Person-Environment Interaction

Plato proposed the earliest person-environment (P-E) interaction model in The Republic around 360 B.C. He suggested that men be assigned to jobs based on their abilities and personality because each man is ideally suited to perform the tasks necessary for success on a single job. For example, guardians of the city must have the abilities to see the enemy quickly and pursue the enemy swiftly. This seemingly simple matching model underlies modern theories in many areas of psychology and it has led to advances in research and practice.

The Person-Environment Interaction Model

Although many variations of the P-E interaction model exist, all emphasize the relation between two parallel aspects of the person and environment. One aspect concerns the desires of the person and the ability of the environment to fulfill those desires. The person’s desires are described by various P-E models as needs, goals, values, interests, and preferences. Although some theoretical differences exist among these constructs, in P-E interaction theory they invariably refer to the attractiveness of the environmental attributes to the person. Hereafter, they are referred to as desires. The properties of the environment that correspond to the desires of the person are operationalized as reinforcers, benefits, satisfiers, and payoffs; henceforth, these are termed supplies.

The other aspect concerns the relation of the person’s abilities to the demands of the environment. The relevant abilities are referred to in P-E interaction models as aptitudes, education, experience, skills, intelligence, and g (i.e., general mental ability). The corresponding environmental demands are referred to as environmental climate, workload, ability requirements and task requirements. These are termed abilities and demands, respectively.

Most P-E interaction models quantify the quality of the match between the person’s desires and the environmental supplies and use that information to predict some outcome. Terms for the match between individuals and environments are congruence, correspondence, and P-E fit.

P-E fit is thought to produce varied outcomes including (a) reduced stress, strain, anxiety, absenteeism, turnover intentions, and turnover; (b) improved physical health, psychological health, emotional stability, adjustment, goal-setting behavior, coping, adaptation, attitudes toward learning, and vocational choice; and (c) increased creativity, motivation, performance, occupational success, commitment, tenure, satisfaction, and morale.

Although P-E interaction models have been criticized as “static” because they emphasize relatively stable aspects of the person and environment, most depict the development of P-E fit as a dynamic process that evolves over time.

Illustrative Person-Environment Interaction Models

The idea that P-E fit is an important moderator of outcomes is a central theoretical construct in numerous models in vocational, counseling, educational, social, industrial/organizational, and management psychology. All P-E interaction models incorporate the structural components described above. They differ primarily in their focal desire and ability dimensions. P-E models in vocational, social, and leisure psychology illustrate the model’s breadth and diversity.

Vocational Psychology

P-E interaction models have been used most extensively in vocational psychology. Frank Parsons’s theory of vocational choice was the first application of P-E interaction theory in psychology. In 1909, he suggested that vocational choice is dependent on the abilities and temperament of the worker, the demands of the job, and the logical relations between the two. During the Great Depression, University of Minnesota psychologists Donald G. Paterson and John G. Darley directed research at the Minnesota Employment Stabilization Research Institute that firmly established the usefulness of P-E interaction models in vocational psychology. They demonstrated that matching employees to occupations using aptitude test batteries, interviews, and information about occupational ability requirements led to a more effective and stable labor force.

During the 1950s and 1960s, three students of Paterson and Darley further refined the P-E interaction model. Lloyd H. Lofquist and Rene V. Dawis theorized that work adjustment is a function of the fit between the individual’s work personality and the work environment. According to the theory of work adjustment (TWA), optimal work adjustment occurs when the worker possesses the skills necessary for success on the job and the benefits provided by the job satisfy the psychological needs of the individual.

John L. Holland postulated the existence of six basic personality types and six corresponding work environments: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional (RIASEC). Optimal vocational adjustment occurs when individuals are employed in occupations that match their personality type. Holland proposed a hexagonal arrangement of the RIASEC personality types to make his theory easy for practitioners to understand and apply. His hexagonal congruence model has profoundly influenced occupational classification, interest measurement, and career counseling. The TWA and hexagonal congruence theory are the most thoroughly investigated and widely applied P-E interaction models ever developed.

Numerous other P-E interaction models have been proposed in vocational, industrial/organizational, and management psychology, but many of them merely reiterate some aspect of the TWA. Although these theories use different labels for their focal desires, supplies, abilities, and demands, the dynamic relations among the constructs and the predictions derived from these theories are indistinguishable from those of the TWA.

Social Psychology

Social psychologists and society in general are interested in the factors that underlie attraction and love. The results of efforts to identify the critical components of interpersonal attraction suggest the operation of a P-E dynamic. The attraction a person feels for another person (i.e., the “environment” in this sense) is a function of the similarity (i.e., P-E fit) of their attitudes, values, and personality. Attraction is a function of the individual’s desire for validation of his or her attitudes, values, and personality, and the confirmation supplied by another’s adoption of similar traits. As is true in vocational adjustment and other areas of behavior, the perception of similarity is more important in predicting attraction and love than an objective measure of similarity.

The influence of similarity explains why individuals are less likely to be attracted to people from a different race or culture. However, people are more attracted to individuals from a different race or culture that share their attitudes and values than to individuals from their race and culture who have different attitudes and values. Over the years, social psychologists have investigated the romantic notion that “opposites attract” using a rich diversity of approaches, but the evidence consistently shows people are attracted to those they perceive to be similar to themselves. People are generally inclined to dislike those who differ from them in attitudes and values.

Leisure Psychology

The P-E interaction model also underlies two theories of leisure behavior. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed a theory that focuses on a single skill-challenge dimension of P-E fit. He suggested that a heightened state of psychological awareness (“flow”) occurs when the skills of the individual match the challenge of the activity. Boredom occurs when the individual’s skills are greater than those needed to meet the challenge. Frustration, anxiety, or fear occurs when the individual does not possess the skills required for success in the activity.

Howard E. A. Tinsley and Diane J. Tinsley’s theory of transcendent leisure experience postulates that individuals differ in their psychological needs (i.e., desires) and abilities, and activities differ in the needs they satisfy (i.e., their supplies) and the abilities necessary for successful performance (i.e., their demands). Satisfaction is a function of the match (i.e., P-E fit) between the needs and abilities of the individual and the supplies of the leisure activity. Transcendent leisure experiences occur only when an optimal P-E fit is achieved.

Efficacy of the Person-Environment Interaction Model

More than 100 studies of P-E interaction models have been reported in the vocational psychology literature alone. Other relevant studies have appeared in the leisure psychology, social psychology, and educational psychology literature. The primary focus has been on the fit between the desires of the individual and the supplies of the environment. Only a few studies have examined the relation between the individual’s abilities and the environment’s demands. Satisfaction is the most frequently investigated outcome, followed by stress.

Typically, the fit of the individual to the environment is calculated by subtracting the desires of the individual from the supplies of the environment. Using this metric, a positive score indicates an over-supply, while a negative score indicates a deficit. With few exceptions, fit is positively related to criteria such as satisfaction, involvement, and trust, and negatively related to criteria such as absenteeism and turnover. The research literature supports the unequivocal conclusion that the P-E interaction model provides a valid and useful way of thinking about the interaction between individuals and their environments.

Flaws in Person-Environment Interaction Research

Despite this optimistic summary, numerous shortcomings are apparent in the P-E interaction research. Many of these may contribute to an understatement of the efficacy of the model. Flaws that most likely vitiate the support for the P-E interaction model include sampling inadequacies, lack of commensurate measurement, use of fit indexes, use of regression analysis, and lack of longitudinal research. The lack of cross-validation and a confirmatory bias also contribute to weaker tests of P-E models.

Sampling Inadequacies

Most P-E interaction research typically samples individuals from a single or very small range of environments (i.e., occupations, college majors, or leisure activities). Furthermore, most studies focus on attributes that workers desire or outcomes that environments value. For the most part, undesirable attributes and outcomes have been ignored. These sampling anomalies restrict the range of individual desires and abilities, the range of environmental demands and supplies, and the range of P-E fit scores. The effect is to attenuate the empirical relation between P-E fit scores and outcome measures and understate the support for P-E interaction theory.

Lack of Commensurate Measurement

General attitudes (e.g., attitudes toward helping) and general personality measures (e.g., altruism) do not predict specific behaviors (e.g., helping in a specific situation); accurate prediction requires greater specificity. Evaluations of P-E interaction models require commensurate measurement of the desires and abilities of the individual, the supplies and demands of the environment, and the predicted outcome. Measurement is commensurate when the same dimensions are measured for the individual, the environment, and the outcome, and the relations among these elements are examined for each specific attribute. For example, a measure of salary “fit” (actual salary level minus desired salary level) can be expected to predict satisfaction with salary, but not necessarily general satisfaction and certainly not satisfaction with coworkers or supervisors. Very little of the P-E interaction research has satisfied this critical requirement.

Use of Fit Indexes

The common practice of combining information about the person and the job to produce a single overall estimate of P-E fit (i.e., a fit index) has led to the development of dozens of fit indexes. Fit indexes discard valuable information. For example, algebraic difference indexes discard information about the person’s and environment’s absolute level on the dimensions measured. Absolute and squared difference indexes further discard directional information (i.e., whether supply exceeds demand or vice versa). Furthermore, fit indexes are inherently ambiguous because they discard information about the relative contribution of each factor so the value obtained could be the result of any one of a large number of specific patterns of scores. Finally, fit indexes are less reliable than the components from which they are calculated because the unreliability of the separate components is magnified in calculating the index. Therefore, fit indexes always contain less information, are less reliable, and explain less variance in the criterion than the basic data from which they are calculated. Their widespread use results in the systematic underestimation of the efficacy of P-E interaction models.

Reliance on Regression Analysis

P-E interaction research often uses regression analysis to predict criterion (i.e., outcome) scores. Hit rate analysis is preferable to regression analysis for P-E interaction research. Regression analysis treats any deviation of the predicted outcome from the actual outcome, no matter how trivial, as error, whereas hit rate analysis attempts to predict membership in broadly defined, but conceptually meaningful, groups. The meaningless discrepancies that multiple regression treats as errors can be ignored by hit rate analysis. While regression analysis considers only the magnitude of errors of prediction, hit rate analysis also allows users to consider the possibility that different types of errors may differ greatly in their social and practical consequences and in their conceptual implications for the validity of P-E interaction models. Regression analysis attempts to minimize the overall “amount” of prediction error; hit rate analysis allows scholars and practitioners to minimize the overall “cost” of prediction error.

Longitudinal Research

Many P-E interaction models postulate interactions between desire-supply fit and ability-demand fit. Furthermore, over time, persons and environments shape (i.e., influence) each other. Longitudinal research is necessary to test these possibilities. The dynamic features of P-E interaction models have been ignored so completely that we cannot even guess as to the optimal or minimally adequate follow-up intervals. This is critical because individuals quickly incorporate fortuitous consequences into the norms they use when judging future situations. For example, college students used to an annual income of $15,000 will adjust quickly to an income of $55,000 on their first job. Thereafter, an income of $45,000—thrice their college income—will be seen as inadequate. Longitudinal research is necessary to test the dynamic interactions postulated by P-E interaction theories.


Multivariate data analysis techniques such as regression analysis and hit rate analysis capitalize on sample specific quirks in the data to maximize the outcome variance explained. Cross-validating the results of multivariate analyses (i.e., applying the prediction formula to an independent sample of data) is necessary to determine whether meaningful, replicable relations exist between the predictors and criterion. Unfortunately, cross-validations of P-E interaction results are seldom reported.

Confirmatory Bias

A confirmatory bias occurs when investigators fail to examine alternatives that would disconfirm the model under analysis. Research on the P-E interaction model provides a good example of this bias. Scholars have not compared the performance of the P-E interaction model against that of alternative models such as the present status model.

The P-E interaction model uses information about the relation between the desires of the person and the supplies of the environment, for example, to predict an outcome such as satisfaction. The more parsimonious present status model suggests that the attributes of the person are irrelevant. It attempts to predict satisfaction using only information about the environmental supplies. In short, the present status model postulates that the environment affects the satisfaction of all persons in the same way (i.e., regardless of their desires, people’s satisfaction is directly related to the level of supplies the environment provides).

There is some evidence that the present status model predicts as well as the P-E interaction models under some circumstances. The circumstances under which this might occur are not clear, however, because most researchers have overlooked this possibility.

Future Directions

The P-E interaction model provides a valid and useful way of thinking about the interactions between individuals and their environments, but further conceptual development, research using longitudinal designs, and adoption of a conceptually sound approach to data analysis are necessary to advance our understanding of the dynamic interaction between persons and environments.


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