Personality involves an individual’s typical pattern of behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. The degree to which personality and/or behavior remains similar across situations is known as cross-situational consistency (Sauerberger and Funder 2016). Someone high in cross-situational consistency has behaviors related to personality characteristics in a similar manner across situations, whereas someone low in consistency will differ in behaviors expressed and how they relate to one’s underlying personality. An important area of research in psychology focuses on whether individual personality traits or situational characteristics have a greater influence on individual behavior (Long et al. 1977). There is ample evidence that suggests that personality has a major influence on behavior and to some degree transcends immediate situational context (Nave et al. 2010).
Some research suggests that there are low levels of cross-situational consistency due to the assumption that personality/behavior interpretations are universal for all humans. For example, one individual may interpret a specific behavior (i.e., smiling) as friendly, while another individual may interpret the same behavior as confident. Research also suggests that personality is fairly stable across time (i.e., age) and situations (i.e., social settings), particularly when discussing rank order stability (Asscher et al. 2014; Roberts et al. 2006; Shiner et al. 2002). In other words, if an individual ranks highest in extraversion out of all of the personality traits, this individual’s mean personality levels may fluctuate throughout their life, but extraversion will always rank the highest among other traits (Asscher et al. 2014; Roberts et al. 2006; Shiner et al. 2002). Thus, it is possible for personality to change across situations and still be considered relatively consistent. Some research suggests that there are individual differences in cross-situational consistency. Some people behave very similarly across situations, while others are more adaptable (Kuptsch et al. 1998). In other words, some individuals are more flexible than others in the variability of their behavior (Epstein 1979).
Although the overall stability of personality has been established, in order for people to survive in the world, they must adapt their behavior according to the situation at hand. Personality and behavior are not required to be expressed consistently across all situations in order to be considered consistent, but there must be an evident disposition of behavior in a trait-consistent manner across similar situations (Epstein 1979). For example, an individual with low levels of conscientiousness may express higher levels of conscientiousness while at work or at school. On the other hand, unpredictable behavior (i.e., extreme fluctuations in extraversion levels) can be perceived as unusual, erratic, and occasionally related to mental disorders (Sauerberger and Funder 2016). Thus, an obvious problem in cross-situational consistency is that adaptive behavior suggests inconsistency, and consistent behavior suggests a failure to adapt to specific situations. People are able to choose the environments they encounter, which helps uphold stability of their personality.
Evidence for Consistency
One study looked at behavior change of participants between two experimental situations a week apart. The results of this study showed that participants overall were less nervous and awkward at the second session, most likely due to having experienced the situation a week prior. In addition, it was also found that participant behaviors were consistent at both sessions. For example, participants who talked loudly and laughed frequently at the first session were found to talk even louder and laugh even more often at the second session (Funder and Colvin 1991). In this study, behaviors in fact did change across the situations but were also still consistent.
A more recent study looked at behavior change across time and situation. The study examined participant’s behavior change at different times of the month, interacting with different people and completing different tasks (i.e., unstructured interview, cooperative task, and competitive task). Overall, 68 behaviors were examined, and results showed that almost all behaviors statistically significantly changed across situations. This study also ran correlations and found that behaviors were consistent across situations as well. For example, participants who were more talkative in the interview session were also more talkative in the cooperative session (Sauerberger and Funder 2016).
In another study, personality and situational similarity (i.e., the degree to which one situation is similar to another situation) were related to behavioral consistency in real-world situations (Sherman et al. 2010). Participants visited a lab on five different occasions to provide personality information and information regarding a situation they were involved in the previous day, as well as their behavior in that particular situation. The results showed that people have high behavioral cross-situational consistency and report being in similar situations across visits. Furthermore, situational similarity strongly predicted behavioral consistency. In addition, personality predicted behavioral consistency, even when situational similarity was controlled (Sherman et al. 2010).
In conclusion, research suggests that there is ample evidence for cross-situational consistency. When cross-situational consistency is low, it may be a necessary human adaptation to alter behavior to achieve a desired outcome. In order to thrive in the many different environments people must encounter throughout their lives, people need to know how to properly behave in each situation. Thus, personality and behavior can be considered adaptable while still being consistent across situations.
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