The Trait Stability Debate

In 1968 Walter Mischel started a debate that lasted 20 years. He wrote that "with the possible exception of intelligence, highly generalized behavioral consistencies have not been demonstrated, and the concept of personality traits as broad predispositions is thus untenable." Mischel has since written that he did not intend to attack the whole concept of traits; he was pointing out that situational variables had to be taken into account, as well.

What statement of Mischel's started a 20-year debate? What did Mischel later say that he really meant?

As an example of situational variables, consider the following student essay.

Sometimes I really wonder about myself. I ask whether I'm weird or normal. I seem to be different in different situations. For example, when I play sports, I'm very hard on my opponent, and kind of mean. One mind or personality seems to come out. Then when I'm not playing sports, I am sort of shy and silent in everyday life, very unlike the sports personality. When I'm playing sports I yell and scream so hard that at times I hurt my vocal cords. I really don't understand how I can have these two different personalities. Am I normal, or am I a split person? [Author's files]

How does the student's essay illustrate Mischel's point?

The student is normal, of course. This is just the sort of situation-dependency that Mischel was talking about. As Allport said as early as 1937 (p.331), "Traits are often aroused in one situation and not in another." One could also relate the student's essay to the idea expressed in the section on modern approaches to ego psychology, that people can have multiple self-concepts. Clearly this individual's football self is not the same as his everyday self, and that is normal.

As long as context-dependency was added in, Mischel had no trouble with the concept of stable personality traits in humans. For example, he wrote in 1979:

No one seriously questions that lives have continuity and that we perceive ourselves and others are relatively stable individuals who have substantial identity and stability over time, even when our specific actions change across situations (Mischel, 1968, 1973, 1977)

Why was Mischel exasperated?

With his multiple self-citations, Mischel was pointing out that he wrote the same thing in 1968, 1973, 1977, and 1979. Yet, as he noted with some exasperation, his original criticism of the trait idea "sank in" while his corrections did not. People continued to believe Mischel had meant, "There is no such thing as a personality trait." Perhaps this persistent misunderstanding was a good thing because of the research it generated. Personality researchers responded to the supposed challenge from Mischel with a burst of research in the 1970s through 1990s, revitalizing the trait approach to personality theory.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey