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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Situationism v. Dispositionism

Many thanks to Dan and the gang for this opportunity -- this is my first guest-blogging gig, and I'm very much looking forward to it!   I teach at the University of Colorado School of Law, where my interests include constitutional law, employment discrimination and employment law, civil rights, and torts.

My ongoing interest in behavioral realism led me to a terrific new series of articles by Adam Benforado and Jon Hanson.  The first in the series, The Great Attributional Divide: How Divergent Views of Human Behavior are Shaping Legal Policy, points out that most policy debates reflect the huge gap between two fundamentally different approaches to explaining human behavior:  dispositionism and situationism.  While dispositionism explains events largely as the result of personal preference and disposition, situationism focuses on environmental, personal, and other influences not always within individual control.  For example, a dispositionist might explain bankruptcy as the largely self-inflicted result of personal laziness and/or imprudence.  Situationists, in contrast, view bankruptcy as frequently caused by more complicated external forces, such as divorce or the medical and other costs of unanticipated illness.

While recognizing that we all display both dispositionist and situationist tendencies at different times in response to various internal and external influences, the authors suggest that certain identities or cultural forces -- as well as certain occupational settings like journalism, academia, and the judiciary -- are especially likely to encourage the sort of careful causal analysis that supports situationist conclusions.  The authors urge that situationism is, on average, a more accurate explanatory force than dispositionism, and conclude by recommending that policymakers rely primarily -- if not exclusively -- on situationist advisors.

My questions, for now, are these:  Accepting for the moment the wisdom of this advice, which leaders historically have most sought out and relied upon situationist sources?  FDR perhaps?  And maybe Lincoln, whose decision to surround himself with a cabinet full of folks with whom he routinely disagreed might be seen as a situationist effort to identify and consider a wide range of influences?  And which of the current Presidential candidates is most likely to surround himself or herself with situationist advisors?

--Helen Norton

Posted by Helen Norton on May 6, 2008 at 01:35 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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But one may surely protest the wisdom of the advice...the social psychology of the situationists is well-taken, but their work is reconcilable with a dispositional view, as in the work of the personality psychologist Walter Mischel--who argues that stability of personality resides in a stable responsiveness to given contexts.

See e.g. Toward an integrative science of the person Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2004. 55:1–22

Posted by: Tom H | May 11, 2008 12:06:09 PM

A friend of mine describes Sen. McCain as "driven by ideas." I think he will surround himself with people who think differently (or at least creatively).

Posted by: Jonathan | May 6, 2008 1:45:10 PM

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