Assessing Behavior in Situations

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Assessing Behavior in Situations

To predict behavior, social-cognitive psychologists often observe behavior in realistic situations. One ambitious example was the U.S. Army’s World War II strategy for assessing candidates for spy missions. Rather than using paper-and-pencil tests, Army psychologists subjected the candidates to simulated undercover conditions. They tested their ability to handle stress, solve problems, maintain leadership, and withstand intense interrogation without blowing their cover. Although time-consuming and expensive, this assessment of behavior in a realistic situation helped predict later success on actual spy missions (OSS Assessment Staff, 1948).

Military and educational organizations and many Fortune 500 companies have adopted assessment center strategies (Bray et al., 1991, 1997; Eurich et al., 2009). AT&T has observed prospective managers doing simulated managerial work. Many colleges assess students’ potential via internships and student teaching, and assess potential faculty members’ teaching abilities by observing them teach. Most American cities with populations of 50,000 or more have used assessment centers in evaluating police officers and firefighters (Lowry, 1997).

The point to rememberThe best means of predicting future behavior… is the person’s past behavior patterns in similar situations.

Assessment center exercises have some limitations. They are more revealing of visible dimensions, such as communication ability, than of others, such as inner achievement drive (Bowler & Woehr, 2006). Nevertheless, these procedures exploit a valid principle: The best means of predicting future behavior is neither a personality test nor an interviewer’s intuition; rather, it is the person’s past behavior patterns in similar situations (Lyons et al., 2011; Mischel, 1981; Schmidt & Hunter, 1998). As long as the situation and the person remain much the same, the best predictor of future job performance is past job performance; the best predictor of future grades is past grades; the best predictor of future aggressiveness is past aggressiveness. If you can’t check the person’s past behavior, the next best thing is to create an assessment situation that simulates the task so you can see how the person handles it (Lievens et al., 2009; Meriac et al., 2008).

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Evaluating Social-Cognitive Theories

What criticisms have social-cognitive theorists faced?

Social-cognitive theories of personality sensitize researchers to how situations affect, and are affected by, individuals. More than other personality theories (see Table 5), they build from psychological research on learning and cognition.

Table 5

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Comparing the Major Personality Theories

Personality Theory

Key Proponents Assumptions

View of Personality

Personality Assessment


Psychoanalytic Freud

Emotional disorders spring from unconscious dynamics, such as unresolved sexual and other childhood conflicts, and fixation at various developmental stages. Defense mechanisms fend off anxiety.

Personality consists of pleasure-seeking impulses (the id), a reality-oriented executive (the ego), and an internalized set of ideals (the superego).

Free association, projective tests, dream analysis

Psychodynamic Jung, Adler,Horney

The unconscious and conscious minds interact. Childhood experiences and defense mechanisms are important.

The dynamic interplay of conscious and unconscious motives and conflicts shape our personality.

Projective tests, therapy sessions

Humanistic Rogers,Maslow

Rather than examine the struggles of sick people, it’s better to focus on the ways healthy people strive for self- realization.

If our basic human needs are met, we will strive toward self-actualization. In a climate of unconditional positive regard, we can develop self- awareness and a more realistic and positive self-concept.

Questionnaires, therapy sessions


Allport, Eysenck, McCrae, Costa

We have certain stable and enduring characteristics, influenced by genetic predispositions.

Scientific study of traits has isolated important dimensions of personality, such as the Big Five traits (conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion).

Personality inventories

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Social- Cognitive

Bandura Our traits and the social context interact to produce our behaviors.

Conditioning and observational learning interact with cognition to create behavior patterns.

Our behavior in one situation is best predicted by considering our past behavior in similar situations.

Critics charge that social-cognitive theories focus so much on the situation that they fail to appreciate the person’s inner traits. Where is the person in this view of personality, ask the dissenters, and where are human emotions? True, the situation does guide our behavior. But, say the critics, in many instances our unconscious motives, our emotions, and our pervasive traits shine through. Personality traits have been shown to predict behavior at work, love, and play. Our biologically influenced traits really do matter. Consider Percy Ray Pridgen and Charles Gill. Each faced the same situation: They had jointly won a $90 million lottery jackpot (Harriston, 1993). When Pridgen learned of the winning numbers, he began trembling uncontrollably, huddled with a friend behind a bathroom door while confirming the win, then sobbed. When Gill heard the news, he told his wife and then went to sleep.

Multiple-Choice Question

Imagine that you are in charge of hiring someone to fill a leadership position at your workplace and must decide between two qualified applicants. Which of the following would be the BEST way to predict the applicants’ ability to lead a team?

Learn about their previous experiences in a leadership position. Instruct them to write essays explaining their personal definitions of leadership. Ask for self-reported ratings on confidence and intelligence. Give them a personality test that assesses the Big Five traits.

Correct. If a person and a situation remain mostly the same, the best way to predict future behavior is to look at the person’s past behavior in similar situations. To determine whether candidates can effectively lead a team, investigate whether they have successfully led a team in the past.

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