Which characteristics of situations mainly evoke differences in how we behave?

People don't always behave the same. One situation evokes something different in us than the other. That's why we behave differently in different situations. But which aspects of our personality are relatively stable and which are relatively situation-dependent? And which characteristics of situations mainly evoke differences in how we behave? A new study sheds some light on these questions. 

The person-situation debate 

There has been much debate in psychology about the extent to which personality and situations cause behavior. Situationists such as Walter Mischel (1968) assumed that situations were predominantly determinative, while personality psychologists such as Hogan et al. (1977) saw personality traits as determinative


A more recent vision is interactionism (see eg Funder, 2006) which leads to an integration. It sees personality as individual differences in responses to different situations. Not much is known about which types of situations evoke which personality expressions. 

Variability of personality traits across situations 

Conley and Saucier (2017) examined individual differences in personality expression for the Big Six traits in 29 situations. The results indicated that the degree of cross-situational variability differed per personality trait. Emotional stability and extroversion varied the most between the situations, while honesty / decency varied the least. 

Bedford-Petersen & Saucier (2020) built on this research. They investigated how the transition from one type of situation to another can lead to a change in personality expression. They asked students (N = 474) to complete a questionnaire. The students were presented with 41 situation descriptions. For each situation, they were asked for 15 personality tendencies how likely they thought it would be in the relevant situation (see overview). All situations could be classified by the following four sets of contrasting poles: 1) Positive / negative affect, 2) Reward / threat, 3) Agency / non-agency, 4) Public / private.


The following two types of results were found: 

  1. As with Conley & Saucier, the findings were that fairness / decency differed the least across situations, while emotional stability and extraversion differed the most. 
  2. Furthermore, the study showed that three types of characteristics of situations lead to differences in personality expression: 1) threat / reward, 2) positive affect / negative affect and 3) agency / non-agency. 


The research into variability of personality expression and of situational influences on this is still very much in its infancy and the research by Bedford-Petersen & Saucier still has many limitations. I particularly find the way of thinking behind this research interesting. 

Why I find it interesting is because when we learn about which aspects of situations have which effects on how we behave, we can use this knowledge to influence our own behavior and that of others. 

If we wanted to develop certain aspects of our behavior, we could seek out or create situations that are known to trigger those behaviors. If we wanted to encourage certain types of behavior in others, we could put them in situations that trigger this behavior.