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Situations
1



Situations


Entry prepared for:

Corr, P. J. and Matthews, G. (Eds.),
Cambridge Handbook of Personality
, Cambridge
University Press.


Seth A. Wagerman

David C. Funder


Department of Psychology


University of California, Riverside


Riverside, CA 92521


USA


seth.wagerman@email.ucr.edu

funder@ucr.edu


Note: Preparation of this chapter was supported, in part, by National Science
Foundation grant BCS
-
0642243 and a
Visiting Research Fellowship from the Max
Planck Institute for Human Development (Berlin) to the second author.



Situations
2

What people do depends, to an important extent, on the situation they are

in
.
But
w
hile
this fact
has been discussed and
sometimes
disputed f
or the past several
decades, situations rarely receive the focused examination they deserve.
W
hat
is

known about the psychological properties of situations?

In this chapter, we
pose a number
of questions about situations and
attempt to
provide answers t
o
some of them
.
Are persons, situations and behaviors so hopelessly
entangled that they can never be teased apart?

How
can a situation be defined, and
what are its properties?

How have past researchers gone about
studying situations
?

What
remains to b
e done?


Why Study Situations
?

The key question of psychol
ogy is: what causes people to

behave the way they
do? The stakes were high, therefore, when protagonists of the “person
-
situation
debate” argued about whether behavior is mainly determined by t
he characteristic
personality of the individual, or his or her immediate situation (Mischel, 1968; Kenrick &
Funder, 1988; Swann & Seyle, 2005). Among other implications, the debate seemed to
pit two major subfields of psychology against each other: perso
nality psychology, which
generally emphasizes the influence of the person, and social psychology, which
emphasizes the situation (Funder & Ozer, 1983; Ross & Nisbett, 1991). Yet despite the
vehemence of the person
-
situation debate, its deep roots, its wid
e implications, and its
persistence into the 21
st

century, the underlying dichotomy is
arguably
false (Funder,
2006; Roberts & Pomerantz 2004). While it is possible to identify and to compare
statistical main effects of personal and situational variables,

it is not true that one gains
Situations
3

power only at the expense of the other. Strong effects of situations
and
strong effects of
persons can and often do coexist in the very same data, and the degree to which a
given behavior is affected by one of these variable
s may be unrelated to the degree to
which it is affected by the other (in one study, the empirical correlation between
individual consistency and situational change, across behaviors, was
r
=
-
.01; Funder &
Colvin, 1991).


Modern psychology still has not f
ully accommodated this realization, but it has a
long history. Kurt Lewin (1951) expressed it in terms of his classic formula, B =
f
(P, S)
(behavior is a function of an interaction between the person and the situation)
1
. This
implies that if a researche
r knew everything there was to know about a person,
psychologically, and also knew everything there was to know about the psychological
aspects of the situation he or she was in, the ability to predict the individual’s behavior
should follow as a matter of

course. More recent writings have suggested that the three
elements of Lewin’s formula


behavior, person and situation


form a “personality triad”
in the sense that if any two were completely understood, the third should in principle be
derivable (Fund
er, 2001, 2006; see also Bandura,

1978), which suggests

two additional
formulae. One is P =
f

(S,B) (i.e., to know everything about a person entails knowledge
of what he or she would do in any situation). This notion resembles Mischel’s (1999)

if…then

conception in which an individual’s personality is represented in terms of his
or her characteristic pattern of behavior across situations

(see Shoda, Mischel & Wright,



1

Co
ntemporary interactionists often

interpret Lewin’s dict
um statistically, as a
regression formula of sorts: B =
f
(P + S + (P
x

S)), but this is not what Lewin intended.
His use of a comma as the operator between the two constructs was instead meant to
convey his belief that the person and situation formed a “m
utually dependent” unit, the
“life space” (Lewin, 1951, p. 240).


Situations
4

1994)
. The other formula is S =
f

(P,B) (complete understanding of a situation entails

knowing what any person would do in it), reminiscent of Bem and Funder’s (1978)
“template matching” conception which described situations in terms of the people who
would behave in specified ways within them.

The translation of this abstract theoretical

structure into empirical research
requires specific variables and methods for describing and assessing persons,
behaviors, and situations. However, the methodological foundations of the elements of
the personality triad are seriously unbalanced. Method
s for measuring aspects of
persons

are readily available, including countless personality inventories and the 100
comprehensive items of the California Adult Q
-
sort (CAQ; (Block, 1961/1978; Bem &
Funder, 1978)
2
. Many means for measuring
behaviors

are also

available, ranging from
reaction time to measures of attitude change, obedience, and altruism. A general tool,
the Riverside Behavioral Q
-
sort (RBQ; Funder, Furr & Colvin, 2000),
is in increasingly
wide use,
has been has been translated into German and D
utch (Spinath & Spinath,
2004; De Corte & Buysse, n.d.), and a revision that expands its range of application has
recently been completed.

However, even though

the past half
-
decade of social psychological literature has
granted the lion’s share of explanat
ory power to situational for
ces,
still missing is any
real technology for
defining
,
for
characterizing
, or measuring them.
This lack has been
noted
repeatedly
:
Swann

and Seyle (2005)

argue that certain current avenues of
research


such as Mischel and Sho
da’s (1999) CAPS model


will not recognize their
full potential until “the development of a comprehensive taxonomy of situations” (p.



2

Terminological note: The term Q
-
set

is often used to refer to the list of items that, when rated,
become a complete Q
-
sort
, but for simplicity the present chapter will use the term
Q
-
sor
t

throughout.

Situations
5

162).

Mischel himself once suggested that describing differences in situations might be
more productive than describing

the behaviors of people in them (Mischel & Peake,
1983).
Hogan and Roberts (2000) lament th
at that in 90 years of research

social
psychology still has yet to offer a re
asonable taxonomy of situations,

and
Endler (1993)
rates our knowledge of situations a
s being in “the dark ages” (pg. 258) in comparison to
our knowledge of individual differences. Funder (2000) points out that “little is
empirically known or even theorized about how situations influence behavior, or what
the basic kinds of situations are
(or, alternatively, what variables are useful for
comparing one situation with another)” (p. 211). Kenny, Mohr and Levesque (2001)
note that we lack “major competing schemes” let alone a “universally
-
accepted scheme
for understanding what is meant by situ
ation” (p. 129
)
.
Gelfand (2007) has gone

so far
as to accuse scientists of making the fundamental attribution error in regards to their
taxonomical priorities.
Clearly, the need to study situations is not in question. The
question is: how might we go abo
ut doing so?


Defining

Situations


As
Asendorpf (this volume) correctly observes, the very definition of a situation is
“a tricky question” (p. 10 of ms.). One problem concerns where to set the boundaries.
For example, one might
very
s
imply

describe

a s
ituation
in terms of place or locality
,

in
which case “in the Czech Republic” is as valid a situation as “in the grocery store.”
But
at best, this sort of description provides little more than a label. The psychologically
-
relevant attributes of the setti
ng remain to be characterized and explored.
T
herefore,
one might attempt to
define situations on a very molecular level


a snapshot of the
Situations
6

exact
and complex arrangement of all things physi
cal, psychological and social

at a
particular moment in time.
But

because every moment is always different from the next,
this approach makes it difficult

to
state

where one situation ends and the next begins.
“E
ating lunch in the cafeteria” might be segmented into (literally) a number of bite
-
sized
situations. While
there may or may not be something psychologically different between
the first mouthful of Salisbury steak and the last, a def
inition of situations that tries to
take

i
nto account minute
-
by
-
minute
3

variances
in the physical
and/or social environ
ment
quickly

becomes unwieldy.

A second definitional

problem involves perspecti
ve
.

The short airplane flight from
Los Angeles, CA to Las Vegas, NV would be described very differently indeed from the
eyes of a severe aviophobe than it would be from the eyes of a fre
quent flier or from the
eyes of the pilot (one hopes). A high school dance might be described as
“demoralizing”
or “lame”
by a
certain
teen, but as “
romantic” and “memorable” by
another

and “precious” or perhaps “tiresome” by the chaperones. Does a situa
tion have
independent properties of its own
outside of the perceptions of the people in it
?

Both of these definitional questions raise difficult philosophical puzzles and a final
resolution to either one is not in sight. However, that does not mean that
further
conceptualization and research must remain immobilized
. For purposes of our own
current research, summarized briefly later in this chapter, we have developed
provisional answers to each
. The first of these questions, concerning boundaries, can
be

provisionally finessed by asking people to use their common sense when answering
the question, what situation are you in right now? Either a participant or observer, we



3

Indeed, why stop there? On a truly molecular level, each nanosecond sees a subtly altered
individual interacting with a subtly altered environment.

Situations
7

believe, is likely to immediately identity the psychologically pertinent limits to th
e
situation he or she is in, or is observing, and will be able to describe it as “studying for
finals,” “arguing with my room
-
mate” and so on. Whether situations so defined can be
further characterized in psychologically interesting and useful ways, is an

empirical
question. The second de
finitional question, we believe, requires at least a provisional
answer of “yes,” for any effort to characterize situations to proceed. Without denying
that a given situation may have different meanings for every individ
ual in it, the analysis
of any situation surely must begin with an attempt to specify the attributes of it that are
psychologically relevant to people in general.


Conceptualizing Situations


One of the earliest and most notable conceptions
of situations

comes from

Henry
Murray (
1938), whose

theories illuminate
the question

of whether
or not
situations
and
persons are separable
. S
pecifically, he
was interested in the role that the environment
played in a p
erson’s ability to express his or her

psychogenic

needs
4

and dubbed the
forces exerted on behavior by an environment its
press.

He disting
uished between the
forces that are intrinsically present in situations


which he called
alpha press



and the
forces that come about from an individual’s idiosyncrati
c reaction to objective properties
of the situation


which he called
beta press
. This distinction is useful in that
it intimates
that situation do exist

in some form outside
of
people’s
individual
perceptions of
them
.
A very crude example is that of get
ting stuck in a walk
-
in freezer: the freezer, with no
one in it, still has the intrinsic property of being quite cold. Once
someone

accidentally



4

Murray posited 27 basic needs, the best
-
known of which are the need for power, achievemen
t,
and affiliation.

Situations
8

is

stuck in it, the
situation may be seen as terrifying and
perilous, ironically
amusing

or
annoying
ly

inconve
nien
t


but this depends to some degree upon the person. Thus
it is
reasonable to imagine examining situations from either one of these perspectives


or
both.

A
number of
researchers



notably, Magnusson (1981), Block (1981
),

Saucier,
Bel
-
Bahar & Fernan
dez (2006)
, and recently Gelf
and (2007)



are in agreement
that
situations

may
be addressed from different
conceptual levels
. Block calls these levels

physico
-
biological, canonical and subjective; Saucier
, et al.
calls them environmental,
conse
nsual and f
unctional
; Gelf
and simply calls them macro, meso, and micro



but
all
these

authors
seem to be referring to the same
or very similar three levels of analysis
.

Level One:
Macro/
Physico
-
biological/Environmental.
Early definitions of situation
were behaviora
l and based on learning theory: fragmenting the physical environment
into discrete, quantifiable stimuli examining the satisfying and
bothersome

effects of
environments.
At this

level


the broadest of the three
-

a situation is simply the raw
sensory inf
ormation available to us, unfiltered by perception. According to Saucier, this
would include, for example, temperature, location, and number of people in the room;
for Block, this might also include physiological arousal
.

Gelf
and describes this level as
including ecological, historical and socio
-
political factors.
This level corresponds to
alpha press in its most rudimentary form, having removed all aspects of the social and
psychological world from consideration.


Level Two
:

Meso/
Canonical/Consensual
.

This level o
f description
refers to
properties of the situation that are consensual in a
social,
cultural and sociological way.
Situations at this level are described objectively (e.g., “funeral”, “argument”) and
are
Situations
9

selected and “structured to exclude
certain [behavioral] possibilities and to emphasize
others” (Block
, 1981,
p. 87).

Although this will vary from
social group to social group,
region to region
,

and culture to culture, it provides possibly the
most useful
level at
which to conceptualize alp
ha press, being both objective and sufficiently encompassing
of sociocultural properties.

Level Three
:

Micro/
Subjective/Functional
.
T
he
micro/
subjective
/functional

level
describes the psychological demand
-
properties of the situation as it registers on the

individual
. This, then, is

the

level of situ
ation that individuals
subjectively experience
and
react to and can be quite idiosyncratic.

It is most closely relatable to Murray’s
notion of beta press.


Past attempts

at Studying Situations

As mentioned ear
lier, one of the first things notable about
the
past literature
on
situational assessment
is its paucity

relative to the intrinsic importance of the topic
.
Only a f
ew systematic efforts have been made to understand o
r classify situations
.

Prior efforts h
ave taken several approaches, which may be
organized
a loose
conceptual grouping of methodologies
. T
he
lexical approach



based on the hypothesis
that sufficiently important
dimensions will have been represented in language (e.g.,
Goldberg, 1981)


has oc
casionally been used as a starting point for exploration into the
structure of situations.
More

frequently, an
empirical approach

is used, in which either
a) participants

describe their probable feelings and behaviors in response to a list of
hypothetical

situations, b) participants generate

their own such
lists
,

which are then
categorized by factor or cluster analysis, or
c) researchers observe participants directly
Situations
10

in terms of certain behaviors or their physical locations and then use these variables to
group situations. Finally,
researchers have occasionally followed
a
theoretical
approach
, building on some prior framework for understanding persons, situations, or
behaviors.



The Lexical Approach
:
O
ne of
t
he earliest
examples of the lexical approach
to
the study of situations
was
a study by Van Heck’s (1984)
, in which he

combed the
dictionary for words

that could be used to fill in the blank, “being confronted with a
_____ situation.” The resulting 263 terms were then rated and reduced to 10 factors
that included “interpersonal conflict,” “joint working,”
and
“recreation.” Edwards &
Templeton (2005) used a dictionary and a separate database to find 1039 words that
could complete the sentences “that situation was _____” or “that was a _____ situation
.”
This list of words was reduced through factor analysis to four factors called positivity,
negativity, productivity, and “ease of negotiation.”

Finally, a particularly interesting study
by Yang, Read and Miller (2006) applied the lexical approach to bo
th Chinese idioms
and their English translations. Chinese idioms were chosen for their generally uniform
length (roughly 4 characters) and the surprisingly large number of them which refer to
situational properties. Examples of idioms used are “too late
for regrets” and “catching
up from behind,” both of which can be seen to capture interesting psychological
properties of situations in an abstract manner. Native speakers of English and Chinese
both sorted the situation
-
idioms in their native languages.
Yang, et al. reduced the
resulting data cluster analysis, finding good agreement between both Chinese and
American participants on 20 clusters of situations, all seeming to pertain in some way or
another to the means of attaining goals.

Situations
11


The Empirical Ap
proach
:

A

number of early attempts at this approach resulted in
what might be termed “rest
r
icted
-
domain taxonomies”


that is to say,
taxonomies
focused

on particular responses or settings

rather than being widely applicable.

For
example,
Endler, Hunt an
d Rosenstein (1962)

used “
stimulus
-
response


questionnaires

to ask participants,
“how anxious would you be if _____
?


Using this method, they
discovered what they felt were three
kinds of
situations that caused anxiety:
interpersonal situations, situatio
ns of inanimate danger (e.g., hurtling car, earthquake),
and ambiguous
situations.
However, if one is interested in situations for which anxiety
is not the most salient characteristic,
this taxonomy becomes less
helpful. Similarly,
Fredericksen (1972) an
alyzed executives’ responses to a weekend in
-
basket exercise,
resulting in a taxonomy of executive business situations with categories including
evaluation of procedures, routine problems, interorganizational problems, personnel
problems, policy issues, an
d time conflicts. Along similar lines, Magnusson (1971)
,
asked

students to list
all
the situations they had encountered during academic study,
and then had all possible pairs rated for similarity. The resulting taxonomy spanned five
dimensions: positive
and negative academic situations, passive and active academic
situations, and social academic situations.

Upon rare occasions, empirically
-
based studies of situations have taken the form
of res
earchers focusing on the first l
evel of study (macro/p
hys
ico
-
b
iological/environmental). By visiting psychiatric wards, student residences and
classrooms, Moos (1973) was able to develop
scales to measure
what he called
“perceived

climate
” based upon
psychos
ocial features
. He found three broad
dimensions
he
labeled
“relationships,” (e.g., social support), “personal development,”
Situations
12

(e.g., academic achievement) and “system maintenance/change” (e.g., o
rder and
organization). Price and

Bouffard (1974) used student diaries but focused on physical
location by categorizing s
ituations based upon what they called “constraint”


the
number and kinds of behaviors that were considered appropriate within them. Among
the results
was the finding
th
at burping and fighting were in
appropriate in almost any
location, whereas laughing wa
s appropriate in almost all places; and that only a small
repertoire of behaviors were available to someone at church, while almost anything
went in someone’s own bedroom. The resulting taxonomy, unfortunat
ely, resulted in
five difficult
-
to
-
interpret clus
ters labeled “park/sidewalk/football game,” “date/family
dinner/movie,” “bar/elevator/job interview/restroom” “class/church/bus,” and “dorm
lounge/own room.” Perhaps it is apparent why structuring a taxonomy of situations by
location is somewhat difficult
.
5


Researchers have sometimes asked participants to describe their hypothetical
feelings or behaviors in response to hypothetical situations: Forgas and Van Heck
(1992) used questionnaires to measure behavioral reactions in a series of situations
(e.g., “
you are going to meet a new date”) and
were
then
able to
allocate
the
variance in
response
s

to persons, situations, and interactions.

Vansteelandt and Van Mechelen
(1998) asked people about their reactions (mostly hostile) to situations classified as
“hig
h frustrating,” “moderately frustrating,” and “low frustrating” (p. 761).
ten Berge and
de Raad (2001) posit that situations are only useful in that they render the
understanding of traits less ambiguous, and thus asked students to write sente
nces
explica
ting how traits might be

expressed in certain situations.

They then grouped



5

Football game/sidewalk/park can be seen as a cluster of situations in which one might
“lounge,” “chatter,” or “recreate;” it is difficult and possibly unwise to speculate upon what
behaviors are equally appropriate in a restroom/job i
nterview/bar.

Situations
13

these sentences by meaning

and structured them according to the likeliness of trait
-
related behavior in them. For example, “S
ituations of adversity” arose from neuroticism,
“situ
ations of enjoyment’ arose from extroversion, and “situations of positioning” arose
from conscientiousness.


Rather than asking
participants to rate hypothetical

situations, s
ome inves
tigators
have asked them instead

to
generate their own


such as
Forgas
(1976)
, who

asked
housewives and students to
provide two descriptions each for every interaction they had
experienced in the previous 24 hours. He found a two
-
dimensional episode structure
for housewives
(intimacy/involvement and self
-
confidence) and
a th
ree
-
dimensional
structure
for students (involvement, pleasantness, and knowing how to behave). Pervin
(1976)
us
ed

the
free
-
response descriptions of
his
participants

of situations they had
experienced over the past year to create a taxonomy of daily situat
ions. Using factor
analyses of the feelings and behaviors associated with these situations, he found
groups including home
-
family, friends
-
peers, relaxati
on
-
play, work
-
school, and alone
.


Very rarely in this line of research are participants directly ob
served in actual
situations. A recent exception is Furr and Funder (2004), who asked participants to rate
the degree to which two experimental situations they had previously experienced
seemed similar


a measurement of what m
ight be called beta press. I
n a second
study
, they assessed the relative similarity of six experimental situations in objective
terms (based upon the similarity the task and participants involved
)
, tapping alpha
press. Actual behavior, using the Riverside Behavioral Q
-
sort, was code
d from
videotapes
of the participants in each experimental situation
. The first study found that
participants who saw the two experimental situations as more similar tended to be more
Situations
14

consistent in their behavior across them. The second study found that
participants were
more consistent in their behavior across
pairs of
situations that were more objectively
similar. These results demonstrate the importance of both alpha and beta press by
showing that behavior is more consistent across situations to the d
egree they are
similar in either sense.

The Theoretical Approach
:

Krause (1970) drew on sociological theory in an
attempt to categorize situations on theoretical grounds. Based upon the way in which
he posited that cultures assimilate novel situations in
to traditional, generic situations,
Krause suggested seven classes including joint working, fighting, and playing, among
others (a classification that guided the recovery of similar factors in the study by Van
Heck (1984) cited above.) In a major project
based around interdependence theory, an
“Atlas” of interpersonal situations has
recently
been created.

The Atlas is organized
around a set of 21 2 x 2 contingency tables akin to Prisoner’s Dilemma contexts (e.g.,
outcome is good for A but bad for B, good
for B but bad for A, good for both, or bad for
both) (Kelley et al., 2003).


The objective is to capture the ways in which the structure
of interpersonal interactions determines individual’s outcomes.


The Riverside Behavioral Q
-
sort


It is
clear that r
esearc
h on situations is far from complete
. To begin with, very
little consensus has been reached as to what the basic dimensions of situations are, or
how properties of situations might be reasonably described, or what

counts as a
situation

in the first
place. Further, the comprehensiveness of prior studies is quite
uneven: many were limited to hypothetical situations rather than ones actually
Situations
15

experienced, or to specific
types
of situations rather than situations in general.

Finally,
the three pieces of

the

triad


are hardly ever address
ed in relation to each other: w
hile
a very few studies have examined situations and behavior, they are usually limited to
what participants think they
might

do
if
… rather than what was actually done; likewise,
only a rar
e study has examined individual differences in the perception of and reaction
to situations.


This led to our current work with the Riverside Situational Q
-
Sort (RSQ;
Wagerman & Funde
r, 2007), an
assessment tool built around the following
assumptions
regar
ding

the
two main
questions that have been posed in this chapter:

1)

Can

situations can ever be viewed independently from people’s perception of
them (or from the behaviors en
gaged in them, for that matter)?

T
he answer
, we
believe,

must be
a resounding “yes.


Indeed
, i
nteractions
between people,
situations and behavior
may
only

be studied successfully
if
they are
ke
pt
independent

at the level of conceptualization and measurement (Reis, 2007)
.
S
ome
might argue for a subjective or constructivist

approach


th
at

persons and
situations

are fundamentally inseparable
, thus rendering study of any one of
them difficult or impossible
(
Lewin, 1936;
Johnson, 1999
)
. However,
such
arguments, while philosophically interesting,

risk

analytic and empirical

paralysis.
As A
sendorpf (this volume) notes, “subjective situations are confounded with
personality traits
by definition of the situation”

(p. 10 of ms., emphasis in the
original).
I
f

examination of
the triad begins

with
two or even all three of
its
threads already wove
n together
,
it will be impossible
to use any

measure
thus
created
as a situational predictor independent of the person

or
behavior
.

In fact,
Situations
16

conceptualizing

situations in terms of individual differences (e.g., an extravert
sees situation “X” in a particul
ar way, while a shy person sees the same situation
in a completely different manner), effectively absorbs the study of situations into
the domain of personality psychology.
In order to be equal partners with
personality variables in the prediction of beha
vior, situational variables need to
be distinguished from rather than merely mashed into them.
There must be
something about the situation that is influential across both the shy and
extraverted person, or
else
social psychologists


and psychological
exp
erimentalists in general


have bee
n wrong all along
.

2)

At what level should situations be examined?

Level One
-

the
macro/
physico
-
biological/environmental level
-

might have the

advantage of being easily
clustered
, b
ut while s
uch variables undoubtedly hav
e their effect on behavior,
location clusters like those found by Price and Bouffard (1974),
as
discussed
earlier, seem behaviorally uninformative and unpsychological; the situation as it
affects human behavior must be more than its
location or
raw physica
l facts.

Studying situations at Level Three


the
micro/
subjective/functional level


has all
the problems contested above regarding the necessity of separating persons
from situations, and in behavioral analysis runs the risk of circularity.
6

A large
li
terature in cognitive psychology
, however,

suggests that among possible levels
of abstraction the most easily communicated and generally useful is the middle
or “basic” one (Rosch, 1973;

Cantor & Mischel, 1977). Accordingly,
it might be
best to aim
resear
ch
on the properties of situations a
t Level Two


the



6

For example, an individual’s hostile behavior might be “explained” on the basis of his or her
idiosyncratic perception of the situation as hostility
-
inducing.

Situations
17

meso/
canonical/
consensual level of description, which is

analogous

to
personality description:

while

the traits of any given person are of psychological
interest, data is often aggregated across individ
uals in order to understand
people in general. In much the same way
, any one subjective perception

of a
situation, while psych
ologically interesting, can be forsaken by aggregating
across many such perceptions to arrive at some consensual and objective
de
scription of what that situation’s properties are.
While this approach still has
some limits


for example, as Asendorpf (this volume) notes, it may not be useful
in the study of intimate relationships


we still expect that it may prove to have a
wide ra
nge of applicability.


With these considerations

in mind
,
we chose to develop a situationally
descriptive Q
-
sort tool
(Funder, 2006; Wagerman & F
under, 2006)
.
In a Q
-
sort, raters
sort descriptive items into a forced distribution, ran
g
ing in this case acro
ss 9 steps from
“highly uncharacteristic” of the situation being described (category 1) to “highly
characteristic” (category 9). For our instrument, dubbed the River
side Situational Q
-
sort
(RSQ), t
he prescribed distribution of
the 81

items
(of the most re
cent version)
acro
ss
the 9 categories is 3
-
6
-
10
-
14
-
15
-
14
-
10
-
6
-
3. This peaked, quasi
-
normal distribution,
commonly used in Q
-
technique (Block, 1961/1978) has three implications. First, all
items are judged against each other on the basis of how well (or p
oorly) they capture
the situation in question, rather than being rated on absolute scales. This aspect has
numerous advantages including forcing raters to make careful comparisons between
items that otherwise might be quickly and superficially deemed to b
e equally descriptive,
and lessening the influence of certain response sets
, such as extremity
. Second,
Situations
18

almost exactly half of the items are placed in the middle three categories (4, 5 and 6),
which encourages raters to give relatively neutral ratings to
terms that are not clearly
descriptive. Third, because of the small numbers of items allowed in the extreme
categories, rating an item as 1 or 2, or 8 or 9, amounts to a strong


and carefully
considered


statement about the relevance of that item for th
e situation in question. A
long history of theoretical development and empirical application of Q
-
technique shows
that these are important advantages, particular in cases where the ratings are difficult or
the object of the rating is complex (Block, 1961/
1978).

Turning to item content, we drew upon a
particular
prior
Q
-
Sort


the California Adult
Q
-
Sort (
CAQ)


that has
a good reputation as a widely
-
validated measure of
personality, and
which we
have
used previously as the basis of
behavioral Q
-
Sort item
s


to provide
a s
olid backbone for this endeavor. E
ach of the 100 CAQ

items was
examined and converted into phraseology that described

characteristics of situations
that afford
ed

the opportunity for expression of each of the

corresponding

personality
cha
racteristic
. For example,
the CAQ item,
“is critical, skeptical, not easily impressed”
yielded the RSQ item, “someone is trying to impress someone o
r convince someone of
something”


the assumption here being that in a situation that is accurately describ
ed
by this property, a skeptical and critical person has an excellent opportunity to act
accordingly, whereas the opposite sort of person may instead reveal a penchant for

gullibility.
7

Raters sort the RSQ items into a 9
-
step, forced distribution ranging
from
“highly uncharacteristic” of the situation being described (category 1) to “highly
characteristic” (category 9).




7

Please visit
www.rap.ucr.edu
for the complete text of the current, 81
-
item inca
rnation of the
RSQ, as well as other relevant information and a freely
-
available computer program to facilitate
Q
-
sorting.

Situations
19

Preliminary studies have shown

promising results. In a pilot

study, 81
undergraduates
told us about a situation they had been in the pr
evious day at a
randomly assigned time both qualitatively and using the RSQ. They also told us what
they had been feeling during this situation by way of the Positive and Negative Affect
Scale (PANAS; Watson, Clark & Tellegen, 1988) and what they had been

doing during
the situation using a modified version of the RBQ t
hat had been converted into a Li
kert
-
type rating scale. We also gathered personality data
using the Big Five Inventory (BFI;
John, Donahue & Kentle, 1991)
. Thus armed with information about

persons,
situations, emotions, and behavior,
we have been able to examine some interesting
interactions among

these variables. For example, when participants described the RSQ
item “P(articipant) is being insulted”

as particularly characteristic of the s
ituation they
had been in, they
described themselves as having fantasized in response (
r

= 0.25;
about revenge, perhaps?), having been sarcastic (
r =
0.25), and having blamed others
(
r

= 0.24). Many other patterns, interesting in this way, can be found in

our preliminary
data. Other analyses examined the situational properties associated with the
experience of positive and negative affect
, for example
positive affect
was found to be
associated with (among others)
the potential for being complimented or pr
aised (
r

=
0.41), presence of members of the opposite sex (
r

= 0.25), and a lack of
potential
anxiety (
r

=
-
0.27) or a need to restrain one’s impulses (
r

= 0.25).



Further analyse
s of our preliminary data illustrated other enticing aspects of
situations.

For example, male participants viewed the item “context includes stimuli that
may be construed sexually” as significantly more descriptive of whatever situations they
had been in than females did (whether this is a commentary on the types of situations
Situations
20

t
hat males and females seek or simply an indication that males are more likely to
ascribe sexual connotations to situational cues than are females


or a combination of
both!


is still up for interpretation).
Our Latino participants perceived whatever
sit
uations they had been in as significantly more affording of an opportunity to be
talkative than did our Asian participants; Caucasian participants described their
situations as significantly more enjoyable than did African
-
American participants.


The anal
yses of the associations between the situational variables, behavio
r and
personality using the RSQ



of which the ones summarized above are just a tiny sample


encouraged us to conclude that aspects of real
-
life situations can be reliably and
meaningfully

described with such an instrument, and that the properties it captures are
related to behavior, emotional experience, and personality, and perhaps even gender
and cultural background
. Research is continuing.


Future Direction
s


A developing technology fo
r situational assessment has the potential to open
many research doors. While studies
so far have mostly
focus
ed

on mundane, everyday
situations recently experienced by our participants, extreme situations (e.g.,
emergencies, crises), even if rare, can be

consequential and revealing of personality,
and deserve to be considered in future work. Future research should also include direct
observations of behavior in experimental situations designed to accentuate selected
situational dimensions. More broadly,

perhaps
the wide range of experimental
situations studied by social psychology could be conceptualized in terms of standard
descriptive variables such as those offered by the RSQ, allowing their effects on
Situations
21

behavior (to the extent they have the same or rel
ated dependent variables) to be
systematized across the literature, for the first time. This move towards systemization
could help promote a new symbiosis between personality and social psychology
(Swann & Seyle, 2005), by permitting “the effect of the si
tuation” long studied by social
psychologists to be analyzed in terms of the same kinds of general variables long used
within personality psychology to conceptualize the effects of persons (Funder & Ozer,
1983). Another important purpose of for situationa
l variables could be to examine
within
-
person variability in behavior as a function of situational variation, thus
simultaneously addressing behavioral change as well as consistency (Fleeson, 2004).

In applied contexts, a technology for situational asses
sment offers possibilities for
predicting the specific situations under which people, or certain kinds of people, or even
people with certain genotypes, are likely to lose their temper, engage in criminal
behavior, perform jobs well, or live longer (cf. Ca
spi et al., 2002; Moffitt, 2005). Different
people thrive and suffer in different situations, a fact that could make a developed
sci
ence of situational assessment
useful for enhancing the individualized selection and
design of workplace, educational, and
general life contexts to promote mental and
physical health and the attainment of important individual goals.



Situations
22

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