Contextual Personality: A Multifaceted Theory of Who We Are

Traditionally, personality has been viewed as an intrinsic characteristic of each individual that remains consistent across situations and through time [1]. Over time, psychologists began exploring whether personality traits varied across different situations [2]. Concurrently, some research explored personality as a combination of personal attributes and goals, mediated by situational demands [3]. This brought about the notion that personality may be a dynamic combination of attributes that have been viewed as fixed.

Historically, personality has been mistaken for a stable attribute because of the effect that appearance has on perception; due to a generally unchanging image, behaviors associated with that image are also deemed as consistent. More recent research has proposed that personality is instead a combination of different, and sometimes antagonistic components that, in combination, form one’s personality. Broadly, this holds significant importance to the field of clinical psychology. Considering personality as a characteristic dependent upon situation influences both the way in which dispositional as well as abnormal psychology is viewed, as well as the way it is approached in a clinical situation.

Mischel was one of the first psychologists to propose that personality may not be an enduring trait but rather an adapting mechanism, which integrates both internal and external cues to elicit situation-appropriate responses and emotions [4]. He proposed that internal and external cogitations and affective states are the result of interconnections between cognitive-affective units. These units represent a person’s past experiences in conjunction with present goals and desires. Each person possesses different cognitive-affective units, and the connections between them differ in strength, and are modified over time. Mischel’s theory of a contextual personality proposes that the connections between cognitions and emotions are always changing but the relations between cognitions and affects remain stable, thus establishing a seemingly unwavering outward personality [3]. Accordingly, personality change is dependent on context and prior experience but, he notes, there may be an underlying theme based on which cognitions cause certain affective states, which stands for what is generally conceptualized as personality.

Another interpretation of personality is offered by the trait activation theory. It posits that “the behavioral expression of a trait requires arousal of that trait by trait-relevant situational cues” [5]. In essence, situations may trigger certain responses for different individual. To test this, researchers conducted studies in which they used weak to moderate trait-relevant triggers, open-ended scenarios to which participants responded by indicating how they would react in that given situation, to maintain individual differences in behavioral dispositions. The investigators felt an overly activating trigger would work on most people whereas a slight trigger would only affect those who are sensitive to that situational prompt. They found that different situations aimed at eliciting the same trait-relevant responses did not always do so because, in some instances, proximal situational triggers overrode the primary traits. This variability in individual triggers explains why people react differently in different situations; their reactions are prompted to varying degrees by different stimuli in their internal motivations and external surroundings. An example of this would be a highly extroverted businessman who suppresses this attribute when attending a formal business meeting due to the subtle situational trigger of an austere client.

Although the construct of context-specific personality has been upheld by Western research, some research has shown it to be a more pertinent construct for Eastern cultures, particularly because of the emphasis Western cultures place on individuality [6]. Studies examining hypothetical and naturalistic scenarios have shown that Asian Americans generally tailor their self-concept to accommodate varying relationship contexts, such as friendship, respect for authority figures, etc. Conversely, European Americans exhibit a more global decontextualized self-concept with little variation across situations or relationships. Interestingly, both groups have been shown to exhibit temporal consistency within specific contexts and relationships. Equally compelling is the finding that self-concept is viewed as almost necessarily consistency for European Americans while it is viewed as almost necessarily variable for Asian Americans. These findings suggest that Asian Americans exhibit more discrimination among situations and relationships when formulating their self-concept, but they, like European Americans, possess enduring response patterns.

Along a slightly different vein of research, some researchers have examined the effect outside perception had on generating behavior [2]. In their seminal experiment, Hayden and Mischel examined the effect of initial impressions on subsequent behavior motivation. First, they presented research participants with an individual exhibiting a particular trait, such as aggressive or submissive, then presented participants with that same individual in a different scenario either expressing that trait, a neutral trait, or a complementary trait and asked them to explain the motivation behind the individual’s actions in the second scenario. It was expected that despite differences between the two situations, the initial motivation for behavior from the first scenario would be used to explain later behavior regardless of inconsistencies in the described secondary behavior. Although this hypothesis was supported, results also indicated that initial impressions were easily changed in light of new information. Furthermore, consistent behavior was generally attributed to the individual’s true personality while inconsistent behavior was attributed to situational, transient, or random factors.

This study was groundbreaking as it indicated that participants were hardwired into believing their first encounter with the individual shed light on the individual’s true personality, despite it being a brief, unitary synopsis of the individual’s behavior. Taken more broadly, this finding suggests that within our culture, personality is attributed so strongly to a person, even upon first impression, that any attempt to change it is generally viewed as an insignificant anomaly.

Though research on context-dependent personality is somewhat scattered and unsystematic, it still offers an interesting blueprint of the underpinning of observable, behavioral patterns. It appears as though there might exist a central unifying system that establishes stable personality while allowing for variations based on situational demands. Individuals seem to vary on their level of ‘commitment’ to one personality trait and thus there is variability between individuals in how many different traits they generally exhibit and how strongly they exhibit them. Furthermore, the propensity to exhibit varying personality traits is somewhat moderated by cultural standards and personal beliefs. Moreover, personality stability is a social construct that greatly influences perception and expression of personality. Specifically, a person may exhibit very mild dominant behavior, but due to society’s view of personality as consistent, they will be assigned this trait regardless of subsequent behavior. Undoubtedly, more awareness regarding the intricacy of underlying constructs that produce personality is needed in order to generate the necessary research support to fully elucidate what personality truly represents.

Clinically, greater understanding of personality and how it functions may aid in the treatment of certain personality disorders. For instance, if future research demonstrates that personality disorders exhibit a similar contextual dependency, more appropriate therapeutic interventions could be developed, a necessary advancement given the notorious therapeutic resistance of personality disorders [7].


  1. 1. Brown, Timothy A., and Anthony J. Rosellini. “The Direct And Interactive Effects Of Neuroticism And Life Stress On The Severity And Longitudinal Course Of Depressive Symptoms..” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 120, no. 4 (2011): 844-856.
  2. Hayden, Teresa, and Walter Mischel. “Maintaining Trait Consistency In The Resolution Of Behavioral Inconsistency: The Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing?” Journal of Personality 44, no. 1 (1976): 109-132.
  3. Mischel, Walter. Personality and assessment. New York: Wiley, 1968.
  4. Shoda, Yuichi, Scott LeeTiernan, and Walter Mischel. “Personality As A Dynamical System: Emergence Of Stability And Distinctiveness From Intra- And Interpersonal Interactions.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 6, no. 4 (2002): 316-325.
  5. Tett, R. “Situation Trait Relevance, Trait Expression, And Cross-Situational Consistency: Testing A Principle Of Trait Activation.” Journal of Research in Personality 34, no. 4 (2000): 397-423.
  6. English, Tammy, and Serena Chen. “Culture And Self-concept Stability: Consistency Across And Within Contexts Among Asian Americans And European Americans.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 93, no. 3 (2007): 478-490.
  7. Bender, Donna S., Maria T. Daversa, Ingrid R. Dyck, Andrew E. Skodol, Carlos M. Grilo, John G. Gunderson, Thomas H. McGlashan, Mary C. Zanarini, Anthony Pinto, Charles A. Sanislow, Shirley Yen, M. Tracie Shea, and John C. Markowitz. “Ethnicity And Mental Health Treatment Utilization By Patients With Personality Disorders.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 75, no. 6 (2007): 992-999.Image Credit: Retrieved September 11, 2013, from:

Maria Cimporescu recently graduated with a B.A. in Psychology and is currently conducting research at The George Washington University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.