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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2015

Comparing Situations
With David C. Funder, PhD

Bradley Cannon, Psi Chi Writer

Think about what you were doing last night at seven o’clock. Now, consider the person nearest to you. Did this person have a similar experience to yours, and if so, how could you measure both situations to know for sure? To begin to solve this question and many others like it, Dr. David C. Funder (University of California, Riverside) created the Riverside Situational Q-Sort (RSQ). In this interview, he describes the RSQ’s evolution, results, and future, as well as how students can improve their likelihood of experiencing a successful career in research.
Dr. Funder earned a PhD at Stanford University in 1979 and has since published numerous research articles, particularly about delay of gratification, attribution theory, the longitudinal course of personality development, and the psychological assessment of situations. Especially noted for his work in personality judgement research, Dr. Funder is the author of a widely-used personality textbook, The Personality Puzzle, and a research book entitled Personality Judgement: A Realistic Approach to Person Perception. Former President of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, he is also a past editor of the Journal of Research in Personality and a past associate editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Studying Perception and Personality
Beginning in the early 1980s, Dr. Funder became fascinated with how people perceive each other and whether they do so accurately or not. An example he provides of this includes, “If I think you’re friendly, honest, and will be a good coworker, am I right or am I wrong?” At the time, few other researchers were looking at this topic, in part because many psychologists had been persuaded that personality didn’t really exist. In other words, it was believed that any judgement of a person’s personality would have resulted in the fundamental attribution error, meaning that there was no point in studying accuracy.
Of course, this was somewhat discouraging, but it also left the field wide open for Dr. Funder and another researcher named Dr. David Kenny to be among the first people who renewed research on accuracy in person perception in the 1980s. As Dr. Funder recounts, “When I started looking at things that affected accuracy of personality judgements, I discovered that the people who were really interested in this topic tended to be personality psychologists. For this reason, I found myself sort of edging into the field of personality, almost accidentally, by following what was originally a social psychological interest in person perception and trying to study what people were actually perceiving.”
An analogy that Dr. Funder learned to use is “Studying person perception without studying personality would be like studying vision without knowing anything about color.” As he elaborates, “You need to know something about what’s being perceived as well as the process of perception. You need to know about personality if you want to study person perception.” Dr. Funder believes that this is critical in order to consider what he has long felt to be the most interesting mystery of psychology: why are people different from each other? “For example,” he continues, “why do we have red states and blue states? Why do we have people who disagree so strenuously on so many things where you would think that the data they’re working from ought to be the same? That is the core question of personality psychology. We will never fully answer that question, but chipping away at it is an interesting way to spend your day.”
Origin of the RSQ
In 1936, famous German-American Psychologist Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of an interaction between a person and a situation. According to Dr. Funder, “Kurt Lewin never really meant that as an equation, but if you think of it seriously in this way (see Figure 1), you can rearrange the terms in two ways. First, you could say that the situation is also a function of the person and the behavior, meaning that the situation could be construed as consisting psychologically of what all people would do in it. Second, you could say that the person is a function of the situation and the behavior. This would indicate that a people are essentially what they do in all of the situations of their lives, which is actually not a bad definition of personality.”
Of course, there are many instruments available to measure the person (e.g., Big Five personality traits and California Adult Q-Sort) and the behavior (e.g., the Riverside Behavioral Q-Sort) in Lewin’s equation. However, there has previously been no real way to measure the situation. As Dr. Funder said during a recent presentation, “If you want to play with a framework like that, you need to measure all three elements of it in terms that you can associate them with each other” (UCLABEC, 2015). Thus, Dr. Funder created the RSQ to help close this gap.
How It Works
The latest version of the RSQ includes 89 items, which participants may rank on a q-sort (see Figure 2) by placing the items most characteristic or uncharacteristic to a particular situation on the outside edges and the items least relevant on the inside. This quasinormal distribution forces participants to select a small subset of the items as highly characteristic or uncharacteristic of the situation. The format also prevents rater response sets such as acquiescence and extremity, and forces participants to compare each item with the others (Sherman, Nave, & Funder, 2010). A few example RSQ items include

“situation is potentially enjoyable,”

“situation is complex,”

“a job needs to be done,”

“talking is permitted,”

“situation may cause feelings of hostility,” and

“close personal relationships are present or have the potential to develop” (Guillaume et al., in press).
Ratings can then be used to measure the experience people have in certain situations. For example, if the person experiencing a situation uses it, they can basically describe how they experienced the situation that they were in. However, different people could also describe the first person’s situation from a more objective standpoint. Likewise, different people could describe their own unique situations for comparison, even cross-culturally as Dr. Funder’s International Situations Project has recently shown by comparing situations that 5,447 people experienced at 7 p.m. across 20 countries around the world (Guillaume et al., in press).
Describing the RSQ in his own words, Dr. Funder says, “Its big strength is that it’s the first attempt that anybody has really made to come up with a measurement instrument for situations. A few people have tried to measure situations in various ways in the past, but they treated coming up with a categorization for situations as the end point. Basically, they wanted to say, ‘Okay, there are seven different kinds of situations. Now we’re done.’ The RSQ tries to move beyond that by saying, ‘let’s actually measure real situations and see what we can do with that.’ This has been very different because social psychology has been the study of situations for a long time, but it has never tried to assess situations holistically. In other words, there is nothing in social psychology that allows you to, for example, compare three different situations during your day. Which two of those situations are the most similar, and which is the most different? Nothing in social psychology has allowed you to answer that question until the RSQ.”
Three Intriguing RSQ Findings
Similarity over time. The RSQ has also been used to show that the situations a person experiences over time are more similar to each other than they are to the situations that someone else experiences and vice versa, which is part of the reason why people’s behavior is consistent over their lives (Sherman et al., 2010). “That’s an important finding,” Dr. Funder explains, “because after we were able to access the degree of situational similarity, we were able to rule that out as the only reason that people are consistent over time. In other words, you are consistent in your behavior over your life, over and above what we could explain by saying that you are just in the same situations all of the time.”
Cultural similarities. One of the RSQ’s bigger and possibly more surprising findings was how similar experiences were described by different cultures from around the world. This indicated that language translations worked correctly and that many experiences must have a similar meaning across cultures to a considerable extent. Findings also showed that, around the world, the typical situation at 7 p.m. is a largely pleasant social interaction—whether you are in Estonia or Canada or Italy.
Negative variations. Another interesting and unexpected RSQ finding was that there is generally more variation in the  negative items on the RSQ than in the positive items. One of Dr. Funder’s coauthors, Dr. Sylvie Graf (Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic) said that this may be because all societies regulate behavior to some degree, which Dr. Funder believes to be the best explanation so far. “As Freud said, that’s what society is for: to regulate people’s behavior. Different societies regulate things differently, but they are almost always trying to regulate what they perceive as negative behaviors. Those norms may shift across cultures, the extent to which people follow those norms may change, and the way that cultures enforce norms may be variable as well. This all appears to indicate that negative experiences vary more across cultures than positive experiences.”
Another basic principle that Dr. Funder says may explain the increased negative variations is that there are simply more ways to be unhealthy than there are to be healthy. “For example, if you go to the doctor, and they say that you’re healthy, then that is sort of one thing. However, if they say that you’re sick, you could have any number of problems. In mental health, it is also sometimes believed that there’s one way to be sane, but lots of ways to not be sane. As a Leo Tolstoy once said, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ ”
Strengths and Weaknesses
Despite the many revelations provided by the RSQ, Dr. Funder is the first to say that it is still relatively new and that he looks forward to making modifications in the future. Before working with the RSQ, Dr. Funder made a deliberate choice to not wait until he had the perfect instrument because, if he did that, he believed that the RSQ would never get started. Instead, he developed a reasonable approximation and began using it and refining it as he went.
As an example of a potential area of refinement, the RSQ was written to have a general purpose that could be applied in medical, international, industrial, school, daily-life, and many other settings. Dr. Funder considers this to be both a strength and a weakness. “That’s all good,” he says, “but the disadvantage is that it could probably use fine-tuning for people who want to use it within particular settings. For example, if you were going to write a situational q-sort for the purpose of comparing cultures, you might have different items in it than what our instrument has. Or, if you were going to look at medical visits, you might want to have different or more items. In fact, Dr. Kate Sweeney, a colleague at the University of California, Riverside, is working on that topic, and she did add a few items for the purpose of trying to capture what goes on during medical visits.”
Another challenge that the RSQ faces is the fundamental problem of cultural comparison that anyone conducting cultural comparison lives in a culture themselves. “Particularly in anthropology, there have always been historic misgiving about, for example, an American trying to understand the culture in the Philippines because we just never will. Doing so is a major endeavor in its own right because nobody stands apart from culture and can really compare them to each other.”
As Dr. Funder notes, “that is an extreme point of view, but it does make a certain amount of sense in that it underlines the question of how to compare cultures when everyone has a cultural perspective of their own. No one really has an answer for that, but I think a partial answer is to collaborate with a team of researchers from the other countries too.” In this vein, Dr. Funder’s international Situations Project includes approximately 25 authors from 20 different countries who participated in the research at every stage from translating the instruments and participating to looking at the final research report (Guillaume et al., in press).
Envisioning the Future
“I think that any time we understand why people do what they do, we are benefiting society. That’s kind of the whole idea of psychology. In this particular case, we are trying to understand how situations and the way people perceive situations impact what they do. And in a case of international comparisons, we are trying to understand how and why people in different countries act differently in response to maybe the same objective stimulus because they actually experience situations differently. We currently have a grant proposal pending that we hope to use to expand our International Situations Project to many more countries. The paper that we just got accepted for publication looks at 20 countries (Guillaume et al., in press), which is really not enough if you want to look at country-level variables. We would like to expand it around the world. To the extent that we can capture that, I think that this could help international understanding.”
In the future, Dr. Funder also sees the potential to expand the study of situational assessment into applied settings. “For example, Dr. Sweeney is trying to use the RSQ to assess medical encounters (i.e., doctor visits) that are more or less successful in achieving their health aims for the patient such as whether the patient complies with the doctors’ instructions on how to behave more healthily or how to manage whatever problem they have. There is some potential there to improve the delivery of medical care, and we’ll see how that goes. Another potential could be to look for characteristics of more and less successful companies and environments. The other thing I would like to do in the future is to really explore some of the applied potential of the RSQ for studying ethnic communities in the United States.”
Advice for Students
So how can students learn to break old boundaries and further the science of psychology as Dr. Funder has done via this research? According to him, “the most important thing for students right now is to get as much training in statistics as they possibly can, and I don’t necessarily mean advanced techniques. Those are all very well and good, but I am really talking about the fundamental theoretical basis of statistics such as the general linear model, the idea of the normal distribution, and other basic stuff that underlies all of the ‘fancy’ techniques. Probably one of the most accidental lucky breaks I have had was that my first statistics course was not in a psychology department, which is where most psychologists take their first and maybe all of their statistics training. All of the psychology statistics courses were full when I was a sophomore, so I had to take mine in the statistics department from a real mathematical statistician.”
This has influenced how Dr. Funder has thought about statistics ever since because his first course started with the theoretical basis of statistics instead of computational techniques. “I think there are a lot of debates going on right now in psychology about replication and so forth, which I’m not sure if everybody in the field even follows. I don’t think some people understand the issues very well because they don’t have the basic statistical background to really grasp the arguments that are being made. I think understanding statistics from the ground up is going to be critically important to be at the forefront of the next generation.”
Just as importantly, Dr. Funder concludes by describing how his experience of having two mentors influenced his future career, enabling him to become an expert in comparing and contrasting people, behaviors, and situations alike. Students seeking experiences of academic success comparable to Dr. Funder’s would be wise to heed his advice:
“My first mentor was Dr. Jack Block, my undergraduate advisor at Berkeley. I did my senior honors thesis with him and stayed in contact for the next 40 years. Then, my second mentor was Dr. Daryl Bem when I went to graduate school. The two of them were both world-class, brilliant individuals and very different from each other, so I sort of got to see two completely different ways to be brilliant, and try to learn by combining and contrasting their two styles. I don’t know any other way you can become a researcher than through mentorship. It is absolutely the most critical thing in anybody’s career to find someone who you are intellectually compatible with, learn from a lot from, and who supports you and helps you out. That’s the only way to have a life in the academic world and possibly in life in general.”
Guillaume, E., Baranski, E., Todd, E., Bastian, B., Bronin, I., Ivanova, C., . . . Funder, D. C. (in press). The world at 7: Comparing the experience of situations across 20 countries. Journal of Personality. Retrieved from
Sherman, R. A., Nave, C. S., & Funder, D. C. (2010). Situational similarity and personality predict behavioral consistency. Journal of Personal Social Psychology, 99, 330–343. doi:10.1037/a0019796
UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture [UCLABEC]. (2015, February 23). The world at seven: Comparing situations across 19 countries with Riverside Situational Q-Sort [Video file]. Retrieved from\
Figure 1: Possible Arrangements of Kurt Lewin's Equation
Kurt Lewin's Equation

Behavior = ƒ(Person, Situation)
The equation can also be arranged to show
  Person = ƒ(Behavior, Situation)
Situation = ƒ(Person, Behavior)
Figure 2: Example 89-Item Q-Sort Format
Note. EU = Extremely Uncharacteristic. QU = Quite Uncharacteristic. FU = Fairly Uncharacteristic. SU = Somewhat Uncharacteristic. RN = Relatively Neutral. SC = Somewhat Characteristic. FC = Fairly Characteristic. QC = Quite Characteristic. EC = Extremely Characteristic.

David C. Funder, PhD, is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and former chair of the psychology department at the University of California, Riverside. He is the winner of the 2009 Jack Block Award for Distinguished Research in Personality, former president of the Association for Research in Personality and of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Dr. Funder is a former editor of the Journal of Research in Personality and a former associate editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He is best known for his research on personality judgment and has also published research on delay of gratification, attribution theory, the longitudinal course of personality development, and the psychological assessment of situations.

Copyright 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


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