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PSYCHOLOGY OF SAFETY: What triggers at-risk behavior?

November 4, 2008
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Global traits… are excessively crude, gross units to encompass adequately the extraordinary complexity and subtlety of the discriminations that people constantly make.
— Walter Mischel (1968)


Last May, I was inspired by a keynote talk given by Dr. Walter Mischel, the originator of “The Marshmallow Test” of emotional intelligence (see my ISHN contribution in October 1996). He reminded me of his seminal personality-based research and theory development.

The opening quotation defines the personality paradox, which fueled a prolonged person-versus-situation debate. Since the early 1900s, personality researchers have attempted to classify people into stable, cross-situational typologies, based on people’s physical characteristics or their reactions to words, pictures, or survey questions. Today, most psychologists realize the same individual’s disposition will vary according to different situations. Bottom line: you can’t classify people into personality types.

The research-consulting gap

Still, the generic classification of individuals into a few distinct categories is big business in the world of consulting. For example, when I ask participants at professional-development workshops whether they’ve taken the Myers-Briggs personality assessment, almost half raise their hand.

Also, because of its simplicity and vast Internet marketing, the True Colors® typology is becoming increasingly popular in the corporate world. Don Lowry, creator of this positive and enticing view of personality, claims the four-category personality ranking provided by the True Colors® program improves lives and enhances professional and personal relationships.

Personality states vs. traits

In prior ISHN articles, I’ve addressed the role of a variety of personality differences related to injury prevention, including the success seeker vs. failure avoider (February 2004); the high anxious vs. low anxious individual (April 2004); the “Big Five” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (July 2005); Type A vs. Type B behaviors vs. emotions; the True Colors® approach (July 2007); and last month I defined the “actively-caring” disposition.

Each of these personality presentations refers to the distinction between flexible personality states that fluctuate according to behavioral context versus relatively permanent personality traits, presumably the result of genetics and early childhood experiences. I’ve pointed out in more than one ISHN contribution (especially in August 2004), that people-based interventions should target person states rather than traits, because personality traits are essentially immutable.

The True Colors® approach

The workshop I attended on True Colors® and the related books I read on this four-color classification system were quite convincing. In fact, I rationalized the accuracy of my own color ranking, and taught this typology approach to my students. As discussed in my August 2007 ISHN contribution, I even attempted to predict the primary colors of my students and friends, and was delighted in the apparent accuracy of most of my predictions.

I now realize I was overly optimistic about the True Colors® typology. Following a search of the professional literature, I found no supportive research for this widely-disseminated trait theory, and the seminal research of Walter Mischel and others convinces me this and other personality typologies are oversimplified. Indeed, Dr. Mischel refers to taxonomic systems which attempt to fit people into fixed positions on a limited number of dimensions as “mental fictions.”

Most importantly, the labels people give themselves from personality tests can limit their goals and aspirations, and make them victims of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s consider the empirical research that challenges the common notion that an individual’s personality can be categorized according to a few personality traits.

Situational determinants of personality

Numerous individual differences in dispositions have been studied, from the Big Five traits to measures of sociability, dependency, and aggression. The consistent finding: A person’s ranking in virtually any personality measure varies substantially across diverse settings, making it impossible to identify a generic cross-situational disposition for anyone.

In one early attempt to demonstrate a stable personality trait, Theodore Newcomb studied extraversion-introversion (one of the Myers-Briggs dimensions) among 51 boys in 21 situations at a summer camp. He collected daily records of distinctly remembered incidents per individual, such as “How much of the time did he talk at dinner?” Newcomb was shocked to find minimal consistency of the extraversion-introversion characteristic across situations, and consequently switched the focus of his career to study the culture of Bennington College as a social psychologist.

More than 50 years after Newcomb’s classic study, Walter Mischel and colleagues searched for cross-situational consistency of a number of personality dimensions. Armed with video cameras and computers, unavailable in Newcomb’s landmark study, these researchers observed participants over many hours and weeks with high reliability among well-trained observers.

The result: An individual’s personality-related behavior in one situation (such as aggression) did not reliably predict the person’s behavior in a different situation. On the other hand, an individual’s personality ranking did reliably predict behavior in designated situations. For example, a particular camper might not be generally more aggressive than other boys, but may consistently show this personality dimension under certain circumstances.

The “if-then behavioral signature”

Although systematic attempts to identify generic personality types have been futile, Dr. Mischel and colleagues have shown that certain dispositional factors do dramatically influence behavior. However, it’s critical to consider the situation. In other words, one’s personality ranking is situation-specific. Mischel refers to the power of environmental contributions to influence distinct personality characteristics and related actions, thoughts, and feelings as “if-then behavioral signatures”.

Regarding safety-related behavior, our challenge becomes one of defining what situations, including interpersonal interactions, activate at-risk behavior. But this “if-then behavioral signature” likely varies across individuals.

For me, I confess that driving often activates an undesirable personality disposition, including frustration, aggression and at-risk behavior. I actually score low on generic personality assessments of aggression, frustration, and neuroticism; and I score relatively high on measures of self-discipline and emotional control. But behind the wheel of a vehicle with heavy traffic thwarting my destination goals, I often take on a very different personality.

To conclude

Findings from more than 50 years of empirical research indicate it’s misleading to categorize people into generic personality types. So have fun with those personality inventories, but use them only to appreciate the diversity of human dynamics. Consider how different situations influence how you think, feel and act. And most importantly, value your perceptive and discriminative ability to alter your personality and your actions according to ever-changing circumstances.

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