Person-Environment Fit (P-E Fit)

Person-Environment FitThe person-environment interactional and transactional models assume that human behavior tends to be influenced by many determinants both in the person and in the situation. The models emphasize the effects of person-situation interactions on personality, satisfaction, and well-being and suggest that behavior involves a continuous interaction between individuals and situations. As noted by Walter Mischel, we can’t take a person out of personality, but, at the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that environments and social cultures, like people, have personalities and influence behavior and well-being.

The Interactional Perspective: a Definition

Norman S. Endler and David Magnusson have defined interactional psychology as the scientific investigation of a complex interplay of situations and persons in determining behavior. They further suggest that there are four basic elements of the person-situation interactional model. The first basic element suggests that behavior is a function of a continuous process of multidirectional interaction between the individual and the situations he or she encounters. Second, the individual is an intentional, active agent in this interactional process. Third, on the person side of the interaction, cognitive and motivational factors are essential determinants of behavior. Fourth, on the situation side, the psychological meaning of situations and cultures for the individual is an important determining factor. The interactional perspective may also be expressed as B = f(P, E), where B stands for behavior, f for function, P for person, and E for the environment or situation. Thus, in many respects the interactional perspective may be viewed as a synthesis of person and environment in which the interaction of the two is the main source of behavior. In attempts to assess and understand behavior, the various theories of person-environment psychology discussed below have in general mirrored the interactional perspective. However, as we shall see, within this perspective the theoretical frameworks have emphasized different concepts and variables.

Person-Environment Fit Psychology: Models and Perspectives

John L. Holland’s theory is based on the notion that behavior is a function of personality and social environment. The theory suggests that behavior is a function of the complementary match or congruence between the individual’s personality style and the psychological environment. Holland suggests that individuals enter environments because of their personalities and remain in those environments because of the reinforcements and satisfactions obtained through the interactions in that environment. In general, research testing the theory clearly indicates that individuals tend to choose and enter college majors and occupational environments consistent with their personality types. In addition, evidence suggests that to some extent person-environment congruence is related to measures of job satisfaction and stability, job involvement, work quality, productivity, and well-being but not necessarily to measures of decision making, sociability, and problem-solving ability.

Rudolf H. Moos’s social ecological perspective is based on the general principle that the way one perceives the environment tends to influence the way one will behave in that environment. Thus, Moos focuses on the social climate (the personality of the environment) by suggesting that environments, like people, have unique personalities. Just as some people are more supportive and nurturant than others, so are some environments more supportive and nurturant than others. In terms of research, the evidence indicates that people tend to be more satisfied and comfortable, less depressed and irritable, and more likely to report beneficial effects on their self-esteem in environments that they perceive emphasize the human relationship dimensions. The human relationship dimensions assess the degree to which people are involved in the setting, the degree to which they support and help one another, and the extent to which they express themselves freely and openly. In essence, people report being more satisfied and more productive in environments that they perceive to be relationship oriented.

The theory of work adjustment (TWA) views work as an interactive and reciprocal process between the individual and the work environment and grew out of research begun in 1959 that investigated the work adjustment of vocational rehabilitation clients. Based on results from their initial studies, Rene V. Dawis and Lloyd H. Lofquist developed a theory that has as its primary focus the proposition that tenure (length of stay on a job) will be predicted by a combination of satisfaction (workers’ self-reported job satisfaction) and satisfactoriness (e.g., supervisors’ ratings of employees as performing satisfactorily). Also important is how the two interact (greater job satisfaction would lead to higher ratings of satisfactoriness, and higher ratings of satisfactoriness would lead to a great job satisfaction). Thus, the theory focused on the interaction of the person and the work environment. Research evidence from a variety of settings supports the importance of fit between the person and the environment for achieving both satisfaction and satisfactoriness. In addition, there is a growing body of research evidence supporting their proposition that as a worker remains longer on a particular job, the worker will change in ways that are more correspondent (congruent) with the work environment.

Robert W. Lent, Steve D. Brown, and Gail Hackett recently developed a comprehensive model of career development that addresses interest development, vocational choice, and vocational performance. Central to their theory are three variables from general social cognitive theory: self efficacy (“Can I do this?”), outcome expectations (“If I do this, what will happen?”), and personal goals. Personal goals assist in organizing and sustaining behavior, although environmental events and personal history certainly help shape behavior. The model also includes Albert Bandura’s triadic reciprocity that indicates bidirec­tional causal relationships between personal attributes, external environmental factors, and overt behavior. The research evidence indicates that self-efficacy can be improved with self-regulatory scales training programs that provide both ways of obtaining better performance outcomes and drawing more appropriate conclusions from those performances. Stated differently, when self-efficacy is improved, job performance improves. For example, training programs have been found to increase the interest and performance in math and science for young women.

Lawrence A. Pervin’s model notes that person-environment interaction, and thereby questions of congruence or fit, involve relations between multiple personal goals and multiple environmental demands or opportunities for goal attainment. The questions of congruence or fit must be considered in terms of person systems, environment systems, and the relations between person-environment systems. What is important to note is that multiple goals (the person) are involved with multiple affordances (the environment and action possibilities), and the environment provides for action possibilities that are congruent for some goals but not with others. Goal hierarchies and plans are central to Pervin’s concept of the person. For Pervin, behavior is motivated, and the concept of goals is suggested as a useful motivational concept.

Brian R. Little’s social ecological perspective demonstrates the importance of completing personal projects in explaining and predicting human well-being and adaptation. More specifically, traits and personal contexts facilitate the pursuit of personal projects and a sense of adaptation and well-being. To the extent that people are engaged in personal projects that are meaningful, well-structured, supported by others, efficacious, and not too stressful, their well-being is enhanced and the person-environment process is rewarding.

Kenneth H. Craik suggests that understanding individual environment transactions involves the interplay between traits, goals, and behavior settings. On the person side are goals and personality traits. The environment is defined in terms of behavior settings that are implicated in the actions of people as they pursue major life goals. Behavior settings link people and environments according to behavioral rules and individual pursuits. Personality traits may be viewed as facilitating or thwarting the pursuit of life goals in a behavior setting context. According to Craik, traits, goals, and behavior settings may be analyzed in terms of the ongoing person-environment process.

Benjamin Schneider, D. Brent Smith, and Harold W. Goldstein suggest that people make the environment and that good person-environment fit (the individual has the characteristics that are similar to the characteristics of the persons in the environment or the organization) may result in positive outcomes for the individual over the short term, namely in terms of adjustment, satisfaction, and commitment. These authors suggest, however, that over the long term, this cycle may yield homogeneity in thinking, decision making, and action and, in this context, discuss some aspects of the dark side of person-environment fit.

Robert Hogan and Brent W. Roberts suggest that people choose activities and interactions that are consistent with their identities and avoid interactions that are inconsistent with their identities or their motives, goals, and values. These authors note that people’s past choices of situations tend to predict their future involvement in various environments. Substantial evidence indicates that preferences for environments effectively predict occupational membership, occupational tenure, and occupational change. These preferences tend to be stable over time because people tend to choose environments depending on their motives and goals.

Jack L. Nasar’s theoretical framework conceptualizes the person in terms of personality predispositions and how our perceptions of physical environments facilitate an evaluative image that influences meaning and behavior. The evaluative images that are formed based on these perceptions influence subsequent meaning of behavior. Stated differently, how we perceive the environment (pleasing, arousing, exciting, and relaxing) influences our view of that environment and subsequent behavior. Once again, the concept of congruence is relevant.


There are a number of conceptual and methodological issues regarding person-environment psychology and the research that has examined this process. For example, studies of person-environment congruence frequently implement a point-in-time view of congruence or fit. The primary approach has been to describe the person and the environment and explore their independent and interaction effects. In essence, the research generally is conducted in one point in time. However, a number of theoretical frameworks note that people tend to seek out complementary or congruent environments and that environments attract, retain, and influence these individuals. Bandura, for example, suggests that humans act on the environment; they create, uphold, and transform their environment in an interplay between personal agency and environmental influences. According to Bandura, people are producers of their life circumstances and not just products of them. Thus, these assumptions further suggest the need for research designs that run across time. Very few studies have empirically investigated the person-environment hypothesis from a longitudinal perspective. This very clearly needs to be added to the research agenda.

In addition, major methodological issues continue to revolve around ways of measuring people’s personality, interests, and environment, and congruence itself. From all indications, people are the strength. The person concept has been operationalized using a variety of traditional inventories of personality, interest, competencies, and values that have proven reliability and validity. For example, theories conceptualize and define the person in terms of motives, values, projects, pursuits, traits, and major life goals. The measurement quality of the instruments used is such that we can be reasonably certain that we have obtained a good estimate of the person side of the equation. However, actually measuring the environment or the situation has been far more elusive. There is no question that we need better (more reliable and valid) assessments of the environment. Stated differently, we are still in the early stages of our understanding of the characteristics of the situation or environment that affect behavior. Different from personality, we have no well-accepted taxonomies we can use to describe the significant dimensions of situational or environmental variability.

In spite of limitations, it seems that the above theories and models represent a cluster of attitudes, implicit if not explicit, concerning the relationship between the individual and the environment. Each theory does have its assumptions, even though at times they are not clearly stated. Each theory has stimulated some meaningful research that has implications for performance, satisfaction, and well-being. Many of the investigations have procedural difficulties, but the fact remains that, to a varying degree, the effectiveness of each theory has been empirically examined. In any event, these approaches hopefully will continue to lay the groundwork for more sophisticated theories, research, and practice.

See also:


  1. Craik, K. H. 2000. “The Lived Day of an Individual: A Person-Environment Perspective.” Pp. 233-266 in Person-Environment Psychology, 2d ed., edited by W. B. Walsh, K. H. Craik and R. H. Price. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  2. Dawis, R. B. and Lofquist, L. H. 1984. A Psychological Theory of Work Adjustment. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  3. Endler, N. S. and Magnusson, D. 1976. “Personality and Person by Situation Interactions.” Pp. 1-27 in Interactional Psychology and Personality, edited by N. E. Endler and D. Magnusson. New York: Wiley.
  4. Hogan, R. and Roberts, B. W. 2000. “A Socioanalytic Perspective on Person-Environment Interaction.” Pp. 1-24 in Person-environment Psychology, 2d ed., edited by W. B. Walsh, K. H. Craik and R. H. Price. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  5. Holland, J. L. 1997. Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Vocational Personalities and Work Environments. 3d ed. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  6. Lent, R. W., Brown, S. D. and Hackett, G. 1996. “Career Development for a Social Cognitive Perspective.” Pp. 373­421 in Career Choice and Development, 3d ed., edited by D. Brown, L. Brooks and Associates. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  7. Little, B. R. 2000. “Free Traits and Personal Contexts: Expanding a Social Ecological Model of Well-being.” Pp. 87-116 in Person-environment Psychology, 2d ed., edited by W. B. Walsh, K. H. Craik and R. H. Price. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  8. Mischel, W. 1977. “On the Future of Personality Measurement.” American Psychologist 32:246-255.
  9. Nasar, J. L. 2000. “The Evaluative Image of Places.” Pp. 117­168 in Person-environment Psychology, 2d ed., edited by W. B. Walsh, K. H. Craik and R. H. Price. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  10. Pervin, L. A. 1992. “Transversing the Individual Environment Landscape: A Personal Odyssey.” Pp. 71-88 in Person-environment Psychology: Models and Perspectives, edited by W. B. Walsh, K. H. Craik and R. H. Price. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  11. Schneider, B., Smith, D. B. and Goldstein, H. W. 2000. “Attraction-Selection-Attrition: Toward a Person-Environment Psychology of Organizations.” Pp. 61-86 in Person-Environment Psychology, 2d ed., edited by W. B. Walsh, K. H. Craik and R. H. Price. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.