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A Grand Theory of Personality and Environment

by Peter T. Coleman
October 2017

Originally printed here in Psychology Today.

Peter T.  Coleman

Morton Deutsch, eminent psychologist, Columbia University professor, mentor extraordinaire, and one of the founders of the field of conflict resolution died last March at the age of 97. Deutsch spent his illustrious career creatively and systematically studying ways to make the world more just and peaceful. He was a tough-minded and tender-hearted scientist with an intense commitment to developing psychological knowledge that would be relevant to important human concerns. In other words, he was deeply theoretical and genuinely practical. He believed in the power of big ideas to improve the world, and in the vital role of science to refine them.

In honor of his passing, I have selected a series of ten major scientific contributions that Deutsch made in his efforts to promote a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. These are by no means his only contributions—there are indeed many more. However these are those I have found as most consequential to my own research and practice, and that I feel are most likely to have the biggest impact on our future. Brief snapshots of each contribution will be presented here in a series of 10 weekly blog posts in approximate chronological order of the questions he studied over his lifetime.

6. Specifying the Dynamics of Bf(PxE): A Grand Theory of Psychological Orientations and Social Relations.

Social psychology has long suffered from split-personality disorder. From its early roots, the discipline has been alternately conceptualized from a sociological perspective, emphasizing the role of the environment on human interaction, or from the perspective of personality psychology, privileging the instincts, sentiments, and character of the individual. Of course, this division merely reflected the debate raging within the broader domain of science regarding the relative importance of nature versus nurture in our understanding of the world. Darwin addressed this divide initially in 1859 when he introduced the evolutionary concepts of individual-environmental fit and adaptation. Later, Kurt Lewin took up this issue in psychology, suggesting that neither instincts nor situations account wholly for human behavior, but rather that behavior (B) is a function of both the person (P) and the environment (E) as they interact. More formally, Lewin offered: Bf(P x E). . 

Mort Deutsch was also influenced by the interactionist framework but found the formula Bf(P x E) ultimately too general to bridge the P vs. E divide adequately. So in the 1970s, Deutsch penned his most comprehensive and ambitious theory, the theory of psychological orientation and social relations (Deutsch, 1982). This theory built on his earlier work on the fundamental dimensions of social relations, but now articulated how the social dimensions interact with aspects of individuals to ultimately influence behavior. Deutsch theorized that the four dimensions of social relations, when combined in situations, create distinctive types of relations and that these types of social relations induce particular types of psychological orientations in people. He defined psychological orientations as a more or less consistent complex of cognitive, motivational, moral, and action orientations to a given situation that serves to guide one’s behaviors and responses.

Due to pressures for consistency, specific types of situations will tend to elicit appropriate psychological orientations that “fit” the situation, and different types of orientations will tend to propel people towards social relations that are consistent with their orientations. In other words, people will tend to seek out social relations that fit with their dominant orientations, but strong social situations will also tend to shape people’s orientations over time, particularly when they are held in them for extended periods of time (e.g., prison, abusive relationships, and so on).

Perhaps ahead of its time, this grand theory of person-situation dynamics received little empirical attention initially, but today is influencing new research on the importance of adaptation and fit in effective conflict, management; (see Coleman & Kugler, 2014; Coleman, Kugler & Chatman, 2017). 

Mort Deutsch was an intellectual giant with a true moral compass, on whose shoulders many in the fields of peace, conflict, and social justice stand today.  The foundation he provided for our work is sound, lasting, and ultimately promising and, optimistic. His insight, passion, and commitment today live on in all of us.


Coleman, P. T., & Kugler, K. G. (2014). Tracking managerial conflict adaptivity: Introducing a dynamic measure of adaptive conflict management in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(7), 945-968.

Coleman, P. T., Kugler, K. G., & Chatman, L. (2017). Adaptive mediation: an evidence-based contingency approach to mediating conflict. International Journal of Conflict Management, 28(3).

Deutsch, M. (1982). Conflict resolution: Theory and practice. National Association for Mediation in Education.


Peter T. Coleman is the Director of ICCCR and Professor of Psychology and Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Social / Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Iowa. He has conducted research on social entitivity processes (ingroup/outgroup formation), gender discrimination in organizations, the mediation of inter-ethnic conflict, ripeness in intractable conflict, conflict resolution & difference, and on the conditions which foster the constructive use of social power.  Professor Coleman recently co-edited a book entitled The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (2000), published by Jossey-Bass and The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts.

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