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Situations & Psychology

The best way to understand people's behaviors is to understand their natural tendency, preferences and the elements that surround them at a given moment. This article will explore some of the ideas behind the study of situations, their unavoidable relationship with behaviours and personality, how the situation has been defined in Psychology, the creation of taxonomy to organize its study and the future of its study. The introduction of the DIAMONDS taxonomy of situations in 2014 was supposed to mark a new beginning for the study of situations in Psychology, and will now inform the presentation of the main ideas of this article.

One of the aims of Psychology is to predict human behavior (Muelder, 1957). According to Lewin’s conceptualization, a person's behavior is always the result of the interaction between that person and the environment or the situation (Lewin, 1936). This idea is represented in the following formula:

B = f(P, S)

Where B stands for behavior, P stands for personality, and S stands for situations (also portrayed as E, for environment). What the formula means is that to better understand people's behavioral repertoire, one needs to understand their personality and the situations they are facing at a particular moment. There is no behavior without context or person; even if someone is crying alone in a dark corner of a room, or alone in the middle of the desert or the sea, there are elements of each of these situations that influence the person's behavior patterns. Behavior is only understood as a function of the person and the situation, there is no escape from the rest if one of them is present (Funder, 2009).

Jonah and the Whale, by Pieter Lastman

To understand these elements is a task that has been historically neglected in Psychology (Rauthmann et al., 2014). Of the three terms of Lewin’s formula, behavior and personality have received all the attention, and personality most of it (Furr, 2009); relegating situations due to its inherent difficulty, the infancy of a proper theoretical framework, and the complexity of its study. However, this is not news in the history of Psychology and it has been acknowledged many times (Rauthmann, 2012; Sherman et al., 2013). It was not until recently that researchers have arrived at a solution that started to fill this important conceptual gap (Rauthmann et al., 2014). In this article, the study of situations is introduced, the attempts to define with precision what a situation is are presented, one of the earliest taxonomies designed in its study, and the future questions that research can ask to keep the momentum of the study of situations are discussed.

The first thing that psychologists decided to do with the conceptual definition of situations was to delimit it (Rauthmann et al., 2014). Thus, they decided that the perception of situations, that is how someone sees and assesses a situation, is what it is important for psychologists because it is the only information one can get from a situation (Hogan, 2009). This is an assumption, and it is interesting to note that right at the start of the scientific study of a phenomenon scientists decided to work with an assumption. In epistemological terms, an assumption is a statement that has not been scientifically tested because its testing is not feasible by definition and there are many examples of them across all sciences (Horrobin, 1969).

Solvay Conference on Quantum Mechanics by Benjamin Couprie, (Couprie, 1927)

For instance, the assumption: “the perception of a situation is what is important for psychologists because it is the only information we can get from a situation”, poses the challenge of proving that the perception is really the only information that can be gathered from a situation. This task is not an easy one: a scientist willing to prove this in scientific terms, must first be able to study everything that can be studied about situations, then separate all of its components and test which of them are important psychologically speaking. Notice that doing this would immediately disprove the assumption: if all the aspects of a situation can be studied to test and compare their psychological importance, then it cannot be proven that only one of them can be studied. However, assumptions are common practices in Psychology, and in many other sciences as well: in statistics for example, when analyzing data, there are assumptions of normality, linearity, and independence of the distribution of the data points (Nimon, 2012). These scientific assumptions are important, however, without them research would get stagnant and no scientific progress could be achieved (Horrobin, 1969).

The study of situations, then, is based on the assumption that the only information one can get from a situation is the perception the individual makes from it. Some authors have classified the information from situations in three categories: cues, classes, and characteristics (Rauthmann et al., 2014). For example, in the situation: “I find myself in front of a free tiger in the middle of the city”, there will be specific cues, it will pertain to a specific class, and it would have certain characteristics. A closer look will reveal that the situation cues are the tiger, you, in the middle of the city, the weather: maybe it’s windy, dusk is just beginning to set, there is nobody else around, and so on. The idea of the cues is to summarize all the physical elements in the environment (Saucier et al., 2007). Cues include persons, interactions, objects, events, activities, and spatial locations. Although the cues are important, there are three problems with them: first, they might be almost infinite in some situations (e.g., a very crowded and loud three-day music festival); second, they are not all processed by the person at a given time and even during the whole experience of the situation, and third, they might share the same cues with other situations but have a completely different meaning.

Lady and the Tiger, by Frederick Stuart Church

This last point requires some more explanation. In the situation of the wild tiger, for example, it could be happening with almost the same cues of the environment to the same person in two scenarios. The person in the first scenario, has been told previously that morning that they didn’t have more time left to live: they have been struggling with an unknown disease and that night might be their last one. In the second scenario, they have not been told that. Once facing the situation, the person in the first scenario just acts matter-of-factly, not caring much about how they might die whereas the same person in the second scenario, runs away from the tiger. This example illustrates that, although the cues from the environment are almost equal, the reactions are completely different. A different example that illustrates instead how different cues elicit the same response is the famous experiment with Pavlov’s dog: when the food was paired with the sound of a bell, the dog started to salivate immediately, and this kept happening even when there was only the sound of the bell and no food. That is, different cues but the same response.

The situation class is the attempt someone does to put this situation into a class: the situation is frightening, for instance. Psychologists have tried to design a typology of situations by using class but these attempts lack something really important: there is too much conceptual overlap (Rauthmann et al., 2014). Imagine that this tiger situation gets classified in the “frightening” class. The question now is what other situations we might find in the same class. Some people would say “defending their doctoral dissertation”, “chasing a criminal”, “breaking up with someone”, “cheating in an exam”, “being bullied”, "fighting in a duel", and so on. As is evident, these situations share one thing: they are frightening to some people, but they are really different situations and it is almost impossible to say anything else that they might have in common.

Fight with Cudgels, by Francisco Goya

Thus, studying a situation by studying its cues or its classification is not a good approach. Fortunately, there is a workaround: studying the way people experience the situation, i.e., the subjective experience of a situation. Psychologically speaking this solution is good enough, although it could be argued that with this approach, some information about the situation could get lost. This statement is true, but what interests Psychology are the psychological effects of the situation on the person and thus it makes sense to remain in the realm of subjective experience (Hogan, 2009). There is no point in including aspects that might be present but that the individual is not even capable of perceiving. Ultimately, the perception of the situation is what the individual will use to decide what to do, what to think, and how to feel about it; this is all Psychology needs.

Many questions still remain unresolved. Therefore, borrowing concepts from practices in the fields of personality psychology and psychometrics, psychologists decided to create a taxonomy of situations perception to understand how this kind of perception happens across many individuals and many contexts (Oreg et al., 2020; Parrigon et al., 2017; Rauthmann et al., 2014). To do this, they relied on the lexical hypothesis: the assumption that any important psychological process or experience must be somehow represented in everyday language (Oreg et al., 2020; Parrigon et al., 2017). This has not been the only way they have chosen to solve the conundrum of how to study situations perception, but the others rely more heavily on questionnaires derived from personality questionnaires, thus producing some overlap between the two psychological processes (Guillaume et al., 2016; Rauthmann et al., 2014).

Narcissus, by Caravaggio

There are different taxonomies found so far but the first one of them that is still being used is called the DIAMONDS, each letter standing for one situation dimension: Duty, Intellect, Adversity, Mating, pOsitivity, Negativity, Deception, and Sociality. To get a better grasp on what each of them mean, a useful strategy is to look at some of the questionnaire items that measure each dimension.

Duty has items like: “A job needs to be done”, “P (i.e.: the person) is counted on to do something”, “Minor details are important”, and “Rational thinking is called for”. All these items have one thing in common, they refer to situations that ask for a job to be done, that requires the participant to perform some obligations. There is a nuance, however, with this dimension. Surely, there are many situations in life that demand something to be done: friendships, social, and romantic relationships; but these are not the ones that Duty represents, instead it represents things to be done that have a negative connotation to them or that may have such a connotation, and that somehow are imposed into the person. Going out with your friends to avoid being excluded in the future is not Duty, that is something someone is moved to do due to deep human needs; but going to work or school everyday is a whole different story. True, there might be people motivated about their work and studies, but even the most passionate of individuals will perceive situations in work as being imposed from time to time.

Intellect includes items like: “Affords an opportunity to demonstrate intellectual capacity”, “Situation includes intellectual or cognitive stimuli”, and “Affords an opportunity to express unusual ideas or points of view”. This dimension refers to situations that contain intellectual elements like deep reflections, deep ideas, connections between ideas, creativity, daydreaming, and rumination. Situations ranging from being in a philosophical discussion, in a book club, or in a class to being in silent meditation and practicing mindfulness, they all may be perceived in the dimension of Intellect.

Kitty Packe, by William Beechey

Adversity includes items like: “Another person (present or discussed) is under threat”, “P is being criticized, directly or indirectly”, “P is being blamed for something”. The situation’s content, thus, must have threatening stimuli to be considered into this dimension. Criticism, rejection, insults, gossip, all of these may make a situation high in Adversity to an individual.

Mating includes items like: “Physical attractiveness of P is relevant”, “Situation includes stimuli that could be construed sexually”, “Members of the opposite sex are present”, and “Potential romantic partners for P are present”. All of the situations conducive to romantic or sexual relationships will be categorized as high in Mating. It is important to distinguish that this dimension does not include other social interactions, not even the intimate relationships either, because they can happen with no romantic or sexual charge whatsoever as is the case of family and close friends. Its hallmark is twofold: romance and sex.

Positivity includes items like: “Situation is playful”, “Situation is potentially enjoyable”, “Situation is basically simple and clear-cut”. This dimension refers to a situation that is perceived as light, enjoyable, pleasant, and relaxing. It is worth reminding that these dimensions refer to human perception, that is the personal and subjective evaluation of the situation. So, if a particular situation is identified as high in positivity, this does not mean that the situation is really positive; instead, it means that the situation is perceived as positive by someone but it could be negatively perceived by someone else. For instance, bungee jumping: whereas some individuals might perceive the situation as positive, others might be frightened by it.

Impression, Sunrise, by Claude Monet

Negativity includes items like: “Situation entails or could entail stress or trauma”, “Situation is potentially anxiety-inducing”, “Situation would make some people tense and upset”. What makes a situation negative is that negative feelings can be produced. This is tricky, however, because situations can elicit negative feelings but, in general, be positive situations. The same bungee jumping might elicit fear (a negative feeling) in someone who does it for the first time, but at the end, it might be perceived as a positive experience on the whole because it was more pleasant than threatening. Nevertheless, the judgment of the experience relies solely on the perceiver.

Deception includes items like: “Someone else in this situation (other than P) might be deceitful”, “It is possible for P to deceive someone”, “Situation may cause feelings of hostility”. This dimension includes all the situations that make people participating in them less honest, or more willing to hide information from other people. It also includes behaviors that produce feelings of mistrust, betrayal, and hostility.

Sociality includes items like: “A reassuring other person is present”, “Close personal relationships are present or have the potential to develop”, “Behavior of others presents a wide range of interpersonal cues”, “Social interaction is possible”. Situations like parties, meetings with old acquaintances or new people, a team sports match, a trip, a baby shower, a graduation, and a wedding; all of them allow or encourage the individual to engage into social interactions. As can be inferred from the wording of the items, this dimension has one important distinction: the social interaction must be pleasant.

The Judgment of Paris, by Peter Paul Rubens

The dimensions just presented have a very ambitious objective: to determine a taxonomy of situations that can summarize most of the situations experienced by humans (Parrigon et al., 2017). Practically, this means that most situations that can happen can be organized into this taxonomy or can be assigned different values on each of these dimensions. The applications of such a taxonomy are manifold: clarify how people experience situations, explain the differences that appear, determine the roles that situations play in everyday lives, report the frequency that individuals experience each kind of situation, understand the dynamics of the interactions between persons and situations, and understand the role that the perception of situations have on human behavior and emotions. These are some of the questions that scientists are trying to answer right now in the field of situation perception and the hope is that each step towards a better understanding of them will allow a better understanding of human behaviors.


Visual Sources

Beechey, W. (1818-1821). Kitty Packe [Painting]. Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma.

Caravaggio. (1600). Narcissus [Painting]. Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome.

Church, F. (1900). Lady and the Tiger [Painting]. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

Claude, M. (1872). Impression, Sunrise [Painting]. Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris.

Couprie, B. (1927). Solvay Conference on Quantum Mechanics [Photograph]. Wikipedia.

Goya, F. (1820-1823). Fight with Cudgels [Painting]. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Lastman, P. (1621). Jonah and the Whale [Painting]. Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf.

Rubens, P. (1636). The Judgment of Paris [Painting]. National Gallery, London.


Author Photo

David Saeteros

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