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Situational Strength is defined as cues provided by environmental forces regarding the desirability of potential behaviors. Situational strength is said to result in psychological pressure on the individual to engage in and/or refrain from particular behaviors. A consequence of this psychological pressure to act in a certain way is the likelihood that despite an individual’s personality, they will act in a certain manner. As such, when strong situations (situations where situational strength is high) exist, the relationship between personality variables (for example, extraversion, risk-taking behaviors, etc…) and behaviors is reduced, because no matter what the personality of the individual is, they will act in a way dictated by the situation. When weak situations exist, there is less structure and more ambiguity with respect about what behaviors to perform. In sum, situations have the ability to restrict the expression of individual differences in terms of actual behaviors.
Contrasting strong and weak situations
An example of a strong situation is a red traffic light. Traffic rules dictate how people are suppose to act when they see a red light, and this influence often prevents people from engaging in behaviors that are consistent with their personality. For example, most people, no matter whether they are daring or cautious, will stop in front of a red traffic light. Therefore, one could not reasonably predict how a person would behave with personality in this situation.
In contrast, an example of a weak situation is a yellow traffic light because the most appropriate course of action is not especially well defined and norms are inconsistent. Thus, individuals who are more daring are likely to speed through the intersection on a yellow light, whereas cautious individuals are likely to stop.
Origins and History of Situational Strength
Although it is difficult to formally express when situations restricting individual differences in personality began in Psychology, work conducted by Carl Rogers suggested that certain individual differences are mostly likely to manifest themselves in situations where there is psychological freedom and safety, compared to situations where psychological freedom and safety do not exist. Additionally, Stanley Milgram argued that psychological forces of conflict may not be brought into play under diluted conditions. However, recent conceptualization and study of situational strength can be traced back to the work of Walter Mischel. In 1968, Mischel published his classic book, “Personality and Assessment,” where he argued that personality cannot be studied in a vacuum; instead, the complexity of human behavior and its determinants must be studied from a perspective that accounts for the simultaneous and interactive impact of individual differences and situational characteristics. It is important to note that Mischel did not imply that people show no consistencies in behavior, or that individual differences are unimportant. The major theme was rather that the trait approach to personality was not as sensitive to the influence of situations as it should have been.
In books and articles on the topic, Mischel stressed the importance of better understanding how, when, and why individual differences are most likely to be important predictors of behavior, and when they are more likely to be nullified by situational influences. Specifically, Mischel began laying the foundation for subsequent thought in this area by arguing that psychological ‘situations’ and ‘treatments’ are powerful to the degree that they lead all persons to construe the particular events the same way, induce uniform expectancies regarding the most appropriate response pattern, provide adequate incentives for the performance of that response pattern, and instill the skills necessary for its satisfactory construction and execution. (p. 276; italics in original) He further argued that individual differences are most likely to directly affect behavior “when the situation is ambiguously structured…so that subjects are uncertain about how to categorize it and have no clear expectations about the behaviors most likely to be appropriate (normative, reinforced) in that situation” (p. 276). Thus, he helped to lay the foundation for the general idea underlying what is now typically referred to as “situational strength” (or “situation strength”).
Mischel’s work led to an important shift in social scientists’ thinking about the behavioral expression of personality. But, as some have recently argued, situational strength is too often viewed as being true without treating situational strength as a theoretical construct in need of conceptual development and empirical verification.
Modern Conceptualization and Empirical Verification
Meyer, Dalal, and Hermida argue that for theoretical understanding and practical application of situational strength to be advanced, at least three important issues must be addressed.
- Examining the nature of the situational strength. Specifically, examining if there are unique facets in situational strength.
- Examining whether these facets affect all non-ability individual differences uniformly, or if some facets affect the expression of some traits more so than others.
- If facets do in fact have differential effects on the expression of various behaviors and predictor-outcome relationships, it will be necessary to develop theory regarding the specific mechanisms through which these facet-based effects occur.
Four facets of situational strength have been identified:
- Clarity: The extent to which cues regarding work-related responsibilities or requirements are available and easy to understand.
- Consistency: The extent to which cues regarding work-related responsibilities or requirements are compatible with each other.
- Constraints: The extent to which an individual’s freedom of decision and action is limited by forces outside his or her control.
- Consequences: The extent to which decisions or actions have important positive or negative implications for any relevant person or entity.
In an empirical study, which incorporated vote-counting meta-analysis, it has been found that conceptualizations of situational strength that currently exist in psychological literature form an interaction with non-ability individual differences. Additionally, the effect size of the interaction effect was reasonably large.
Implications of Situational Strength
Perhaps the most important implication of situational strength is that it is commonly believed to explain cross-situational variability in the criterion-related validity of non-cognitive individual differences. This suggests that Psychology should not focus on whether personality constructs predict job performance but rather about the conditions under which they predict job performance. This also shows great practical implications for personnel selection because the criterion-related validity of individual differences may vary across different occupations. For instance, Meyer, Dalal, and Bonaccio found that occupation-level situational strength moderates the conscientiousness–performance relationship, such that conscientiousness better predicts performance in characteristically weak occupations than in characteristically strong occupations.
Another important implication revolves around the idea of person-environment fit. One of the core ideas expressed in the fit literature is that a mismatch between individuals’ needs and environmental supplies can have deleterious effects on performance, attitudes, and health . Within the context of situational strength, some employees may view highly constraining environments as stifling and frustrating, whereas others may find the regimented and predictable nature of constraining environments to be comforting and relaxing. If these differences do in fact exist, this would suggest that employees’ psychological reactions are partially a function of their individual differences profile and partially a function of the nature of the situation they are experiencing.
Two critical aspects of situational strength can be fruitful for future study:
- It is possible that more or fewer categories of operationalizations exist. Thus, researchers should be encouraged to continue theoretical development and empirical tests of alternative structures of situational strength that might also serve to move our understanding of this phenomenon forward. Although the structure outlined by research carried out by Meyer, Dalal, & Hermida was derived by attempting to find common themes among extant operationalizations, the approach assumed that the existing corpus of studies is a representative sample of situational strength’s theoretical construct space. Thus, inductive theorizing that focuses on additional (or alternative) categories of operationalizations might be fruitful. Ultimately, however, direct empirical tests of any proposed conceptualization will need to be conducted—a task that is made more meaningful by the presence of a standardized instrument.
- Once the dimensional structure of situational strength has been determined, it will be possible to develop a standardized measure for use alongside traditional job analytic tools, in order “to analyze the context within which the job is embedded”.(page 349) There are many potential benefits of such an instrument. First, it would allow researchers interested in examining the effects of situational strength on relevant trait-outcome relationships to do so in a way that is not only consistent across studies (which is not the case at present, as evidenced by our review of the empirical literature), but that also helps to develop a general situational strength literature—the absence of which has been noted.  Second, it would allow for an assessment of the relative importance of the dimensions of situational strength, helping researchers to determine which dimensions are necessary and/or sufficient to adequately understand a given interactional question. Third, it would help researchers determine whether the situational strength dimensions interact with each other—and, if they do, whether these interactions are synergistic or antagonistic. Fourth, it would allow for large-scale analyses of the relative levels of situational strength that exist in diverse situations, the results of which could then be compiled into centralized databases that could help inform future practice and research.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 Snyder, M.; Ickes, W. (1985). "Personality and social behavior" Handbook of social psychology. 3rd ed., 883-948, New York: Random House.
- ↑ Rogers, C.R. (1954). Toward a theory of creativity. Etc. 4: 249-260.
- ↑ Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations (18): 57-76.
- ↑ Mischel, W. (1968). Personality and Assessment, New York: Wiley.
- ↑ Mischel, W. (1999). Implications of person-situation interaction: Getting over the field’s borderline personality disorder. European Journal of Personality 13: 455-461.
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 Mischel, W. (1973). Toward a cognitive social learning reconceptualization of personality. Personality Psychological Review 80: 252-283.
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 Cooper, W.H., Withey, M.J. (2009). The strong situation hypothesis. Personality and Social Psychology Review 13: 62-72.
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 8.2 Meyer, R.D., Dalal, R.S.; Hermida, R. (2009). A review and synthesis of situational strength in the organizational sciences. Journal of Management: (in press).
- ↑ Mischel, W. (1977). "The interaction of person and situation" Personality at the crossroads: Current issues in interactional psychology, 333-352, Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- ↑ Mullins, J.M., Cummings, L.L. (1999). Situational strength: A framework for understanding the role of individuals in initiating proactive strategic change. Journal of Organizational Change Management 12: 462-479.
- ↑ Weiss, H.M., Adler, S. (1984). Personality and organizational behavior. Research in Organizational Behavior 6: 1-50.
- ↑ Meyer, R.D., Dalal, R.S.; Bonaccio, S. (2009). A meta-analytic investigation into the moderating effects of situational strength on the conscientiousness–performance relationship. Journal of Organizational Behavior 30: 1077-1102.
- ↑ Kristof-Brown, A. L., Zimmerman, R. D.; Johnson, E. C. (2005). Consequences of individuals’ fit at work: A meta-analysis of person-job, person-organization, person-group, and person-supervisor fit. Personnel Psychology 58: 281-342.
- ↑ Murphy, K.R., Dzieweczynski, J. L. (2005). Why don’t measures of broad dimensions of personality perform better as predictors of job performance?. Human Performance 18: 343-357.
- ↑ Azen, R., Budescu, D.V. (2003). The dominance analysis approach for comparing predictors in multiple regression. Psychological Methods (8): 129-148.
- Tinsley, H.E.A. (2000). The congruence myth: An analysis of the efficacy of the person-environment fit model. Journal of Vocational Behavior 56: 147-179.
- Situationism (psychology)
- Walter Mischel
- Personality psychology
- Person environment fit
- Environmental psychology
Individual differences |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |