What a _____ Thing to Do! Formally Characterizing Actions by Their Expected Effects


A number of personality frameworks assume traits describe central tendencies of action-for instance, calling someone assertive indicates they have a tendency to perform assertive actions. But what makes it appropriate to characterize an action by terms like assertive, kind, or honest? We propose that actions are characterized by such terms in large part by having expected effects on the environment which match particular conceptual templates. In the present studies, we attempt to better identify the expected effect dimensions perceivers seem to utilize to make action characterizations related to the Big Five and HEXACO personality dimensions. To do so, a set of 150 situation-action scenarios were generated from actions suggestive of conscientiousness-related characteristics (Study 1), and of characteristics in other HEXACO domains (Study 2). Participants then characterized each action on a range of bipolar dimensions (e.g., assertive vs. submissive). A separate group of raters coded the expected effects of performing these actions on 21 different outcomes (e.g., effort expenditure; achievement of career goals). Action characterizations were highly predicted by expected effect dimensions in ways that matched provisional hypotheses and were consistent across studies. Furthermore, actions characterizations tended to be highly diagnostic of self-reported individual differences in the same characteristics. We discuss implications for a range of phenomena, such as understanding the relations between behaviors and traits, integrating trait models and decision-making models, and understanding the effect of situational features on personality traits.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology