Heider (1958) stated that we all have a tendency to want to explain human behaviour. Often, when evaluating one’s actions, the debate between nature vs nurture comes to play. Since it is difficult to understand the reasons for other people’s actions, we would normally have to take a guess, this is the actor-observer effect. For example, when a person gets angry, two questions could arise: Does he/she have an aggressive and temperamental disposition? Or was it just because he/she was in a heated situation?
Does one attribute behaviour to dispositional causes, or situational causes? Dispositional causes are based off of a person’s integral characteristics. This could refer to a person’s belief, personality and so on. Situational causes are based on external factors including the environment’s social setting, atmosphere and pressure.
In Mischel’s study during 1968, he concluded that situational factors outweighed dispositional factors, in other words, external factors were would effect our behaviour more than internal traits. His study on school students in which he assessed their level of conscientiousness in terms of attending classes on time and submitting their homework. He found that within the same students, their conscientiousness varied from class to class and occasion to occasion due to other factors (eg. stress, friends). Therefore, he argued that since the same students display varied behaviour towards each class and at every occasion, the cause of the behaviour must have been due to situational factors instead of dispositional.
However, in Epstein’s study in 1983, he argued that a person’s disposition effects the tendency of which they make certain actions. He studied the behaviour of a group of college students and found that the behaviour displayed in a particular situation at an occasion cannot be used to predict the behaviour of the individual in the similar circumstances in another occasion. However, he concluded that when the behaviour of the participants’ were aggregated over the duration of 2-weeks, the behaviour would then be highly predictive of their behaviour in similar situations over the following 2-weeks. In other words, if a participant showed anxiety in large social circles one day, the same participant’s attitude towards large social circles could change for the next day. Though, over a long period of time, if the participant showed consistent anxiety towards large social settings, it can be predicted that the participant would be anxious in occasions with large social groups.
These studies show that situational factors as well as dispositional factors has a role in dictating the behaviour of an individual.