Profiting From Controversy: Lessons From the Person-Situation Debate

Douglas Kenrick, David C. Funder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

572 Scopus citations


For the past two decades the person-situation debate has dominated personality psychology and had important repercussions in clinical, social, and organizational psychology. This controversy strikes to the heart of each of these disciplines because it puts on trial the central assumption that internal dispositions have an important influence on behavior. According to emerging views of scientific progress, controversy serves the useful function of narrowing the field of competing hypotheses. In this light, we examine seven hypotheses that arose during the course of the person-situation debate, ranging from most to least pessimistic about the existence of consensual, discriminative personality traits. The accumulated evidence fails to support the hypotheses that personality traits are simply (a) in the eye of the beholder, (b) semantic illusions, (c) artifacts of base-rate accuracy, (d) artifacts of shared stereotypes, (e) due to discussion between observers (who ignore behavior in favor of verbal self-presentation or reputation), or (f) mere by-products of situational consistencies. Evidence also fails to support the hypothesis (g) that although traits are related to behavior, the relationship is too small to be important. Yet we have not simply come full circle to a reacceptance of traits as they were understood 20 years ago. Research generated by these hypotheses has allowed us to better specify the circumstances under which personality assessments will be valid.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)23-34
Number of pages12
JournalAmerican Psychologist
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1988

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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