Personality, Situation and the Writer

Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard, 1988.  How would
this movie play out if the writer had given the protagonist
different character traits?  If personality drives response to
situations, it would have been a different movie.
This study confirms what should be intuitive to experienced authors and screenwriters: that personality predicts behavior just as does situation.  But until this study was conducted, researchers were unable to confirm this result in the real world.  This study by researchers in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science at Florida Atlantic University and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in Germany confirms this real-life observation in a controlled situation.

Try an experiment.  Take one of your stories or perhaps a popular story from fiction or film, and write a scenario in which the only thing you do is change the personality of the protagonist.  For example, how would you describe the character of John McClane from the Die Hard franchise, the original movie based on the novel "Nothing Lasts Forever" by Roderick Thorp, screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza.  John McClane: a cynical smart-ass who thinks fast and can adapt to changing situations?  Is this an action-movie caricature or a clearly identifiable personality? Perhaps a caricature, though I feel he is.

To examine the idea of John McClane being a stereotype, and to see how personality effects situation, drop a different personality as protagonist into the movie.  If personality does drive behavior and reaction to situations, what happens if your character's personality is more like Max Rockatansky as played by Mel Gibson in the original movie Mad Max, produced by Byron Kennedy, screenplay written by James McCausland and George Miller from a story by Miller and Kennedy?

Would your story play out differently?  It should.  Both characters have different life experience and expectations and a very different genetic makeup.

Now get silly.  How would a comedic personality act while reacting to the personality of Hans Gruber as portrayed by Alan Rickman?  Say, Mel Brooks?  Or Adam Sandler?  Or Forest Gump? Or Homer Simpson (in the absurd).  Whichever choice you make, you end up with a different story, screenplay and movie.

You can also take your experiment further by changing situation while leaving the protagonist character as originally written.  In the extreme, put John McClane into the role of Sheriff Bart in the movie, Blazing Saddles.  Now that would be a very different movie (yippee ki yay, m*****-f*****).

These are interesting thought experiments that should help you understand how personality impacts situation, story and action.
In addition, this study gives you a short checklist of personality attributes that you might use when thinking about a character in your current or next project.
Here's the report of the study with a link to the full report in the attribution line.
*  *  *  *  *   

Personality does matter, researchers say

"Real-world human behavior is a function of both the person and the situation."

Why do people behave the way they do?

Why do people feel the way they do?

These two questions are fundamental to personality and social psychology. Most social scientists would agree that an individual's personality and the situations they encounter have important effects on their behavior and that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Although laboratory experiments have historically demonstrated that situations can impact behavior, the impact of situations on "real-world" behavior has rarely been investigated. With recent advances in technology, psychologists today are now able capture daily life as it is lived.

Tools for Mystery Writers:
Writing Suspense Using
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In a new study published in the current issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science at Florida Atlantic University and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in Germany measured the effects of situations on human behavior in real-time and outside of a laboratory setting in one of the largest studies to employ experience sampling methods.

Personality predicts behavior
The authors of the paper designed their study to examine the degree to which personality and situations impact behavior with the goal of seeing how personality, situations, and behavior are related in real-world contexts. The researchers were able to show that personality predicted behavior across a lot of different situations over time, confirming that personality really does matter.

"For decades, social scientists have theorized that human behavior is a function of the things inside of us -- our personality -- and the things outside of us -- situations. Until now, looking at both factors simultaneously has been hard to do outside the laboratory in a real-world setting," said Ryne Sherman, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology in FAU's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science.
Sherman and his collaborators gathered data from 208 FAU undergraduate students. In the first phase of the study, the researchers assessed the personalities of the participants using the HEXACO-60, a measure of the six broadest dimensions of personality:
  1. honesty-humility;
  2. emotionality;
  3. extraversion;
  4. agreeableness;
  5. conscientiousness, and
  6. openness to experience.
"One would assume that if a person is honest and humble, then his or her usual response to a situation would be behavior that is honest and humble," said Sherman. "And in the same way, if a person is extraverted then we would expect his or her behavior to be outgoing and sociable in situations."

For seven consecutive days, the participants received eight text messages daily to gauge their responses and reactions to various situations "in the moment" and not after the fact. The researchers asked the participants to rate the situation they were in using the recently uncovered DIAMONDS dimensions of situations. These include
  • Duty ("work has to be done"),
  • Deception ("someone is being deceived"), and
  • Sociality ("social interaction possible"),
allowing the researchers to understand the kinds of situations participants experienced. Participants also were asked to report how they were feeling (happy vs. sad) and behaving (outgoing vs. reserved). In total, participants completed 9,753 responses.
Real-world behavior is a function of both the person and the situation
Results from this study provide direct empirical support for the notion that real-world human behavior is a function of both the person and the situation. Most importantly, both personality and situation characteristics independently predicted real-time expressions of behavior and emotion as there were very few interactions between personality and situations found.

 "Personalities and the situations we encounter predict our behavior
independently and simultaneously at any given moment."

"We were quite surprised that so few 'person x situation' interactions emerged as many theories in psychology suggest that such interactions are the most important determinant of behavior," said Sherman. "The key finding in our study is that our personalities and the situations we encounter predict our behavior independently and simultaneously at any given moment."

Related stories:
Story Source: Materials provided by Florida Atlantic University. Ryne A. Sherman, John F. Rauthmann, Nicolas A. Brown, David G. Serfass, Ashley Bell Jones. The Independent Effects of Personality and Situations on Real-Time Expressions of Behavior and Emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2015


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