A theoretical solution to the problem of personality-situation interaction

A theoretical solution to the problem of personality-situation interaction

0191-8869 S8 53.00 +O.OO Copyright c 1988 PergamirnJournals Ltd Person. m&id. Olfl Vol. 9. No. I, pp. 133-138. 1988 Printed in Great Britain. All rig...

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0191-8869 S8 53.00 +O.OO Copyright c 1988 PergamirnJournals Ltd

Person. m&id. Olfl Vol. 9. No. I, pp. 133-138. 1988 Printed in Great Britain. All rights reserved





of Experimental


Psychology, England






OX1 3UD,

(Received 24 February 1987) Summary-There has been much debate and research on the relative roles and the interaction of personality and situational factors in the determination of behaviour. and more broadlv on the relative status of psychology and social science as explanations for human action. Much of this is based on a misconception, to which a branch of applied mathematics called automata theory suggests the answer. If our objective is redefined as the explanation of situation-behaviour relations by reference to psychological processes, rather than the explanation of behaviour by reference to situational and psychological factors, then many of the confusions and inconsistencies disappear. On this view, behaviour varies from situation to situation in a way which varies from person to person. However. the two processes are of different kinds and different orders, and they are only misrepresented as commensurable causes working interactively to produce a common effect. Alternative formulations are presented, and their implications discussed for research in individual and social psychology.


This paper will be in five parts. The first three parts will discuss three related problems in psychology, which alternatively could be seen as three versions of the same problem, considered over an increasingly general problem space. The fourth part of the paper will refer to a discipline where the same basic problem might be expected to arise but does not. The fifth part suggests a solution for psychology, based on the precedents provided by that other discipline. THE




This debate arose from that most general of questions in psychology, namely how we should explain behaviour, or how we should approach the question “why do people behave as they do?” Pure ‘traitism’, which locates the explanation of human behaviour in the personality alone, fails because of the demonstrable and systematic effects of different situations on behaviour. Pure ‘situationism’ fails because of consistent differences between people. Consequently, behaviour has to be studied as the combined product of the person’s intrinsic properties and the influences of culture or environment. Lewin (1952) wrote that behaviour is a function of the person and the environment: B =f(P.E), a more modern formulation of which is B =f(P x S), where S stands for the situation, and x represents the causal interaction. The idea would be expressed more accurately as B =f(P + S + lp x S]), meaning behaviour is a function of personal and situational factors, and the interaction of the two. The size of the interaction term has been the main issue in a number of studies of the ‘P x S effect’, using analysis of variance techniques. However, Fumham and Jaspars (1983) suggested that the interactionist position is overstated. They point out that, in most cases, situations can be monotonically ordered with respect to behaviour, but with different rate constants for different people. Thus they suggest that a simpler power relation obtains for many types of behaviour. There are probably exceptions to this, as in the case of fear. Situations do not have the same fearfulness ranking for all people, and therefore the ‘power law’ breaks down. Jackson and Paunonen (1980) deal critically with the P x S issue as a misconception of trait theories, and a confounding of two senses of interaction. More recently, Houts, Cook and Shadish (1986) have applied what they call a ‘critical multiplist’ perspective to the P x S debate, pointing out in essence that a variety of .*Present



of Psychology,


University, 133


Park, Nottingham

NG7 ZRD, England.



conceptions and measures are required in this field (hence ‘multiplist’), each having shortcomings which the others may help to remedy if selected appropriately for the job in hand (hence ‘critical’). There is still a conceptual problem, however, with all such interactionist approaches to the explanation of human behaviour. If we are to have realist theories of personality and behaviour, the question will arise as to what object or domain the P and S variables act upon, or interact within, to produce the specification of behaviour, and there do not seem to be any suitable candidates. This means that a better way of integrating personality and situations will be needed. than that provided by interactionism. (The suggestion here will be that personality factors should be considered as the fixed parameters of an ‘action management system’, and situations or stimuli as its input variables. This distinction can be illustrated using Fodor’s (1981) vending machine analogy. In the case of a vending machine the output is not helpfully seen as being determined by an ‘interaction’ of the button being pressed and which vending machine the person is dealing with. Rather, it is determined by the button being pressed, according to a systematic relation which differs from one vending machine to another.) A realist theory (or a theory which can bear a realist interpretation) is different from, and in our view preferable to, an ‘instrumentalist’ one, in that it deals in concepts which could describe the real causal mechanism in question, rather than merely allowing inferences to be made between observations in a useful (hence instrumental) way. What is more, interaction, in the analysis of variance sense, is a very limited explanatory concept, since its effect is not describable; it is only quantifiable. It makes no specific behavioural predictions. What is needed is a way of specifying what behaviour will result from which combinations of situation and personality type. It is relatively unhelpful to know only the extent to which personality and situational factors will have combined in the determination of whatever behaviour may ensue. Individualism

versus Collectivism

The control system for human behaviour, that is to say ‘the mind’, could exist, as some collectivist writers have suggested, partly in the head of the individual and partly in the society or culture. The procedures of action control could be located in either domain, in principle. Ardener (1975, 1978) has gone so far as to suggest that cultures act as ‘manifolds’, shaping actions much as space-time manifolds shape, and so explain, physical events. This view gives primacy to social rather than individual factors in the study of behaviour, just as the account of physics in terms of space-time manifolds gives explanatory primacy to fields over particles. According to this view, psychological explanation should be relocated in the cultural manifold, the domain of the truly ‘social’ sciences, rather than in the neuroscientific account of the individual’s mind-brain system. Consider the following analogue of the problem. Suppose a robot is observed to execute a pattern of movements in a regular, predictable manner. It might be that it is following a stored program of instructions with no reference to its environment, or it might be following an environmental ‘trail’ or maze, of which it had no internal representation, and which, for various reasons, the observer might have overlooked. The two cases would show no obvious differences. Is the explanation for every robot’s behaviour, then necessarily to be found in the robot itself, or could it equally well be located in the world it inhabits, or some mixture of the two? It may turn out that understanding the robot per se is of little or no help in understanding its behaviour. It is this possibility which inspires the ‘strong sociological’ position in social psychology. An extreme version of environmentalism is to be found in the notion of ‘virtual minds’, conceived by analogy with virtual computers. (A virtual computer is usually a large computer which does not exist as such, but is simulated in a smaller one by the loading of its programs in sections from a mass store, such as a magnetic disc). Might it then be appropriate to view the mind as a virtual system, whose constituent procedures are only temporarily loaded, a part at a time, from a social or cultural form of mass store? In that case, individual factors would provide certain limited proximal explanations for behaviour, but the more distal, and more general explanations would have to be collective in character. This is quite different from the view that individual characteristics are acquired from the environment by learning. On this view the mind remains a relatively humble agent, through which the psychological properties and action imperatives of the culture express themselves, or a narrow ‘window’ through which cultural frameworks may pass a piece at a time.




Psychological cersus sociological primac)

Psychologists and social scientists disagree about the extent to which human action is shaped by the nature of mind, or else by the properties of language and culture. Psychologists assume on the whole that the mind is primary, and that the social world is a result and a reflection of its properties. Social scientists often take the opposite view and see particular cultures as the source of their members’ mental characteristics (e.g. Berger and Luckman, 1966; Harre, 1983). If this latter view is right it would suggest that ultimately the explanation of behaviour is not a psychological matter after all, but a sociological one. The question is one of the fundamental locus of explanation. Is ‘mind’ only a misconception of some essentially social processes? In that case, psychological enquiry may need to be relocated in the analysis of cultures. Furthermore, our belief in the existence of individual minds as real and researchable entities may itself be no more than a social construction which takes its properties from the social processes by which it was constructed; or a ‘social representation’ of a widely held lay theory. This calls into question whether it will ultimately be for psychology or for sociology to explain what the other describes. The question is an epistemological one, not just a matter of cause, or of the amount of variance accounted for by different disciplines or perspectives. Our hypothetical robot, using a complex program in a complex terrain, may be more governed by the program or more by the terrain, as we have seen. However, the program is the more concealed of the two influences and therefore is ‘discoverable’ in a stronger sense than are the features of the terrain. Terrains (or cultures) are only surface phenomena and for that reason alone are unlikely to constitute interesting realist explanations for behaviour in general. (Surface phenomena are objects and events which are detectable with the unaided senses, and which make up the substance of ordinary experience. Because of their self-evident quality it is not usually taken to be a job for science to discover or describe them.) The main thrust of modern scientific enquiry is the positing of real but concealed entities and processes, by virtue of which surface phenomena take the forms they do; not the description of surface phenomena per se. The credibility of the natural sciences has largely stemmed from the incontrovertible demonstration of what might be called an ‘ice-berg’ effect. In other words, it has been clearly shown that most of the structures and processes of the physical world are not apparent to the unaided senses. We only experience the ‘tip of the ice-berg’, and most of what there is in the world is concealed below the surface, where only the methods of science can reveal it. In recent years a similar claim has become justifiable for psychology too. By contrast, virtually without exception, the investigation of sociological phenomena has failed to reveal any entities in the world which were previously entirely unknown. Nor is it clear how it ever could do, as objects entirely outside human experience would have poor claim to being social objects at all. According to this argument, primacy has to be accorded to psychological explanations, whatever the potency of sociological and situational factors in the shaping of behaviour. These are just some of the entanglements we are led into by the attempt to separate psychological and sociological processes or personal and situational causes, and then to cast them as joint and interacting determinants of the course of behaviour. Instead it is possible and appropriate to restructure the problem in such a way that many of the above confusions disappear, and many of the above issues turn out to be non-issues after all.

Automata theory and computer science

In automata theory and computer science, no corresponding problems arise, although they might well be expected to do so. There is no ‘interactionist’ debate about programs and inputs. Programs (which we take to be the counterpart of the psychological domain of explananda, as opposed to ‘inputs’ which represent the sociological or situational one) are the substance of the discipline, and yet the importance of inputs is by no means denied. The reason that interactionist problems do not arise is that the explananda, the things to be explained, are quite properly not conceived of as the outputs (or behaviour) of the system, but its input-output relations. The inputs are assimilated into the explananda, and the explanantia (the explanatory concepts and processes) then have purely to do with the programs themselves.



In the more general case of any signal or information processor, a ‘transfer function’ represents the input-output relations which that system instantiates, and it provides, for analytical purposes. a description of the nature of the system itself. Thus in automata theory the relation between inputs, outputs and the constitutive properties of the processing system has always been elegantly and successfully captured without the need for interaction or power terms (e.g. Minsky, 1972). To go into a little more detail: the ‘next response function’ of a simple finite state automaton, for example, is given by f in R,+, where S, is the current



and Q, is the current

state. The next state function

is given by g in

Q,+,=g(St,Qt). In essence what this means is that such a system is completely specified and governed by two sets of ‘rules’. One set determines what the next response will be for any combination of present state and present input; and the other set determines what the next state will be for any combination of present state and present input. No account is needed of what the next input will be as that is for the environment to determine, not the automaton. Given the input(s) selected by the environment, the mechanism is then sufficient to determine its own progression from state to state, and its own behaviour. Thus the next response and next state are always determined by, and predictable from, the input and present state. It should be noted that S and Q are in a sense both ‘situational’ factors, since Q, the inaccessible and enigmatic internal state of the system, is operationalised in the following way. There can be infinitely many different past histories for even a simple system. but each has to leave it in one of its finite number of possible internal states, and can have no other influence on its future behaviour. This means that the infinite set of possible histories must partition into as many sub-sets as there are resultant states (or less), and that the different histories within any such sub-set will have identical implications for the future behaviour of the system. Turning this proposition around, the states of the system become equivalent to the sets of past histories within which there are no differences in the subsequent behaviour of the system. In this way the internal states may be identified with (or ‘mapped onto’) particular sequences of observable events making up the corresponding equivalence classes of histories, so becoming tantamount to observable external variables, along with inputs and responses. This only leaves the functions f and g themselves. These contain, in any case, the real explanatory content of the formulation, and are entirely internal or ‘psychological’ factors. The formulation is a strong one in that it predicts the behavioural consequences of any combination of states, inputs and functions in a way which is responsive to the influences of all these factors. Formal methods exist for the description off and g, so it now becomes a tractable matter in principle to express the relations between personality, situations and behaviour in an exact manner which makes precise behavioural predictions, and is plausible as a realist theory of the underlying psychological processes. For a clear exposition of these formalisms in action, see Minsky (op. cit.). The solution This then provides the solution to the P x S problem, which was only a misconception in the first place. The task is not to account for behaviour in terms of personal and situational causes; the task is to account for situation-behaviour relationships arising from the characteristics of persons. The explananda are the observed situation-behaviour relations for the given person or category of persons, and their description is a pre-explanatory stage of the investigation only. This construction of the problem is now equivalent to a simple syllogism: S + B (psychological premise) S (situational premise) :. B. So B = f (S + B, S) and there is no interaction. If we treat S -+ B as the modified P, and call it P’, then B = f (P’, S) again with no interaction term.






Now, not only can we replace

B =f(P

x S)

with B =f(P’, S) thus eliminating the interaction term, but more interestingly we can further ‘unpack’ the new expression into its psychologically meaningful components to give B=f,(S).


where E is past experience and G is genetic endowment.f, is equivalent toPand P’, and it partitions into E, G and &--the gene priming function. Nevertheless, this is not a ‘genetic’ theory of personality. Although it requires an adequate genetic endowment to support the subsequent processes of learning and maturation (as all theories in this field necessarily do), it is quite agnostic about the proportion of variance in personality type which is accounted for by genetic factors. Any figure from 0 to 100% is equally consistent with the claims of this theory. The whole system is a hierarchical ‘cascade’ of control functions, in which the bottom level maps circumstances to actions by way of purely intrapsychic processes (Clarke, 1986). Correspondingly, behaviour should really be seen as varying from situation to situation in a way which varies from person to person. It is misleading to see it as varying from one person-situation complex to another, as the P x S formulation seems to suggest. In speaking of humans in computational terms, this paper takes ‘a computer’ to be a system which can implement any transfer function or ‘effective procedure’ which is suitably described to it. This statement is rather like the converse of Turing’s thesis (of which the more general form is known as Church’s thesis), that any process which could naturally be called an effective procedure can be realised by a Turing machine. Our claim is that any system which can execute all effective procedures may be treated (for theoretical purposes) as (the equivalent of) a general purpose computational device. Thus the category of ‘computers’ in this sense includes human beings, social organisations and contemporary computing machines. In any such system of type or level x, it must be the processes of x which account for the behaviours of x. Thus psychology should be able to explain the circumstance-action characteristics of people, by describing the information handling and self-regulatory processes of people, without recourse to sociological or semi-sociological formulations, while sociology is left to explain the behaviour of societies. This account is preferable to the P x S version in which personal and situational characteristics would need to be the inputs to some unidentifiable hypothetical entity which gave forth, and helped us to understand its own behaviour, rather than the behaviour of a person. Re-establishing circumstance-action relations as the proper explananda of the behavioural sciences, and intra-psychic processes as the proper explanantia, produces an a priori solution to the question of which is the more fundamental field, psychology or social science. Social entities are clearly relegated to the status of surface phenomena, with the underlying explanatory processes turning out to be necessarily psychological in character after all. Insofar as quantitative interactionist studies find about a third of the variance to be accounted for by each of the person, situation and interaction factors, the formulations proposed here, by assimilating the interaction into the psychological term, should put about two thirds of behavioural variance into the domain of pure psychology. Finally, it is important to note that hierarchical systems of the kind described here do not have, and do not need, interfaces between their levels. Our view would suggest social psychology’s self-proclaimed role as an interface discipline between P and S levels of explanation to be false, just as it shows its role as the special analyst of interaction, in a world of P x S interactions, to be false.




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