Person-Environment Fit Theory

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Person-Environment Fit Theory

Person-Environment Fit Theory:
Conceptual Foundations, Empirical Evidence, and Directions for Future Research

Jeffrey R. Edwards
Kenan-Flagler Business School
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3490
(919) 962-3144

Robert D. Caplan
Department of Psychology
George Washington University

R. Van Harrison
Institute for Social Research
University of Michigan

The authors thank Daniel M. Cable for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this chapter.

Citation: Edwards, J. R., Caplan, R. D., & Harrison, R. V. (1998). Person-environment fit theory:
Conceptual foundations, empirical evidence, and directions for future research. In C. L. Cooper
(Ed.), Theories of organizational stress (pp. 28-67). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Person-Environment Fit Theory

Theories of stress have long recognized the importance of both the person and
environment in understanding the nature and consequences of stress. Person constructs relevant
to stress research include Type-A behavior (Friedman & Rosenman, 1959), locus of control
(Rotter, 1966), hardiness (Kobasa, 1979), and coping styles (Menaghan, 1983). The environment
has been construed as stressful life events (Rabkin & Struening, 1976), daily hassles (DeLongis,
Coyne, Dakof, Folkman, & Lazarus, 1982), and chronic stressors such as role conflict and
ambiguity (R. Kahn, Wolf, Quinn, Snoeck, & Rosenthal, 1964; Jackson & Schuler, 1985), role
overload and underload (French & Caplan, 1972), and job demands and decision latitude
(Karasek & Theorell, 1990). This dual emphasis on the person and environment in stress research
is characteristic of the interactive perspective in psychology (Lewin, 1951; Magnusson & Endler,
1977; Murray, 1951; Pervin, 1989), which indicates that behavior, attitudes, and well-being are
determined jointly by the person and environment.

The contributions of the person and environment to stress have been formalized in the
person-environment (P-E) theory of stress (Caplan, 1983, 1987a,b; Caplan & Harrison, 1993;
French, Caplan, & Harrison, 1982; French, Rodgers, & Cobb, 1974; Harrison, 1978, 1985). The
core premise of P-E fit theory is that stress arises not from the person or environment separately,
but rather by their fit or congruence with one another. This simple yet powerful notion is
reflected in numerous theories of stress and well-being (Cummings & Cooper, 1979; Edwards,
1992; McGrath, 1976; Rice, McFarlin, Hunt, & Near, 1985; Schuler, 1980) and is largely
responsible for the widespread impact of P-E fit theory in stress research (Edwards & Cooper,
1990; Eulberg, Weekley, & Bhagat, 1988).

The purpose of this chapter is threefold. First, we provide a conceptual overview of P-E
fit theory, defining its core constructs and examining its basic mechanisms. This overview

Person-Environment Fit Theory

encompasses presentations of P-E fit theory from the original work by French and colleagues
(French & R. Kahn, 1962; French et al., 1974) through later developments and refinements by
Caplan (1983, 1987a,b), Harrison (1978, 1985), and Edwards (1996; Edwards & Cooper, 1990).
Second, we summarize empirical research relevant to P-E fit theory, including the original
studies conducted at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan (Caplan,
Cobb, French, Harrison, & Pinneau, 1980; French et al., 1982) and other studies relevant to the
basic propositions of P-E fit theory (Assouline & Meir, 1987; Edwards, 1991; Michalos, 1986;
Spokane, 1985). Third, we discuss conceptual and methodological issues pertaining to future
research into P-E fit theory. As this discussion will show, existing research has addressed only
the most basic propositions of P-E fit theory, and many unanswered questions regarding the
meaning and consequences of P-E fit remain to be investigated. Collectively, these questions
constitute an agenda for a second generation of P-E fit research that may substantially advance
our knowledge of how the person and environment combine to influence stress and well-being.
Overview of P-E Fit Theory
Conceptual Foundations

Basic concepts and distinctions. As noted previously, the fundamental premise of P-E fit
theory is that stress arises from misfit between the person and environment. The core elements
of the theory are shown in Figure 1, which depicts three basic distinctions central to P-E fit
theory. The first and most basic distinction is between the person and environment. This
distinction is a prerequisite for the conceptualization of P-E fit and provides the basis for
examining reciprocal causation between the person and environment. The second distinction is
between objective and subjective representations of the person and environment. The objective
person refers to attributes of the person as they actually exist, whereas the subjective person

Person-Environment Fit Theory

signifies the person’s perception of his or her own attributes (i.e., the person’s self-identity or
self-concept). Analogously, the objective environment includes physical and social situations
and events as they exist independent of the person’s perceptions, whereas the subjective
environment refers to situations and events as encountered and perceived by the person. As
shown in Figure 1, the objective person and environment are causally related to their subjective
counterparts (Harrison, 1978). These relationships are imperfect due to perceptual distortions
(e.g., repression, denial), cognitive construction processes (Weick, 1979), limited human
information processing capacities (March & Simon, 1958), and organizational structures that
limit access to objective information (Caplan, 1987b; Harrison, 1978).
Insert Figure 1 About Here

The two distinctions described above combine to yield four types of correspondence
between person and environment constructs: (1) objective P-E fit, which refers to the fit between
the objective person and the objective environment; (2) subjective P-E fit, or the fit between the
subjective person and the subjective environment; (3) contact with reality, meaning the degree to
which the subjective environment corresponds to the objective environment; and (4) accuracy of
self-assessment (or accessibility of the self; French et al., 1974), representing the match between
the objective person and the subjective person (Caplan, 1983; French et al., 1974; Harrison,
1978). Initial presentations of P-E fit theory (French et al., 1974; Harrison, 1978) indicated that
good mental health is signified by minimal discrepancies on objective P-E fit, subjective P-E fit,
contact with reality, and accuracy of self-assessment. However, subsequent refinements of the
theory (Caplan, 1983, 1987a,b; French et al., 1982; Harrison, 1985) point out that objective P-E

Person-Environment Fit Theory

fit has little impact on mental health unless it is perceived by the person and thereby translated
into subjective P-E fit (cf. House, 1974; R. Kahn et al., 1964; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).
Moreover, Caplan (1983) notes that, when stressors are potentially overwhelming, some
disengagement from objective aspects of the situation or self may dampen anxiety and facilitate
adaptation, thereby promoting mental health (Lazarus, 1983; Taylor & Brown, 1988). Hence,
current treatments of P-E fit theory emphasize subjective P-E fit as the critical pathway to mental
health and other dimensions of well-being. The nature of the relationship between subjective P-E
fit and well-being is examined in greater detail later in this chapter.

A third distinction shown in Figure 1 differentiates two types of P-E fit. The first
involves the fit between the demands of the environment and the abilities of the person.
Demands include quantitative and qualitative job requirements, role expectations, and group and
organizational norms, whereas abilities include aptitudes, skills, training, time, and energy the
person may muster to meet demands. A second type of P-E fit entails the match between the
needs of the person and the supplies in the environment that pertain to the person’s needs. P-E
fit theory characterizes needs in general terms, encompassing innate biological and psychological
requirements, values acquired through learning and socialization, and motives to achieve desired
ends (French & R. Kahn, 1962; Harrison, 1985). Supplies refer to extrinsic and intrinsic
resources and rewards that may fulfill the person’s needs, such as food, shelter, money, social
involvement, and the opportunity to achieve (Harrison, 1978).

Commensurate person and environment constructs. For both needs-supplies fit and
demands-abilities fit, P-E fit theory requires that person and environment constructs are
commensurate, meaning they refer to the same content dimension. For example, needs-supplies
fit regarding achievement should entail the comparison of need for achievement with

Person-Environment Fit Theory

opportunities for achievement in the environment. Likewise, demands-abilities fit regarding
quantitative work load would involve comparing the amount of work to be done with the amount
of work the person can do. Commensurate dimensions are required for the conceptualization and
measurement of P-E fit, because the degree of fit between the person to the environment can be
determined only if both refer to the same content dimension and can be measured on the same
metric. Without commensurate dimensions, it is impossible to determine the proximity of the
person and environment to one another, and the notion of P-E fit becomes meaningless. The
requirement of commensurate dimensions distinguishes P-E fit theory from more general
interactionist models of the person and environment, such as those examining the moderating
effects of personality on the relationship between environmental stressors and health (Cohen &
Edwards, 1989; Parkes, 1994).

Definition of stress. Although P-E fit theory holds a central position in stress research
(Eulberg et al., 1988), the concept of stress is not explicitly depicted in Figure 1. The omission
of stress does not threaten the internal validity of the theory, which is primarily concerned with
the nature and consequences of P-E fit. Thus, some presentations of P-E fit theory have defined
stress (Caplan et al., 1980; French et al., 1982; Harrison, 1978, 1985), whereas others have
avoided the term (Caplan, 1983, 1987a,b; French, 1973; French et al., 1974). Although stress is
ancillary to P-E fit theory, the meaning of stress has generated considerable debate in the stress
literature (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Parker & DeCotiis, 1983; Schuler, 1980), and proposing a
definition of stress consistent with P-E fit theory may help position the theory within the broader
stress literature and facilitate its comparison with other theories.

For this chapter, we draw from the definition of stress proposed by Harrison (1978,
1985), who states that stress arises when: (1) the environment does not provide adequate supplies

Person-Environment Fit Theory

to meet the person’s needs; or (2) the abilities of the person fall short of demands that are
prerequisite to receiving supplies. Three features of this definition should be underscored. First,
stress is defined not in terms of the person or the environment, but rather as their degree of
misfit. This definition avoids problems with definitions of stress as a characteristic of the
environment or as a psychological or physiological response by the person (for criticisms of such
definitions, see Edwards, 1992; Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Second, contrary to some definitions
of stress (Shirom, 1982), this definition stipulates that misfit between demands and abilities itself
does not itself constitute stress. Rather, excess demands generate stress only if meeting demands
is required to receive supplies, or if demands have been internalized as goals or motives of the
person, as when norms or role expectations are accepted by the person as guidelines for his or her
own behavior. Third, as noted previously, P-E fit theory views subjective misfit as the critical
pathway from the person and environment to strain (see Figure 1). Therefore, we view stress as
subjective rather than objective misfit between person and environment constructs. In sum, we
define stress as a subjective appraisal indicating that supplies are insufficient to fulfill the
person’s needs, with the provision that insufficient supplies may occur as a consequence of
unmet demands.

Outcomes of P-E misfit. According to P-E fit theory, subjective P-E misfit leads to two
sets of outcomes. One set of outcomes comprises psychological, physical, and behavioral strains,
defined as deviations from normal functioning (Caplan et al., 1980; Harrison, 1978).
Psychological strains include dissatisfaction, anxiety, dysphoria, or complaints of insomnia or
restlessness. Physiological strains include elevated blood pressure, elevated serum cholesterol,
and compromised immune system functioning. Behavioral symptoms of strain include smoking,
overeating, absenteeism, and frequent utilization of health care services. When such responses

Person-Environment Fit Theory

constitute risk factors for disease, as in the case of smoking, overeating, and elevated blood
pressure, the cumulative experience of strains over time can lead to mental and physical illnesses
such as chronic depression, hypertension, coronary heart disease, peptic ulcer, and cancer.
Conversely, sustained good P-E fit can produce positive health outcomes (Edwards & Cooper,
1988; Harrison, 1978, 1985).

A second set of outcomes involves efforts to resolve P-E misfit, depicted in Figure 1 as
coping and defense. Coping entails efforts to improve objective P-E fit, either by changing the
objective person (i.e., adaptation) or the objective environment (i.e., environmental mastery)
(French et al., 1974). For example, a person experiencing excess work demands may seek
training to enhance his or her abilities or attempt to negotiate a decreased work load with his or
her supervisor (Harrison, 1978). Defense involves efforts to enhance subjective P-E fit through
cognitive distortion of the subjective person or environment (e.g., repression, projection, denial)
without changing their objective counterparts (French et al., 1974). For instance, a person may
respond to role overload by overestimating his or her abilities or by downplaying or ignoring
excess demands. Harrison (1978) notes that defense may also include the denial of experienced
strain, such that the person acknowledges subjective P-E misfit but discounts its resulting
negative impacts on health. Another form of defense is described by French et al. (1974), who
indicate that a person may respond to subjective misfit by reducing the perceived importance of
the dimension on which misfit occurs, as when a person disengages from unattainable goals
(Klinger, 1975; Schuler, 1985). The terms coping and defense do not imply that defense is more
primitive or undesirable than coping (Caplan, 1987a). Indeed, defense mechanisms such as
denial can be adaptive, particularly when the objective person and environment cannot be
changed (Lazarus, 1983). The choice from among these alternative methods of adjustment is

Person-Environment Fit Theory

influenced by various person and environment factors, such as stable preferences, coping styles,
and environmental resources and constraints.

These two sets of P-E fit outcomes are likely to be interrelated. For example, coping may
reduce or eliminate objective misfit, which may in turn resolve subjective misfit and reduce
strain. Alternately, defense may attenuate the effects of objective misfit on subjective misfit,
thereby influencing strain. In either case, coping and defense influence strain through their
effects on subjective P-E fit. Conversely, strain may influence the choice or success of attempts
to resolve P-E misfit via coping and defense. For instance, prolonged strain may lead to
depression, which in turn may hinder social interactions and alienate potential sources of social
support (Cole & Milstead, 1989). This withdrawal of social support may limit the person’s
options for resolving P-E misfit, forcing the person to rely on defensive reappraisals rather than
instrumental coping efforts directed toward the objective person or enironment (Valentiner,
Holahan, & Moos, 1994).
Relationships Between P-E Fit and Strain

Relationship of needs-supplies fit to strain. P-E fit theory specifies three basic
relationships between fit and strain. These relationships are illustrated in Figure 2, which depicts
the effects of needs-supplies fit on strain. The horizontal axis represents the comparison of needs
to supplies, with positive scores indicating that supplies exceed needs, negative scores indicating
that supplies fall short of needs, and a score of zero indicating perfect fit between supplies and
needs. The vertical axis represents some form of strain (e.g., job dissatisfaction).
Insert Figure 2 About Here

Person-Environment Fit Theory

The solid line in Figure 2 depicts a decrease in strain as supplies increase toward needs.
This relationship is hypothesized for all need-supply dimensions. Thus, insufficient food,
money, love, social companionship, achievement, and opportunity for growth will produce strain,
whereas increases in these supplies up to the point of perfect fit will decrease strain (Harrison,

The relationship between needs-supplies fit and strain becomes more complicated as
supplies exceed needs. Three prototypical relationships between excess supplies and strain are
shown in Figure 2. These three curves correspond to different hypothesized effects of excess
supplies for needs on other dimensions. When excess supplies do not influence need fulfillment
on other dimensions, strain should remain constant (curve A), yielding an overall asymptotic
relationship between needs-supplies fit and strain. For example, food and water reduce strain
until hunger and thirst are satiated, and additional consumption of these supplies will not further
reduce strain (French, 1973; Harrison, 1978). Likewise, employee benefits such as health
insurance reduce strain up to the point of covering health care costs but have little effect on strain
beyond this point.

Curve B indicates that strain decreases as supplies exceed needs, yielding an overall
monotonic relationship with strain. This relationship may occur when excess supplies for one
dimension are used to satisfy needs on another dimension (French et al., 1982; Harrison, 1978).
For example, once a person’s need for control is satisfied (Burger & Cooper, 1979), excess
supplies for control may be used to bring about desired changes at work, thereby attaining needs-
supplies fit on other dimensions. The relationship corresponding to curve B may also occur when
excess supplies can be preserved for later use, as when funds beyond one’s current expenses are
saved for later use (French et al., 1982; Harrison, 1978). These two mechanisms by which excess