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Volume 1

Expanded Contents


1: Introduction [and Summary]
2: Physical Field Theories
3: Psychological Field Theories
4: Social Field Theories
5: The Field of Power
6: Field Theories in Summary
7: Perception and Reality
8: Actuality versus Potentiality
9: Manifests versus Latents
10: Latent Functions
11: Perception, Space, and Field
12: Cognitive Dissonance
13:Behavior, Personality, Situation, and Expectations
14: The Behavioral Equation: Behavior, Situation, and Expectations
16: Person-Perception and Distance
17: The Behavioral Occasion
18: Social Behavior
19: Motivational Explanation
20: Energy and Attitudes in the Psychological Field
21: Motivation and the Superordinate Goal
22: What About Other Motivations ?
23: The Dynamic Field and Social Behavior
24: The Sociocultural Spaces
25: The Biophysical Spaces
26: Intentions and The Intentional Field
27: A Point of View
28: The Self As a Power
29: The Will As a Power
30: Determinism and Free Will
31: Alternative Perspectives on Freedom of the Will
32: A Humanism Between Materialism and Idealism
33: Atomism-Mechanism versus Organicism
34: Between Absolutism and Relationism
35: Humanity and Nature

Other Volumes

Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix
Vol. 3: Conflict In Perspective
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

The Conflict Helix: Principles and Practices...


Chapter 15

Situation, Expectations And Triggers*

By R.J. Rummel

The old order changeth, yielding place to new;
And God fulfills himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
----Tennyson, Passing of Arthur


 A perceived situation is a marriage between concepts and associated percepts, if any. Situations define the configuration of dispositions and powers we project onto reality; they are our apprehension of what we can anticipate from nature in our relation to it. Will things be hard to our touch? Will they attack us? Will they roll? It is thus that perceived situations reflect our view, our perspective, of the order and regularity in our world--the latents of our realities. It is thus that they comprise our day-by-day predictions about the world enabling us to survive and generally gratify our motivations.

Dispositional properties are a basic ingredient of perceived situations. In fact, predication of qualities or quantities to an object is assigning them such dispositions, for is not saying "an apple is red" the same as saying "upon looking at an apple, I will see red"? Three examples should cement this meaning. An eraser is on my desk. The concept and associated percepts of it comprise a set of dispositions about the eraser in my mind. Intuitively, without thinking, I know that it will be soft and smooth, that it will be soundless, and that it will not move. Moreover, I know that it will erase pencil marks on my tablet, but not ink. Thus, my perception of the situation "eraser" is my apprehension in part of the object's dispositions.

As a second example, consider "empirical truth." Here is something that does not exist (it has no associated percepts) except as a quality of statements about things. We say that it is true that "it is raining," meaning that in the context of the statement (we could not assert the truth or falsity of the statement without context, such as whether it is being made by someone in the same room or by a radio announcer) we would hear, feel, smell, or see rain were we to behave appropriately (walk to the window, go outside). In other words, empirical truth is an enactment1 of the meaning of a statement, a disposition to perceive that which a true statement asserts.

As a final example, consider the world of the natural sciences. For these sciences, all the interesting properties of things (situations) are dispositional, aspects of things that tell us what will happen under certain conditions. Mass is the degree to which a thing will resist movement by external forces, force is the degree to which a thing will be changed by it; length is the units a thing will manifest upon comparison to a standard.


 Situational dispositions constitute predictions about that perceived. Expectations are the consequences we predict in our behavioral interaction with the situation. In this sense, as terms, situation and expectations are correlative. Situations are reality's perceived disposition and powers; expectations concern our actions regarding this reality. The situation defines what things will do, while expectations are the consequent effects of our actions. Clearly situations and expectations are related, for what different outcomes are expected from our diverse behavioral potentials depends on our apprehension of the relevant situational dispositions and powers. Expectations define for us the consequences of our acts and are therefore more inclusive: within our perspective they assume the dispositions and powers of things. Expectations underlie the interaction between us and our world.

Think again of the perhaps too little used eraser on my desk. My perception involves its disposition to erase pencil marks; I expect the marks to disappear when I rub the eraser over them. This expectation among others weights my potential behaviors toward the eraser, such as bouncing, eating, ignoring, or petting it.

Expectations often reinforce behavioral tendencies, but expectations also may strongly oppose them. Take a young married man at a convention eyeing a clearly available, pretty girl. Now, that situation as perceived will be most likely transformed to a position high on the sex drive components of his psychological field; it will comprise dispositions that need not be specified. Regarding his possible behavior toward this situation, a number of potential roles and patterns are available to him. Let us say that by nature he tends toward manifesting that behavior leading to the story writer's chapter ending. However, his conscious or his unconscious expectations about the possible outcomes of his desire (his wife might find out, his prudish boss might see them) might be psychologically unacceptable, thus leading him to ignore the girl. That is, the situation might also be perceived in that portion of his psychological field concerning security and career needs, and self-esteem, leading him to be concerned about the possible and relevant outcomes.

In sociology, the concept "expectations" is usually associated with social roles. Sociologist then discuss the role expectations of father, priest, or teacher, as the anticipated behavior of those filling these roles. I am disengaging the two concepts here to show the separate function of personality, situation, expectations, and roles. Roles in the psychological field are behavioral potentials, motivational components, or perceived dispositions of a situation. When we perceive a police officer, we perceive the dispositions of his role (this is what is usually meant by role expectations). Perceiving another's role enables us to predict his behavior, perhaps his character.2 However, the roles we may fill regarding a situation help to compose our behavioral choices. Expectations here, then, are what we think or feel or intuit will happen if we play a particular role with regard to that which we perceive someone else to be filling. Or, if the situational dispositions are of some physical object, say rock, grass, tree, then our expectations simply define the consequences of our related role or behavioral pattern choices.


 To choose a role or behavioral pattern or to be unconsciously set to act in a particular way by disposition and expectations is not to actually so behave. For example, a woman may be quite unconsciously ready to divorce her husband, but except for a feeling of unhappiness, of disquiet, or dissatisfaction with him ' this may not surface. Life may go on as before as she follows the daily routine while inwardly straining toward a change, that is, until some minor event leads to an argument which is a trigger, surfacing and suddenly crystallizing her feelings, precipitating a change in her behavior, and serving as the excuse for the divorce toward which she had been inclined.

How often have we noted in our own lives the manner in which small things can remarkably alter our behavior or stimulate big decisions. Trifles, a relatively unimportant happening, a minor shift, a slip of the tongue, can have momentous behavioral consequences.

Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong
As proofs of holy wit.
----Shakespeare, Othello I

How can we explain this? First, consider that one's daily life consists of a variety of behavioral roles and patterns, such as those of son, father, husband, professional, and golfer, and patterns of behavior associated with superiors and subordinates, with driving the car home, with eating, or with reading the newspaper. Each of these behaviors is a routine associating our personality, situation, behavioral dispositions, expectations, and behavioral choices. As with perception, the routine is a dialectical balance between ourselves and external reality.2a

Of course, we cannot generally do what we most desire, simply because there are other people with their own motivations. Moreover, our abilities limit us, and we must compromise with the actual physical powers and dispositions governing nature. What routines we do settle into are then the results of behavioral conflicts between ourselves and the external world, an interactive working out of our behavior in a specific situation until a routine that we can live with is established.3 A routine is then a not wholly happy or unhappy behavioral accommodation of ourselves to the external world through conflict with it.

Marriage will serve as a common example. The first year of marriage is usually the most conflictful of all. It is the time of deeply emotional arguments and trivial misunderstandings; it is the period when husband and wife are working out their mutual perceptions and expectations relative to their own personalities. Through family conflict they are learning how far each can go with the other, where each draws the line, and where their mutual sensitivities lie. They are developing a structure of mutual expectations within which they can intuitively coexist and which reasonably satisfies their mutual needs, desires, drives, and temperaments. They are interacting toward mutually acceptable routines. And as these routines become established, family conflict decreases and the mates settle into their marriage.

In a similar way, through the conflict between a car's idiosyncratic self-determination and our attempts to control it, we gradually learn to drive a car routinely, eventually maneuvering the beast around without a thought. Likewise, through conflict in a power vacuum (such as in post-World War II Southeast Asia), national leaders come to appreciate each other's capabilities and intent and to establish a structure of expectations within which each can coexist routinely. And it is thus that interest groups and bureaucracies establish, through the pulling and pushing that is political conflict, the essence of politics, a working balance of power, an acceptable institutionalized structure of expectations.

Once established, a routine involves a cluster of habits relieving us of the burden of thinking through each act, of choosing the behavior appropriate to each set of expectations and dispositions in each of the multitude of daily situations that confront us. Routines free our minds for creative thought and clear our mental decks of the emotional engagement that deciding each act de novo entails. They provide us with predictable order and are a locking together of our personality, situation, behavioral dispositions, and expectations. Routines therefore constitute a behavioral and dialectical balance between us and our world.


 Change is the keynote of life, and gradually the balance in our psychological field that constitutes our routines may become unrealistic or undesirable. A person's abilities and motivations change, situations may be perceived anew through attempts to maintain cognitive balance (behavior once perceived as honest now may seem devious), expectations may be altered with experience, or new behavioral opportunities may be available. Thus, our routines can become increasingly out of balance with our personality, situation, and expectations.

In spite of the imbalance between routine and our inner selves, however, we may continue behaving as before. First, except for a feeling that something is wrong, the imbalance may not have surfaced to bedevil our consciousness. We have yet to put the pertinent questions to ourselves. Is this the right job for me? Is divorce the solution? Is war between us inevitable?

Second, even were we to realize consciously what is wrong, we may not wish to take actions which upset the routine. With the risks, costs, and uncertainties of a different action, the resulting conflict it may provoke, and the problems of reestablishing a new routine, we may judge the current imbalance as not worth righting. Better to let sleeping dogs lie than upset the applecart, or rock the boat. "Prudence consists in the power to recognize the nature of disadvantages and to take the less disagreeable as good" (Machiavelli, The Prince, XXXI).4

Yet in our lives a spark, a catalyst, a moment of truth ever seem ready to disrupt our routines. These triggers crystallize our disquiet, our unhappiness. We suddenly grasp the need for a change. A relatively minor event (a burnt supper, a request to work overtime, the assassination of a minor official), cast things into a new light. Previous situations are now seen differently, new expectations emerge, and we become cognitively dissonant. And we may see now what we must do. The trigger may be a final straw, pushing us over the brink, bringing us to realize and judge that the unknown consequences of breaking with routine are worth the risks. Thus, we may decide to ask for a divorce, initiate military hostilities, go on strike, or bomb public buildings.

So disrupting our routine means that we no longer present the same situation to others. Their expectations must accordingly be adjusted, and our own expectations and perceptions must also be worked out anew as we experience the consequences of our change in behavior. In other words, a new mutual structure of expectations will have to be developed, thus necessitating an increase in mutual conflict until again through a process of iterative interaction a new behavioral routine is developed. Figure 15.1 illustrates this dialectical interaction and balancing process. Two lines move through time, one representing a person's behavior, the other his combined personality, will, perceived situation, and expectations.5 When the two lines are close, behavior is balanced with a person's psychological field; as the lines move apart, there is growing imbalance. The flat behavior lines indicate routine behavior. Now, the trigger events are the points at which behavior is altered sharply in the direction of balance within the psychological field. We have imperfect expectations about the consequences of our new acts, however, and other people may react to us, causing more alterations in our behavior as our perception and expectations respond to them. Consequently, there will be an iterative phase of conflict with others as we move toward a sufficient balance within our psychological field.

Figure 15.1

There is one more kind of trigger to be discussed before we temporarily leave this topic. So far we have triggers that either surface a psychological imbalance, jarring us out of our routine, or finally deciding us in favor of changing our routine. There is also the trigger that alters our routine from the outside. A broken down car, a hospitalization, or a storm can force us, whether we like it or not, out of our routine into an iterative behavioral process until a ' routine congruent with the new situation is established. This forced change in behavior itself can then be the trigger previously discussed: it can serve as an excuse to change related behavioral routines. Thus, family relations are not quite the same after a husband returns from a long hospitalization; a flood may alter the balance of interest groups in a town; a mine disaster can change the whole set of behavioral relationship between management and labor; and a new baby can disrupt a family's structure of mutual anticipations.

In sum, the behavioral choice we make in a situation depends, on the one hand, on the balance between our ongoing, routine behavior and our psychological field, and, on the other hand, on the occurrence of an appropriate trigger event. This trigger filters through the psychological field and eventuates in our choosing a new, nonroutine, behavior depending on our personality, will, expectations, and behavioral dispositions. In the most general terms, our will, personality, perception, behavior, and environment--our mental and external worlds--are united in a dialectical conflict How we behaves is a particularization of this dialectic, an aspect of a continuous struggle between our selves, our nature, our reality. 


* Scanned from Chapter 15 in R.J. Rummel, The Dynamic Psychological Field, 1975. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.

1. Here I am using enactment in the same sense as Andrew Ushenko uses it in his The Field Theory of Meaning (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1958).

2. Upon meeting a person for the first time, we seek cues about his role from his appearance, manner, and speech. In other words, we automatically search for role latents, dispositional properties, to plug our expectations into so that we know how to behave.

2a. Routine is the psychological side of our social patterns of interaction within a social structure of expectations (rules, norms, understandings, etc.), as described Section 29.4 of Chapter 29 in Volume 2.

3. And such is the essence of political conflict in international relations.

4. This prudence is one source of the misunderstanding critics have of the State Department. State emphasizes routine, and is naturally conservative about proposed changes in a routine that has proven itself relatively safe. Any significant change means embarking on unknown waters. The risks and uncertainties are to be feared when so many fundamental interests are at stake, when multiple compromises and understandings (routines) can be jeopardized, and when war is ever a possible consequence of upsetting the balance of expectations.

5. The reader should not fret at this point over how to measure and plot these things, for they are used here only as an aid or crutch to intuition and thought. If, however, the response is that this is pseudologic, misleading in its apparent precision, and not even remotely representative of real people and real behavior (for example, people cannot be reduced to lines on a figure), I must argue that such measurements have been done as will be shown in a subsequent volume. But to move directly to these technical parts here would lose the essence, the meaning, the surplus content, of the mathematics and numbers presented, to misunderstand the difference between the substance and the form we will consider in time.

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