Rose’s second principle of individuality is the Context Principle, which postulates that, as he puts it, “traits are a myth.” In other words, while we think of ourselves and others as having fixed traits, in fact our behavior is determined far more by context than by traits. I might believe that I’m an introvert, but how introverted or extroverted I act depends on where I am and who I’m interacting with.
This is hard to wrap one’s head around because fixed traits seem intuitively true. Part of this is because we generally only interact with people in one context–we only see co-workers at work-related functions, for instance. But also partly because we create narratives for ourselves and others and then let confirmation bias affirm those narratives. We see what we expect to see.
Rose contends that personality traits and actual behavior at best only correlates at a level of 0.3, suggesting that personality traits can only explain 9% of how we behave.
The context principle, then, asserts that behavior cannot be predicted outside of specific situations. To understand someone, then, you need to understand how they behave across a wide range of situations.
Labeling a child as aggressive, Rose argues as an example, ignores the likely reality that the child is aggressive under some situations but not others, which bypasses an opportunity to try and understand why.
Rose speaks of the famous marshmallow study, which people tend to point to as an example of how some people have good self-control and some don’t. But the original researcher himself didn’t view the study through this lens, and subsequent work had been done to show that children react very differently in situations where they have reason to trust the researcher than in situations of distrust. (This doesn’t really disprove the existence of traits, of course, since it could mean that people override traits when there is good reason to.)
Do I believe in traits? (In Rose’s words, am I an essentialist?) Maybe. It’s important to separate out adaptability from context dependence. Just because we constantly adapt to situations doesn’t mean there isn’t a baseline “me” in there somewhere. That said, I’m sure our true selves are far more variable and less in our control than we believe. I don’t like personality assessments or communication style instruments for this reason; they place us into boxes that limit our possibilities rather than in kaleidoscopes that celebrate our potential.