Dispositional factors: Definition and Examples

Dispositional factors: Definition and ExamplesReviewed By Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

dispositional factors examples and definition, explained below

Dispositional factors are internal factors that influence our actions. 

These include personality traits, biological makeup, expertise, etc. They tend to be relatively stable throughout your life and influence your actions and reactions in situations.

Dispositional factors are contrasted with situational factors, which are outside/environmental factors that influence behavior.

Situational factors are factors outside of ourselves or our personalities that affect our outcomes. For example, bad weather causing a car crash is a situational factor, while dangerous driving causing a car crash is a dispositional factor.

Definition of Dispositional Factors

David Funder defines dispositional factors as

“internal characteristics of the individual that are relatively stable over time and across situations” (2016).

They include personality traits (say our level of extraversion), biological attributes (like sex), spiritual beliefs (for example, a religious sense of purpose), etc. They are internal to us and are present in every situation.

In contrast, situational factors are factors outside us (in the environment) that shape our behavior. Often people blame their failures on situational factors while only crediting their dispositional factors for successes. This is known as the fundamental attribution bias. In reality, both factors influence our lives.

Examples of Dispositional Factors

  1. Personality Type: Personality plays a huge role in shaping human action, and the Five-Factor Model helps us analyze its various types. The Five-Factor Model was built through the contributions of many psychologists, and the version used today was refined by McCrae & Costa (2001). As the name suggests, the model posits that five fundamental dimensions shape personality. These consist of extraversion (the extent to which people are outgoing), neuroticism (the level of emotional stability), openness to experience (being receptive), agreeableness (how friendly someone is), and finally conscientiousness (the degree of self-discipline).
  2. Biological Makeup: Our biological makeup, such as our genetic traits and sex, have a big influence on our behavior. All humans acquire a unique combination of genes from their parents, and these fundamentally shape who we are. Someone who is born prematurely or has a chronic illness would need more frequent medical help, and their outlook toward life may also be different. Similarly, sex can be a huge influencer, as hormonal and neurological differences impact us. For example, higher testosterone levels in men contribute to traits such as aggression and competitiveness.
  3. Need for Power: As per Henry Murray, human beings have different levels of needs, and these shape their personality. Murray argued that there are certain universal needs shared by all human beings; however, different people value these needs differently, which is what leads to variations in personalities (1938). So, for example, some people might place the need for achievement above everything while others might prioritize the need for affiliation. Murray argued that “needs” and “presses” (his term for situational factors) together create a disequilibrium for individuals, who take various actions to reduce this tension.
  4. Spiritual Beliefs: Our spiritual beliefs have a major impact on our behavior. For most people, spiritual beliefs develop early in life and provide us with an enduring worldview. They give us a moral compass and an ethical framework that guides our actions. Not just that, a person’s entire sense of purpose in life is often associated with their spiritual/religious belief, which is why they are so important. Finally, spiritual beliefs provide us with a support system; spiritual people may be more optimistic and face difficulties with resilience. 
  5. Locus of Control: One significant aspect of personality is the locus of control, which refers to the degree to which individuals feel in control of the outcomes of their actions. Some people have an internal locus of control, meaning that they feel responsible for their actions, their outcomes, and whatever happens to them in life. In contrast, those having an external locus of control, feel that all these things depend on factors outside themselves (situational factors). The former kind of people are less likely to conform, as they believe in taking responsibility for their actions in every situation.
  6. Self-Efficacy: Self-efficacy means how much an individual believes in their competence, and it is a crucial dispositional factor. Self-efficacy is part of a larger psychological framework known as social cognitive theory, which was developed by Albert Bandura (1986). Bandura argued that our belief in our abilities is linked to various factors, such as our previous achievements, feedback from others, emotional states, etc. People with higher levels of self-efficacy are more likely to work towards challenging goals and keep going in the face of difficulties.
  7. 2011 Tottenham Riot: A real-world example of dispositional factors is the Tottenham Riot that took place in August 2011. In North London, people had gathered to protest the shooting of a black British man, Mark Duggan. However, the peaceful protest soon became violent and turned into a riot that lasted for 5 days, leading to city-wide looting and arson. After interviewing the arrested protestors, NatCen found that various dispositional factors—negative experiences with the police, bleak job prospects, and dissatisfaction with politicians—had played a big role in their involvement (Mrweb, 2011)
  8. Personal Values: Personal values are the foundational principles held by individuals, which serve as a key dispositional influence. These are our enduring beliefs about what is right, what is important, etc. These values are shaped by a wide range of factors (family upbringing, cultural norms, etc.), but they get internalized and remain quite stable over time. They serve as a guiding framework in all aspects of life, from relationships to career choices. We try to align our actions with our values, and it is quite difficult for us to do things that compromise them.
  9. Expertise: Our level of expertise determines how confident we are in our decisions. When we are knowledgeable about a particular subject, we can confidently make judgments, even if it means going against other people. A great example of this is the Perrin and Spencer (1980) study, which replicated the famous experiments of Solomon Asch (1951). Perrin and Spencer re-performed Asch’s conformity experiments with engineering students, and they found out that they were a lot less likely to conform blindly to group pressure. This was because the engineers trusted their expertise and prioritized it over what others said.
  10. Emotional Intelligence: A major dispositional factor is emotional intelligence, which refers to our ability to understand and regulate emotions. Peter Salovey and John Mayer (1990) are the leading researchers in this field, and they argue that there are four key components to emotional intelligence: perceiving, understanding, managing, and using emotions. Salovey and Mayer point out that emotional intelligence is crucial in interpersonal relationships. Moreover, it can also play a major role in professional settings, where it can help leadership, conflict resolution, teamwork, etc.

Dispositional vs Situational Factors

While dispositional factors represent the factors internal to ourselves (personality, values, temperament), situational factors represent factors outside of ourselves that might affect us and outcomes (weather, social norms, etc.). Below is a table comparing key features of the two:

Situational FactorsDispositional Factors
DefinitionExternal circumstances or environmental influences that impact behavior, thoughts, or emotions.Inherent personality traits, beliefs, or temperament that influence behavior and reactions across various situations.
NatureExternalInternal
ExamplesWeather, time pressure, physical environment, group dynamics, social norms.Personality traits, values, beliefs, temperament, emotional intelligence.
Impact on behaviorBehavior is influenced by specific circumstances or contexts.Behavior is consistent across different situations, reflecting stable characteristics.
Attribution theoryPeople may attribute someone’s behavior to the situation they are in, known as external attribution.People may attribute someone’s behavior to their inherent character or personality, known as internal attribution.
Role in psychologyImportant for understanding how context shapes behavior and decision-making.Crucial for understanding an individual’s consistent patterns of behavior and responses to various situations.

Adorno and the Authoritarian Personality

One manifestation of dispositional factors is what Adorno called “authoritarian personality”, which he linked to the rise of fascism.

Adorno believed that situational factors alone were not sufficient to explain behavior, especially obedience. For example, in Milgram’s shock experiment, 35% of the participants disobeyed the inciting researcher, despite being in the same context as the others.

This indicates that there are other (internal) factors guiding our obedience, and Adorno called these dispositional influences. Along with several other researchers, Adorno published a book called The Authoritarian Personality in 1950.

In it, he defined certain personality traits and studied their intensity in any given person on the “F scale” (F for fascist). Adorno measured this through questionnaires given to 2000 middle-class white Americans, and he concluded that those scoring highly had authoritarian personalities.

Someone with an authoritarian personality has a high level of respect for authority and is naturally more obedient. Moreover, they are also quite conscious of status, that is, they value social hierarchies and see non-authority figures as being inferior.

An authoritarian personality, Adorno believed, was the result of childhood experiences. Children who face harsh parenting first resent their parents but then end up idolizing authority figures. This was quite in line with the psychoanalysis theories of the time.

Adorno ultimately argued that an authoritarian personality was linked to fascist beliefs. Fascism is essentially a centralized form of government built on dictatorial power (for example, Nazi Germany). Since authoritarian personalities are obedient, they easily submit to such power.

Conclusion

Dispositional factors are internal factors that remain stable over time and play a major role in determining our behavior.

They include various individual characteristics, such as personality traits, expertise, biological makeup, etc. An authoritarian personality, as discussed by Adorno, is another good example of a dispositional influence.

References

Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. Harper and Row.

Bandura, A.. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Prentice-Hall.

Costa, P., Terracciano, A., & McCrae, R. (2001). Gender Differences in Personality Traits Across Cultures: Robust and Surprising Findings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81 (2), 322-331. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.81.2.322

Funder, D. C. (2016). “Personality”. Annual Review of Psychology. Annual Reviews.

Murray, Henry A (1938). Explorations in Personality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mrweb. (2011). “NatCen to Study Motives Behind UK Riots”. https://www.mrweb.com/drno/news14208.htm

Perrin, S. and Spencer, C. (1981), Independence or conformity in the Asch experiment as a reflection of cultural and situational factors. British Journal of Social Psychology.

Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional Intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality. New York: SAGE Publications.

Sourabh Yadav is a freelance writer & filmmaker. He studied English literature at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University. You can find his work on The Print, Live Wire, and YouTube.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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