Why we are who we are

Are we generous because we are inherently generous? Or is it restricted to specific circumstances where we are generous than normal? To root it to our individual realities, it could be useful to check if any patterns emerge from our community efforts. A better marker for this endeavour could include acts of kindness towards friends, colleagues, neighbours, etc., when it was not expected. This is inward-looking and a different journey for each of us.

This post however attempts to incorporate this “person-situation” debate (yes, it is a debate and quite a fiery one if you ask the psychologists) into our everyday lives. Before we get around to that, some foundational elements to the debate where the lines of division are quite clear.

One camp says that people do what they do because of their personality traits (The Big Five Personality traits are – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). Every individual has a distinct personality that is a combination of different scores along a spectrum on each of the Big Five traits. The key assumption here, however, is that personality traits are consistent in a person across time, and more importantly, situations.

The other camp, a specific subset of social psychologists self-anointed as the ‘situationists’, disputes the legitimacy of this assumption and claims that people exhibit low levels of consistency across situations.

There has been extensive research on this debate since it was first purported by Walter Mischel in his book Personality and Assessment back in 1968. Despite the years since, there is very little in the form of conclusive evidence favouring one over the other.

The author speaks to the reasons behind the limited progress made, forty years after his book was published, and attributes it to a binary perception of the two choices.

For personality psychologists, the situation was the ‘‘error term” or noise that had to be removed to see the main effects of the person; for social psychologists, the individual differences became the error term, and the power was in the situation, with fruitless arguments about who had the bigger main effect.

Walter Mischel in From Personality and Assessment (1968) to Personality Science, 2009

I believe there is a hint of confirmation bias as well that went into subsequent research by each camp since the book. Regardless, approaches to disprove one over the other in the last few decades border on polemics and is best steered clear of.

With this as the context and the caveat that I am neither competent nor qualified to discern and distill the complexity of the debate, my humble take is that determining personality coefficients and situational coefficients as drivers of human decision is an “outward-in” perspective and a little disconnected from human practicalities and decision-making ecosystems. Unless we can dramatically achieve personality changes over a limited time span to be able to improve our decisions, or somehow have the ability to carefully construct situations around us to allow us to decide accordingly, the research has limited individual application.

What I think is useful comes from the work of Martin Schulz in organisational studies. If we were to look at human behaviour as an action undertaken because of an underlying logic, the framework proposed by Martin, albeit for organisations, is relevant and comprehensive.

It is a two-logic framework.

  1. Logic of consequence, meaning decisions driven by a subjective assessment of outcomes of different courses of action
  2. Logic of appropriateness, meaning decisions are arrived at based on rules relevant to specific situations for a given role or identity

Let us go back to the example I used at the start of the post.

If we put the generosity question through the logic of consequence, the decision will potentially go through a set of steps where we assess the impact our generosity will have on the problem, whether it satisfies our relative affordability, and satisfices our moral thresholds for sufficiency.

Similarly, if we look at it through the logic of appropriateness, and if we are someone that our community (family, neighbours, students etc.) looks up to, our role in this situation possibly warrants leading by example. This applies to the different roles played by individuals in any decision-making ecosystem, much like how it is appropriate for the family to defer to what the head of the family decides as generous.

This distinction in decisions following the two logics helps us to step out of the “person-situation” debate and apply the complex interaction between the two sides into our everyday realities. Certain situations warrant an emphasis of subjective choices (person-focused) where our assessment of costs, benefits, and probabilities of success or failure determines the course of action. Alternatively in certain situations, there is an emphasis on the rules or expectations that come with the role we play (situation-focused).

In conclusion, despite the emphasis on the situation in the latter, the course of action is still determined by our subjective judgement regarding what is appropriate and consistent to the role. This brings me to my biggest takeaway. We can dramatically improve our responses in certain situations just by clearly defining the role we are playing. By deliberately identifying ourselves as parent, partner, friend, manager, etc., we could detach ourselves from a natural instinct to determine what is right from a consequential or a cost-benefit standpoint, and respond from a place that is consistent with our identity.

It is quite easy for us to inadvertently miss what is at stake most of the time in many situations.


Further Reading:

1/ Logic of Consequence and Logic of Appropriateness – Martin Schulz (Personal Website)

2/ From Personality and Assessment (1968) to Personality Science, 2009 – Walter Mischel (ResearchGate)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s