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How Persons Create Their Environments

John F. Kihlstrom

Note: Presentation at the annual symposium of the Berkeley Social Ontology Group, sponsored by the John Searle Center for Social Ontology.  Link to a fuller discussion of the Person-Situation Interaction, published in the Handbook of Social Cognition (2013), on which this presentation is based.  See also my lecture on "The Cognitive Perspective on Social Interaction" prepared for Psychology 164, "Social Cognition".

It's always a pleasure to present to this group -- even though, to be honest, I think I've never actually talked about social ontology.  Maybe when I introduced the topic of social cognition - -that's close.  But not when I talked about social neuroscience or moral judgments. 

Today, at least, I come closer to the topic that brings us all together, and which lies at the core of the John Searle Center.  As I understand it, social ontology has to do with how groups of individuals create various features of the social world by virtue of collective intentionality, with conscious beliefs and attitudes shared through the medium of language.  Through a kind of metaphysical miracle (which doesn't seem quite so miraculous, once John has explained it to you), ontologically subjective acts of thought produce ontologically objective features of the world.  Money is money because we say it's money, and people are married because we say they are.  But once we say it's money, or they're married, that status takes on a status that is independent of anyone's representation or belief.

To give a personal example: my first marriage, in Pennsylvania, was "self-uniting" -- a kind of common-law marriage, but legally recognized in the Commonwealth because of its strong Quaker heritage.  (We weren't Friends, but we were both involved in the antiwar movement, and, in a fit of revolutionary Romanticism, were inspired by a scene in The Battle of Algiers, Gilo Pontecorvo's classic 1966 film, in which a couple are married by an official with the FLN, as an act of defiance of French authority.)  All we had to do was say "I marry you, X" and "I marry you, Y" in front of witnesses, and we got the tax benefits  and everything else that comes with marriage.  When we broke up some years later, we couldn't just say "I divorce you" (not even three times).  Our words had created something whose reality transcended mere words, and so we had to involve lawyers and judges.    

While social ontology is concerned with how groups of individuals collectively create an objective social reality, psychology, and especially personality and social psychology, is concerned with something similar that happens at the individual level -- how individuals create objective reality.  That's my topic today, but to explore this process, we need to delve into the deep history of social psychology.

It all begins with Kurt Lewin, a German psychologist, heavily influenced by the Gestalt school of psychology, who came to America in the 1930s as a refugee from Hitler's Europe.  Lewin is famous for a piece of pseudomathematics which Ned Jones (1985) called "Lewin's Grand Truism", B = f(P, E): behavior is a function of some combination of factors that are internal to the person, and factors that reside in the external environment.  It's a "truism" in that there's nothing left out.  But it's also "grand" in that it provided a framework for personality and social psychology that remains influential to this day.  For example, the classical covariation calculus for causal attribution takes information about consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness to attribute behavior to the person who engaged in the behavior or the situation in which the behavior takes place.

More important, Lewin's formula inadvertently shaped the relations between personality and social psychology, as each branch of the discipline emphasized one of these factors to the virtual exclusion of the other -- personality psychology those factors which are internal to the person, and social psychology those factors which lie in the physical and social environment. 

Personality psychology has long been dominated by what we can call, following Gordon Allport (1938), the Doctrine of Traits: behavior varies as a function of internal psychological dispositions, roughly analogous to physical traits like hair color or physique, that render behavior coherent, stable across time, consistent across situations, and predictable.  Knowing that John is conscientious, you can predict that he'll arrive on time for his appointment.  I call it the doctrine of traits because it's usually formulated in those terms, as in the "Big Five" dimensions of personality: neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness.  But the same point applies to other internal psychological dispositions, such as attitudes, moods and emotions, motives, values, beliefs, and the like.

Social psychology, by contrast, has long been dominated by what we can call the Doctrine of Situationism, an idea that goes back at least as far as B.F. Skinner and insistence that the important causal factors in behavior lie in the external environment -- in eliciting stimuli, discriminative stimuli, and reinforcement history.  Even when behaviorism was overthrown in the cognitive revolution, situationism persisted in social psychology.  All the classic experiments in social psychology, like the Milgram experiment, manipulate some aspect of the physical or social environment to determine its effects on the subject's behavior.  In a tutorial written for neuroscientists, Matt Lieberman, a leading figure in social neuroscience, reasserted situationism as the first principle of social psychology -- followed by a second principle, which is that we're largely ignorant of situational influences. 

So personality and social psychology went their separate ways, essentially construing the two causal elements in Lewin's equation, P and E, as independent of each other.  Traditional personality psychology focused on measuring traits, chiefly by means of self-report questionnaires such as the California Psychological Inventory, and treated situations as random elements.  Social psychologists focused on experimental manipulations of the situation, and treated individual differences as noise.  They even used different statistics -- correlation and the analysis of variance.

It's bad enough to think of P and E as independent, but personality and social psychologists soon came to think of them as opposed.  Beginning in 1968, personality fell into a crisis, when it appeared that behavior wasn't as coherent, stable, consistent, and predictable as the Doctrine of Traits asserted it should be.  Walter Mischel (19968) famously introduced the concept of the "personality coefficient", r = .30, as representing the upper limit on the predictability of an individual's behavior, in some specific situation, given knowledge of his or her personality traits.  If you square .30, you find that only about 10% of behavioral variance is attributable to trait variance.  Social psychology quickly jumped in, claiming that situations were much more powerful determinants of behavior than traits were (Nisbett, 1980), and claiming that personality psychologists, like the naive psychologist on the street, had fallen victim to the "Fundamental Attribution Error" -- that is, attributing to personal causes behaviors that were actually elicited by the situation (Ross).  There followed an almost stereotypically masculine -- in light of the recent Republican debate, we might almost say "Trumpian" battle of the correlation coefficients.  Social psychologists mocked personality psychologists for having small rs.  Personality psychologists returned fire by saying, in effect, "Yours aren't any bigger" (which, in fact, they weren't; Funder & Ozer, 1983).

The whole battle, in which I admit I participated, was unseemly, but more important it was distinctly un-Lewinian.  Traditional personality and social psychologists had treated persons and environments as if they were independent of each other, but from the beginning Lewin had insisted that they were interdependent.  Ever the Gestalt psychologist, Lewin insisted that the person and the environment constituted a dynamic field: the person is part of his or her own environment; and the environment that matters is the psychological environment, as perceived and interpreted by the person.

This insight gave rise to a new Doctrine of Interactionism, first articulated by Kenneth Bowers, an American psychologist transplanted to Canada.  In an important but somewhat neglected paper (fewer than 400 citations through 2015), which unaccountably failed to cite Lewin, Bowers argued that the battle of the correlation coefficients was meaningless because you can't separate the situation from the person: "situations are as much a function of the person as the person's behavior is a function of the situation".  Instead of independent causal pathways from P and E to B, he added a third causal link, from P to E.  If, mathematically, traditional personality and social psychology assumed that P and E were additive factors, Bowers argued that their effects on behavior were multiplicative.  That's what "interaction" means, statistically.  But, as you'll see, there's more to "interaction" than statistics.

Bowers depicted the causal linkages between P, E, and B as unidirectional: personal factors influenced behavior, environmental factors influenced behavior, and personal factors influenced the environment.  But shortly thereafter Stanford's Al Bandura added a new twist, a Doctrine of Reciprocal Determinism, in which the causal linkages between P, E, and B were bidirectional. The best way to conceptualize reciprocal determinism is what I have called the three dialectics in social interaction: the person can emit behavior, but that behavior can feed back to change the person; the environment can elicit behavior, but that behavior changes the environment; the environment may shape the person, but people also shape the situation. 

Which brings back to the Doctrine of Interactionism, and the question of just how people influence the situations to which they respond.  It turns out that this is a lot more interesting than the old battle of the correlation coefficients.  Personality and social psychology has identified four mechanisms: evocation, selection, behavioral manipulation, and cognitive transformation.  I'll talk only briefly about the first three, and focus on the last one, which takes us closer to the kinds of mechanisms invoked in social ontology.

First up is evocation, where the mere presence of the person, or his or her appearance, changes the environment, independent of any behavior on his or her part.  Anecdotally, people of color often remark that the atmosphere changes when they enter a room full of white people.  In research, perhaps the clearest example is gender-role socialization.  Fresh out of the womb, the appearance of the neonate's external genitalia literally structures the environment so as to facilitate so that the child will grow up to be a masculine boy or feminine girl, according to sociocultural standards for gender role.  Girl infants get pink blankets and ski caps, boys get blue (it used to be the reverse).  Girls get dolls and flowery curtains, boys get footballs and Venetian blinds. The child hasn't done anything: s/he's just there.  This was true before the rise of the feminist movement, and it's still true today.

Next is selection, where the person chooses an environment that will support his or her interests, moods, beliefs, and desires -- or, in some cases, will encourage the development of alternative interests, moods, beliefs, and desires.  Conservatives watch Fox News, liberals watch MSNBC.  I remind students that they all chose to come to Berkeley instead of going to Stanford, to join Sigma Chi or Tri-Delt as opposed to some other fraternity or sorority, or not to pledge at all.  each choice pre-empts some alternatives.  Sometimes, of course, the choices are made for us.  A family may not have enough money to send their kid to Stanford.  You may not be chosen by your preferred fraternity or sorority.  Infants don't get to choose how they're dressed or what toys they're given.  But as soon as they identify themselves as boys or girls, as young as age two, children start actively structuring the world around them with respect to gender -- doing what daddy and mommy do, choosing the "right" toys to play with, affiliating with the "right" kids.  And if they don't do that, the alarm bells go off, and the environment ratchets of the pressure.  In these enlightened days, many parents will eventually accept gender-nonconformity on the part of their kids -- in which case there's been a kind of negotiation between child and family.  But in this case, they'll work hard to structure the environment so as to support their child's choices.

Even when choices are limited or nonexistent, there's behavioral manipulation, in which the person engages in some behavior which alters the character of the environment in some public, objectively definable way.  To take an obvious example consider the form of learning known as instrumental or operant conditioning -- because the person operates on the environment In a manner that is instrumental in achieving some desired state of affairs.  When a pigeon pecks a key in a Skinner box, it changes the environment from one which lacked food to one which as food.  In Bandura's famous "Bobo Doll" experiment, an adult acting aggressively creates an environment which legitimizes a child's aggressive behavior.  Behavior therapy for smoking cessation often begins by allowing the patient to smoke only in a highly aversive environment -- in one instance that I know of, a chair positioned next to a furnace in the basement.  Prisoner's dilemma game, for example, competitive behavior by one player tends to elicit competitive behavior from his partner, with the whole game devolving in a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat -- until one player changes his behavior, usually resulting in the evolution of cooperation.

Evocation, selection, and behavioral manipulation transform the environment for everyone in it.  Their effects are publicly observable and objectively describable. 

And finally, even when behavioral manipulation isn't possible, and there is no way to change the publicly observable and objectively describable environment, there's always cognitive transformation, in which the person alters his or her mental representation of the situation.  Jerome Bruner notes that the purpose of perception is action (that's a paraphrase), and it follows that a person's behavior will depend on his or her perception, or more broadly construal, of the situation he or she is in.  A salient example is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail", one of the major documents of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  King and his associates willingly violated a legal injunction not to engage in demonstrations against racial segregation, and they got arrested.  Most black people -- most people of any color! -- would think of Birmingham Jail as something to be avoided, but for King and his associates, arrest had a different meaning.  Now, of course, King and his associates engaged in the overt behavior of the "Good Friday March" anyway.  But the overt behavior was itself the product of a cognitive transformation -- a change in the meaning, to King et al., of being incarcerated in Birmingham.  The point is that cognition mediates the individual's behavior.  People don't respond to the objective situation; they respond to the meaning of the situation, and that meaning is a cognitive construction.

We can see the importance of cognitive transformation in Martin Orne's critique of Stanley Milgram's famous experiments on obedience to authority.  As you know, Milgram recruited subjects for a study of punishment on learning.  Two subjects were brought together, and one was ostensibly assigned to the role of teacher, the other to the role of learner.  The "learner" was, unknown to the teacher, a confederate of the experimenter, acting according to a script.  The learner, strapped to a chair in an adjoining room, would try to memorize a list of words: whenever he made a mistake, the teacher would administer punishment in the form of electric shock.  With each mistake, the severity of the shocks increased, from "Slight Shock" to "Danger: Severe Shock".  As the shocks increased, so did the distress of the learner.  If the teacher resisted administering the shock, the experimenter, standing in the background, would say "The experiment requires you to continue....  You have no other choice, you must go on" (1963, p. 374).  Milgram found that most teachers followed orders, administering the severest shocks, even when the teacher, strapped to a chair in the room next door, is pounding on the wall.  Milgram's conclusions focused on "the sheer strength of obedient tendencies exhibited in this situation" (1963, p. 376). 

Orne's take on this experiment was quite different.  He pointed to the presence, in the situation, of cues that the situation was not as represented by the experimenter.  For example, how was the learner, strapped into his electric chair, able to pound on the wall?  But most important, there was the experimenter himself, standing in the background, ordering the teacher to proceed.  What is he doing there?  What is the teacher doing that the experimenter couldn't do himself?  Why is the experimenter watching the teacher but not the learner?  The totality of cues in the experimental situation -- what Orne called the "demand characteristics" of the situation -- communicates clearly that the teacher, not the learner, is the true subject of the experiment. And that changes everything. 

Like most situationists, Milgram viewed subjects as passive recipients of environmental stimulation, to which they respond almost automatically -- like reactants and reagents in a chemistry experiment.  But in Orne's view, experimental subjects are, first and foremost, sentient beings, trying to make sense of the situation they are in.  And their behavior will be determined by the meaning they give to the situation.  And what's true for subjects in the laboratory is also true for people in the real world outside the lab.

In a very real sense, the cognitive revolution in social psychology begins here (and with Robert Rosenthal's contemporaneous work on experimenter expectancy effects, to which I will turn in a minute).  But the cognitive point of view actually has a long history in social psychology, going back at least to the "Thomas Theorem", announced by William Isaac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas, a husband-and-wife pair of sociologists, that "if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.  Robert Merton (1976) has called this "the single most consequential sentence ever put in print by an American sociologist". 

Similarly, UCB's Alfred Blumer, developing the symbolic interactionism of George Herbert Mead, asserted that "Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meaning that the things have for them".  Interactions are "symbolic" because they occur in the mind before they occur in reality.  But this cognitive perspective, influential in the sociology of the 1930s and 1940s, was forgotten in the headlong embrace of behaviorism by psychologists, including social psychologists who should have known better (some of them still don't, as indicated by the quote earlier about "the power of the situation", but that's the story for another talk). 

And then, of course, there's Merton's own notion of the self-fulfilling prophecy, where the definition of the situation alters the situation itself, and thus the activities that take place within it.

The cognitive revolution in social psychology begins with Orne, but it was also spurred by Robert Rosenthal, who at roughly the same time was publishing studies of "experimenter bias", in which experimenters' expectancies shaped their subjects' responses -- whether the subjects were college sophomores or white rats.  This line of research came to a head with the famous 'Pygmalion in the Classroom" experiment by Rosenthal and Jacobson, conducted right here in the Bay Area (in the South San Francisco public schools), showing that teachers' expectations about their pupils shaped those children's educational outcomes.  A teacher who believed that a pupil was an "intellectual late bloomer" would treat that child differently from other children in the classroom, and the child responded with higher performance on standardized tests.  Beliefs led to actions that shaped reality to conform to the belief.

The Pygmalion experiment has been controversial (Snow; Jussim), but expectancy confirmation effects in social interaction have been demonstrated so often by social psychologists that the essential point is beyond question.  In fact, we now recognize two different forms the essential process by which belief creates reality: behavioral confirmation, in which an actor's expectations about a target lead to behavior which, in turn, elicits from the target behaviors that, objectively, confirm the actor's expectations; and perceptual confirmation, in which the target's behavior is more ambiguous, but is interpreted by the actor as confirming his expectations. 

Let me illustrate the dynamics of behavioral confirmation with two classic experiments. 

The first experiment, by Mark Snyder and Bill Swann (1978), provides a detailed sequential analysis of the unfolding of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I confess to carrying a "Faustian list" of experiments that I would have sold my soul to have done myself.  It's a short list, but these two are on it.  The experiment employed a noise-gun paradigm, adapted from the experimental study of aggression, and involved three subjects, run two at a time.  The subjects, who were initially unknown to each other, were recruited for an experiment on reaction times.  Such experiments are often boring, and so in order to "keep it interesting" the task was presented as a game with some special features:

The experiment was run in two phases, each with two subjects at a time.

Phase 1 of the experiment involved two subjects selected at random (the third waited to participate in Phase 2).  Both subjects filled out a hostility questionnaire, and then each was randomly assigned a role. 

On the first trial, the Target (T) was seated at the reaction time apparatus, and the Labeling Perceiver (LP) was seated at the noise gun.  More LPs who anticipated interacting with a hostile opponent selected the highest intensity of the noise gun for this very first trial, compared to LPs who anticipated interacting with a cooperative opponent.  Thus, LPs treated Ts in a manner that was consistent with their expectations.


On the next trial, the subjects exchanged places, with the Target seated at the RT apparatus.  Targets who had been labeled as hostile (and treated as such) selected a higher noise gun intensity than those who had been labeled cooperative (and also treated as such).  



During the remainder of Phase 1, the Target and the Labeling Perceiver took three more turns each, over which Snyder and Swann generally observed an escalation of the labeling effect.  

At the conclusion of Phase 1, Labeling Perceivers rated targets who had been labeled as hostile as more hostile, in fact, than those who had been labeled as cooperative.  Thus, individuals who had been labeled as hostile (or cooperative), and treated as such, actually came to behave in a hostile (or cooperative) manner.

In Phase 2 of the experiment, the Labeling Perceiver was dismissed, and the Target continued the experiment with the third subject, who was assigned the role of Naive Perceiver, because he received no information about the Target at the outset of the experiment.  

For the first trial of Phase 2, the Target was seated at the noise gun, and the Naive Perceiver at the RT apparatus.  As in Phase 2, Ts and NPs exchanged places for a total of 4 trials each.  

Across the four trials of Phase 2, Targets who had been labeled as hostile at the outset of Phase 1 chose higher noise-gun intensities than those who had been labeled as cooperative, but the Target's label interacted with the Target's attribution for his own behavior.  Targets who had been labeled as hostile in Phase 1 continued to behave in a hostile manner in Phase 2, but only those who had been encouraged to view their own behavior as a product of their personality dispositions.  There was no effect of label among subjects who had been encouraged to view their own behavior as a product of the situation.


At the conclusion of Phase 2, the Naive Perceivers rated Targets who had been labeled hostile as more hostile compared to those who had been labeled as cooperative -- but again, this effect occurred only for Targets who had been encouraged to view their own behavior in dispositional terms.

Putting the two phases together, we can see the full spectrum of self-fulfilling prophecy effects, in which belief -- in this case, the labeling perceiver's belief about the target -- created reality -- that is, whether the target was hostile or not.  :

So, in this experiment, the self-fulfilling prophecy arises depending on the Labeling Perceiver's first impression of the Target, but the self-fulfilling prophecy persists depending on the Target's interpretation of his own behavior. The implication is that the Target is not a passive victim of the La belling Perceiver's beliefs and expectations.  The Target's beliefs and expectations about himself also influence how the interaction will play out.

There are many other experimental analyses of the self-fulfilling prophecy, and of the General Social Interaction Cycle, including:

Many of these studies illustrate a general characteristic of expectancy confirmation, which is an amplification effect -- a vicious (or, in some cases, a virtuous) cycle, in which initial expectations lead to a little change in reality, which reinforces the expectation, which leads to a bigger change in reality, and so on.

Whether amplification occurs over time or not, the important point is that people who have expectations concerning other people tend to treat them in such a way as to elicit from those people behavior that tends to confirm their initial expectations.  The self-fulfilling prophecy can be quite powerful: perceivers themselves are generally not aware of the effect, and so attribute the target's behavior to the target rather than to their own actions.  And targets, for their part, are generally unaware of the perceivers' expectancies, so they have no opportunity to correct the perceivers' misperceptions.  

This last point raises the question of the target's role in the self-fulfilling prophecy.  The prophet's beliefs and expectations are important, but it's not the case that the target is passive in all of this.  The Snyder & Swann experiment shows that the target's attributions for his or her own behavior can make a difference to whether the self-fulfilling prophecy actually gets fulfilled.  Additional experiments on self-verification, mostly performed by Swann and his colleagues, show what can happen when the target actively tries to counteract the self-fulfilling prophecy.  

In Swann's view, there are two aspects of the process by which beliefs create reality:

Through research on self-verification, we gain further insight into the target's role as actor. 

An ex
periment by Swann and Hill (1982) illustrated this process nicely.  To make a long story short, when Targets believed that the Labeling Perceiver had an incorrect impression of them, they engaged in behavior designed to correct this erroneous impression, and so to conserve their own self-concepts.  What emerges is what Swann and Ely (1984) characterized as a battle of wills between perceptual and behavioral confirmation effects on the part of the perceiver, and self-verification effects on the part of the target.


This line of research came to a climax with a study by Swann and Ely (1984) that directly pitted expectancy confirmation against self-verification, and showed that targets' self-verification efforts can actually alter perceivers' impressions of targets.  In this study, undergraduate women were recruited for a study of the interview process.  The procedure is complicated, so follow carefully!  
In Phase 1 of the experiment, the experimenters manipulated the perceivers' expectancies: ostensibly, based on prior ratings by others (parents, family, friends, psychologists), the targets were described as extraverted or introverted.
Then the perceiver was provided 12 possible questions, and asked to select 5 of these to ask the target: 6 of these were related to extraversion and 6 of these were related to introversion, though the questions were not quite as blatant as in the earlier experiment by Snyder & Swann (JPSP 1978).  In line with the earlier study, the perceivers showed a "confirmatory" bias, choosing to ask questions about extraversion to targets who had been described as extraverted.  This was especially the case when they had high certainty about the target's personality.

Swann and Ely also had blind judges rate the targets on the basis of their end of the conversation -- that is, they had no idea what questions the perceiver had asked -- just what they had said in reply.  This time, in contrast with the earlier experiment, the targets generally behaved consistently with their self-concepts -- especially when their "self-certainty" was high.  When the targets were low in self-certainty, their behavior was less determined by their self-concepts -- and especially when the perceiver's level of certainty was high.  So, already we see a conflict between expectancy confirmation processes and self-verification processes.  Targets can resist the perceiver's expectancies, and behave in conformity with their own self-concepts -- especially when they are more certain about their self-concepts.

Phase 2 of the experiment essentially repeated the procedure, with the perceiver selecting from a new batch of questions, and the judges blindly rating the target's responses.  

On the perceivers' side, the results were complex.  Uncertain perceivers generally shifted to a "disconfirmatory" strategy: even when they expected to be interacting with an extravert, they tended to ask fewer "extraverted" questions; this was especially the case when target self-certainty was high.   Highly certain perceivers tended to continue with a "confirmatory" strategy, asking "extraverted" questions of targets presumed to be extraverts -- but only when the target's self-certainty was low.  It's as if he gave up on targets who didn't confirm their expectancies on the first phase, and persisted only with targets who actually showed a tendency toward expectancy confirmation.

On the target's side, the judges' ratings continued as in Phase 1.  Despite whatever the perceivers were doing with their questions, targets who were more certain about their self-concepts continued to behave in line with those self-concepts.  Uncertain targets, interacting with a highly certain perceiver, showed some reversal -- with extraverts actually behaving in a somewhat introverted manner.


The procedure was repeated once more in Phase 3, with perceivers selecting from yet a third set of questions, and targets' third set of responses rated by blind judges.

This time, the perceivers' behavior was essentially independent of their expectations -- especially with the less-certain perceivers.  When perceiver certainty was high, it's as if they made one last, halfhearted attempt to elicit expectancy-confirming behavior from the targets.



And the judges' ratings of the targets continued as before.  When the target self-certainty was high, her behavior was congruent with her self-concept, regardless of the perceiver's initial level of certainty.  When target self-certainty was low, there was no effect of her self-concept -- but then again, it's doubtful that the subjects had a concept of themselves in this domain in the first place!  The important point is that there is no effect of expectancies, either.


Finally, the perceivers were asked to rate their final impressions of their targets.  Remember, at the outset of the experiment the perceivers' expectancies were incongruent with the targets' self-concepts.  Initially certain perceivers ended up more even-handed in their judgments, giving rating targets who considered themselves to be extraverts as no more extraverted than those who considered themselves to be introverts.  And less-certain perceivers actually reversed their expectancies, so that their ratings fell more clearly in line with the targets' own self-concepts.


In the final analysis, then, in the "battle of wills", the target will eventually win out.  Given an opportunity, targets will tend to correct the perceiver's erroneous expectations.  In extreme cases, targets will revise these expectations entirely.  At least, they will dampen the usual expectancy-confirmation processes.  But this countercontrol by the target requires that two conditions be in place:

  1. The perceiver has to be somewhat uncertain about his or her expectations.
  2. The target has to be quite certain about him- or herself.
A footnote: It's fairly clear that the experiment didn't turn out quite as intended.  It's essentially a standard 2x2 design, with high or low levels of perceiver certainty crossed with high or low levels of target self-certainty. 
No matter: it's still a beautiful experiment.

So now we have to expand our list of expectancy confirmation effects, to include expectations about ourselves as well as expectations about others.

Although I've focused on cognitive transformations of the situation, it's important to understand that cognitive processes are central to all four mechanisms by which persons create their environments.

More generally, this emphasis on cognitive transformations of the situation underscores the difference between the objective and the subjective environment.  General tendencies, such as traits and attitudes, are not strong predictors of actual behavior in specific situations.  As Mischel (1968) argued, people's behavior is also determined by the specific details of the evoking situation.  But as Mischel (1968) also made clear, that situation, those details, are the situation and details as perceived and interpreted by the person.  And those perceptual and interpretive processes go on inside the head of the person.

Thus, as Lewin argued, the environmental situation is not independent of the person.  People can alter the objective situation by their presence, by their choices, and by their overt behavior.  And people can transform the subjective situation by means of various mental operations and cognitive, emotional, and motivational strategies.  The final determinant of behavior  -- or, at least, of action -- is, in the final analysis, the actor's mental representation of the situation. That's how people can create their own environment through (cognitively mediated) evocation, selection, manipulation, and transformation.


This page last modified 03/18/16.