Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 11, 2020

The Six Basic Colors for Painting Life’s Situations

by Shaul Oreg
Colorful paper chain people on blue background

You are sitting in your couch, your laptop open, and you’re reading this blog. How would you describe this situation? Relaxing? Interesting? Familiar? And what about the situation you were in 30 minutes ago? How would you describe it? The number of ways you could describe these situations is as large as the number of adjectives you could come up with.

But some descriptions of situations are very similar to the descriptions of others. For example, relaxing, calming, and unwinding are all similar in meaning, as are interesting, intriguing, and stimulating.  Is it possible that a small number of terms could suffice for describing most situations in life? To answer this question, my colleagues and I set out to uncover basic dimensions for describing life situations.

The main goal in psychology is to explain why people behave as they do. Answers can be divided into two broad categories—those that have to do with people’s personality and those that have to do with the situations that people face. So, for example, we could explain why Jack has a big smile on his face by suggesting that he is a happy person. But we could also suggest that something good just happened to him.

Just as there are many ways to describe people’s personalities, there are also many ways to describe situations. Psychologists have long known that most aspects of personality can be described using just five traits. These traits are known as the “Big Five,” and they include extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. Although most languages have hundreds of words that refer to personality characteristics, most of the differences between people’s personalities seem to be captured by these five basic traits.

Similarly, can we boil the hundreds of terms for describing all of life’s situations into a limited number of situation terms? If so, what basic terms will allow us to do so?

Because our main study was conducted in Israel, our starting point was the list of nearly 4,000 general purpose adjectives from the Hebrew language. After removing adjectives that were not useful for describing most situations (for example, words such as chromatic or anabolic), we were left with 382 adjectives. We then asked over 500 people we contacted at a random time of day, via text message, to describe the situation they were currently in using our list of adjectives.  Respondents rated the degree to which each adjective accurately described the situation they were in.

Using statistical tools to identify groups of terms that tended to receive similar ratings, we found that most of the adjectives could be classified into one of only six categories. We call these “The Situation Six,” and they include: Negativity (representing adjectives such as “bad” and “horrible”), Positivity (“good,” “excellent”), Familiarity (“routine,” “typical”), Demandingness (“difficult,” “draining”), Oddness (“strange,” “bizarre”), and Straightforwardness (“concrete,” “simple”).

Interestingly, although Negativity and Positivity would seem to be opposites, we found that situations can be described as both positive and negative, or as neither of the two. Consider being in a job interview (where the very good and the very bad lurk around every corner) or leafing through a less-than-fascinating book (where nothing much can go wrong, but there’s nothing much to get excited about either).    

Our findings suggest that most situations can be represented by some combination of one or more of the Situation Six dimensions. Thus, a leisurely activity during the weekend at home could be represented by low Negativity, high Positivity, high Familiarity, low Demandingness, low Oddness, and high Straightforwardness. Contrast this with having a freak accident of some kind. For most people, this is likely to be the opposite of a leisurely weekend activity on all six dimensions—high Negativity, low Positivity, low Familiarity, high Demandingness, high Oddness, and low Straightforwardness.

But could these descriptors, derived in Israel, also be used to describe situations elsewhere in the world? To find out, we conducted a series of follow-up studies in the United States. We found clear support for the same six dimensions. These six dimensions appear to apply well to at least two different cultures.   

Our research complements other recent attempts to describe situations, using different methods. Although some of the dimensions in the Situation Six are unique, most of them have been identified in other studies. The most common dimensions observed across multiple studies are Negativity, Positivity, Familiarity, and Demandingness (although these are sometimes named different things). This suggests that when we experience and describe events, the most basic things that matter, psychologically speaking, are the degree to which the situation is bad, good, ordinary, and difficult. Certainly, this is a simplification of how we perceive the world, but research evidence suggests that it captures a significant range of our experiences. Together with the established models for capturing the central aspects of personality, models such as ours are useful for describing and explaining why people behave as they do.

So how would you describe your day so far?


For Further Reading

Oreg, S., Edwards, J. A., & Rauthmann, J. F. (2020). The Situation Six: Uncovering six basic dimensions of psychological situations from the Hebrew language. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 118, 835–863.
 

Shaul Oreg is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Jerusalem Business School of The Hebrew University. You can find out more about his research on personality, person-situation interactions, and resistance to change here: http://pluto.huji.ac.il/~oreg

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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