Absolute Stability and Absolute Consistency

Social comparisons are not the only sources of psychological knowledge. Temporal comparisons can also provide important information about self and others (Albert, 1977). Consider this example: Suppose I had asked my neighbor many times to water my plants while 1 was out of town. If my neighbor had always agreed to help, it seems reasonable to predict on the basis of his absolutely stable behavior that he will continue to water my plants in the future.

Comparisons across situations can provide psychological insight as well. My neighbor's helpfulness might depend on whether I was out of town for a short conference or a long sabbatical. It might matter whether or not my dog stayed in the house while I was gone. It might matter whether or not 1 offered to return my neighbor's favor. If my neighbor watered my plants irrespective of these variations, he displays absolute transsituational consistency. I might conclude from such a pattern that he will water my plants in any situation.

Making comparisons across types of behavior can also provide information. I might learn more about my neighbor if I asked him not only to water my plants, but also to check my mail, to mow my lawn, to put my garbage out, or to walk my dog. If my neighbor complies with all these requests, I might conclude from his absolute consistency across types of behavior that he will do me any kind of favor.

Modes of behavior can also be compared. Assuming that helping is intrinsically rewarding (Weiss, Buchanan, Altstatt, & Lombardo, 1971), I might assess my neighbor's emotions in addition to his behavior. I could explore whether he feels good or bad while watering my plants. Assuming that helping originates from normative beliefs (Schwartz, 1977), I could inquire into whether my neighbor considers helping a moral mandate. If my neighbor waters my plants, feels good when doing so, and agrees that helping is a moral obligation, he displays absolute transmodal consistency (i.e., behavior, emotion, cognition).

Last and most important, I could compare results obtained with different assessment methods. To assess my neighbor's plant watering, I could ask him if he watered my plants; I could pretend to be out of town but in truth watch secretly whether he waters my plants; I could check after returning whether the soil of my plants is wet; and 1 could ask my neighbor's wife about her husband's behavior. If every method yields the same result, I might infer from this absolute consistency across methods that I could obtain the same result with any method.

Note that at this point the comparisons introduced so far require a common standard. Concluding absolute consistency from comparing behavior across individuals, time, situations, modes, and other dimensions is meaningful only when using the same metric for all observations. Comparability becomes possible in our example if the result of each observation were projected on a binary scale, discriminating help versus no help. Comparing observations of helpfulness is not as easy to achieve if we want to discriminate degrees of helpfulness. Although this issue of scaling cannot be elaborated in this chapter, it is important to remember that the concepts of variability and consistency are meaningful only when using a well-defined standard of comparison (Stevens, 1946).

Each facet of comparison introduced so far (i.e., individuals, occasions, situations, types of behavior, modes of behavior, methods) can be considered dimensions of a data matrix. Comparing objects on a single dimension creates a vector. Crossing dimensions creates a matrix. Three dimensions make a box. There is no theoretical limit on the number of facets (e.g., each of the facets introduced so far could be crossed with an attribute facet). Persons have attributes and so do situations and stimuli. In line with Cattell (1966) and Ozer (1986), I will use the data box concept in a figurative sense and not limit its meaning to a three-dimensional matrix.

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