This discrepancy between the intuition that people are consistent and empirical findings that they are not poses a consistency paradox. People who are honest in the classroom may cheat on taxes; children who wait patiently in the presence of a parent may
act impulsively when the situation changes. That is, behavior is not determined by general personality traits, but is situation-specific. Even the religious beliefs and worldviews of elderly people, studied in longitudinal research, vaiy considerably from one testing to another (Kim, Nesselroade, & Featherman, 1996).
A social learning approach does not predict that behavior will be consistent across situations. Behavior depends on the consequences (rewards and punishments) it produces. If the same behavior in different situations produces different consequences (e.g., talking in a restaurant or talking in a library), adaptive responses will vaiy from situation to situation. Consistency is expected only when the same behavior is reinforced in a variety of situations or if a person is unable to discriminate among situations. For example, a child who is rewarded at play by friends, at school by teachers, and at home by parents for speaking will learn to speak in a great variety of situations. A child who cannot tell when speaking will result in punishment and when it will not may learn to be quiet all the time. When such consistency is found, social learning theory explains it as a consequence of a particular learning history, without resorting to a concept of traits, like extra-version or introversion.
That does not mean, though, that we must discard the concept of traits, provided we are aware of its limitations. Mischel pointed out that laypeople have always made trait attributions. Traits constitute summaries of multiple behavioral observations and may have some descriptive usefulness for salient characteristics, though they exaggerate consistency and make inferences about unobserved behavior (Carlson & Mulaik, 1993; Hay-den & Mischel, 1976; Mischel, 1973). For Mischel, traits are not causes but merely summaiy labels. They describe, but do not explain, personality.
Mischel's challenge to an overgeneralized conceptualization of traits was not intended to displace traits entirely from personality theory. Rather, he advocated replacing overgeneralized trait concepts with more refined analyses and to understand when people behave consistently and when they discriminate among situations (Mischel, 1983a, 1984b; Mischel & Peake, 1983; Peake & Mischel, 1984). Perhaps it will not surprise those who view the field from a distance that the consistency question has bothered personality theorists more than the average person. When people are given personality information in laboratory tasks, they can often reconcile inconsistent information readily. Told that a particular individual is both "generous" and "thrifty," observers don't find these traits inconsistent, but reason that the individual is generous in situations that call for that, and thrifty when other circumstances make thrift sensible (Hampson, 1998).
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