Theories of Causal Attribution in Social Cognition

Theories of Causal Attribution in Social Cognition
In social cognition causal attribution is one the most important models. In causal attribution we attempt to find cause-effect relationships between human behavior and possible causes which made it happen. There are seven different theories of causal attribution, and I shall talk about the Kelley?s covariation model and then talk about some biases in attribution.
Kelley?s covariation model

Kelley?s covariation model is a form of attribution model, possibly the best known of them all. According to his model, an observer attributes the behavior of people either to their person, the behavior is due the individual characteristics of the person performing the act, entity, the behavior is caused by the target, or circumstance, the behavior is caused by the circumstances of the event.

When doing this, the observer uses three types of information, although not all of this information is always available. These are: Consistency, whether the behavior is consistent across different situations, Distinctiveness, whether the persons reaction is the same in all cases or not, and Consensus, do other people react the way to similar stimuli.

For example ,

A pushes B: Interpretation of Information Causal
Information available Consensus Distinctiveness Consistency Attribution

Nobody else pushes B High Person
A also pushes other people Low
A has previously pushed B High

Others push B Low Entity
A pushes only B High
A has previously pushed B High

Nobody else pushes B Low Circumstance
A pushes only B High
A has not previously pushed B Low

From our example, we can, by way of causal attribution deduce that A does not like B, because A only pushes B and nobody else, and nobody else pushes B. If however the consistency is low, people look for other alternative causes for the behavior, i.e. they discount it.

The covariation principle has its uses, however, it has flaws as well, firstly, we don?t always have enough information available to form ?proper? attributions, secondly, most research on it has been done in artificial laboratory conditions, which do not give an accurate picture of the real world situations, and thirdly, people might use some other form of attribution when evaluating people?s behavior.

Later on, Kelley developed the notion of causal schemas, a kind of belief that is built from experience and used to fill the gaps in our knowledge. These schemas have some support from research Kun and Weiner, 1973, but other researchers do not universally accept them. One schema is the multiple necessary cause schema, which states that a particular event requires at least two causes.

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The Fundamental Attribution error

In the fundamental attribution error, people tend to make dispositional attributions for the behavior of others even when there are clear external factors at play. Ross discovered it in 1977.

A famous example is that of the pro- and anti- Castro speeches . In this study students read speeches written by their fellow students, which were either pro-Castro or anti-Castro. The writers either had had a choice to write pro- or anti-Castro speech or not. When there was a choice, the participants reasoned that those who wrote an anti-Castro speech were against him those who wrote a pro-Castro speech were in favor of him. When the participants read speeches when people did not have a choice, they still assumed the same, i.e. they still made a dispositional attribution although they knew that the students had been ordered to write that speech. They overlooked the evidence and made a dispositional choice, thus making a fundamental attribution error.

Possible explanations for the fundamental attribution error are cultural factors, the fundamental attribution error seems to be more prevalent in western cultures, in the west people are supposed to be responsible for their own actions and their own opinions, focus of attention, in which the actor?s behavior or opinions attract more attention than the background, for some reason it is more conspicuous against the background, and thus over-represented causally. There is also the possibility of differential forgetting, where people tend to forget situational attributions more easily than dispositional attributions, although the data is inconsistent (Peterson 1980, Funder 1982, respectively)

This theory was extended by Pettigrew (1979), where he argued that positive outgroup behaviors are externally attributed, and negative outgroup behaviors are dispositionally attributed. By this he meant that people refer to outgroups as doing ?good? things because something made them, and ?bad? things because they just are ?bad? or ?strange?.

All in all, the fundamental attribution error can be used to explain some quirks of human behavior, e.g. why people tend to attribute poverty and unemployment to dispositional factors instead of external circumstances.

The actor-observer effect

The actor-observer effect is considered to be an extension of the fundamental attribution error; however, in actor-observer bias we tend to attribute our own behavior to external circumstances and other peoples? behavior to internal, dispositional variables. Remember last time when somebody was rude tom you? You probably didn?t think, oh, they must?ve had a bad day, instead, you probably thought: What an unpleasant person. According to Baxter and Goldberg 1988, we tend to consider other people?s behavior to be more constant and predictable than our own. This is why we find it difficult to change our minds about other people, even after we get to know them better, and could be reason why first impressions are important.

The actor-observer effect can be overturned sometimes if you know your behavior is dispositional, for example you lend money to someone whom you know to bad at paying back because you feel sorry for him, and you know you only do it because you are a sucker for sore causes.

In a study by Storms 1973, he videotaped people having a discussion. Later on, he showed the participants the videotape either from their own perspective or from the other persons? perspective. He found that people made more situational attributions when they viewed the tape from their own perspective (as usual), but when viewed from the other persons? perspective, they made more dispositional attributions. Perhaps this knowledge could be used to train people to be better able to see their own behavior in the same way as other people do.

Possible explanations for the actor-observer effect are that we have more information about our own behavior, and so we are less likely to use dispositional explanations when describing our own behavior. Nevertheless, even when we get to know other people better we are likely to use situational attributions to explain their behavior. (Although from now on, I hope I will.)

In conclusion, these different theories all help us to understand human behavior a bit better, but none of these theories are a panacea to understanding all of human behavior. More research is required in order to develop more and more theories which might help us to understand it (human behavior) even better.

Theories of Causal Attribution in Social Cognition 6.9 of 10 on the basis of 2852 Review.