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Do Traits Predict Behaviour?


Walter Mischel (1968, 1973) stimulated a huge debate that raged until the early 1980s, concerning whether personality traits predict behaviour. In his seminal 1973 paper he presented evidence which he argued demonstrated that personality traits did not predict behaviour. He further suggested that there was little evidence indicating that people’s behaviour was consistent across situations, and proposed that behaviour was principally determined by the characteristics of the situations in which people find, rather than reflecting stable characteristics of the person themselves. With time the following points have become clear.


It is now accepted that Mischel was correct in arguing that personality traits are very poor predictors of any one specific behaviour (i.e. whether a person will start a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop on any given occasion). However, the failure of personality traits to predict specific behavioural acts is in fact not that surprising, and reflects the fact that many factors contribute to any one piece of behaviour, such as: the characteristics of the specific situation, the person’s mood at that time, competing goals, etc. Thus it is now generally accepted that it is unrealistic to expect traits to be able to predict specific behaviours. However, it is also now generally accepted that people do show consistency in their behaviour across situations, and that when aggregate behaviour is assessed (e.g. initiating conversations on different occasions across a range of different settings) traits are fairly predictive of behaviour. Given that the aim of occupational assessment is to predict aggregate behaviours (i.e. will someone be gregarious and friendly, initiate and maintain social interactions in a broad range of work situations), the use of personality tests in occupational assessment and selection is now considered to have a firm theoretical basis and to be empirically justified by the research literature.






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