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Chapter 9: Causal Attribution. Social Psychology by T om Giliovich, Dacher Keltner, and Richard Nisbett . Why Social Psychologists Study Attribution . attribution - linking a cause to an instance of behavior - one’s own or that of other people

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Chapter 9: Causal Attribution

Social Psychology by Tom Giliovich, Dacher Keltner, and Richard Nisbett

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Why Social Psychologists Study Attribution

attribution - linking a cause to an instance of behavior - one’s own or that of other people

1. The Pervasiveness and Importance of Attribution

2. Explanatory Style and Attribution

Explanatory style - a person’s habitual way of explaining events, typically assessed along three dimensions: internal/external, stable/unstable, and global/specific

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Nonverbal Communication

  • Nonverbal Communication- an unspoken language of expressions and body language

  • Basic channels

    • facial expressions- reveals current moods/feelings

    • eye contact- reveals friendliness, shyness, aggression

    • body language (position, posture, movement)- reveals emotional states, status, cultural emblems

    • touching- reveals affection, interest, dominance, caring, threat, aggression

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Facial Expressions of Emotion

Ekman found that 6 facial expressions were recognized across various cultures







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Facial Expressions and Social Thought

  • Cognitive tuning model (Schwarz, 1990)

    • when others smile, we sense that the current situation is safe so we process information superficially (heuristic processing)

    • when others frown, we sense that careful thought about their words is required (systematic processing)

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The Processes of Causal Attribution

1. Attribution and Single-Instance Observation

Discounting principle - idea that we should assign reduced weight to a particular cause of behavior if there are other plausible causes that might have produced it

Augmentation principle - idea that we should assign greater weight to a particular cause of behavior if there are other causes present that normally would produce the opposite outcome

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Attribution Theories

2. Attribution and Single-Instance Observation

  • Correspondent inference- we can tell something about a person’s traits from observing their behavior, especially when behavior:

    • is freely chosen

      • person rallying for women’s rights is feminist

    • is socially undesirable (or unusual)

      • teacher who wears white hi-tops is free spirit

    • yields noncommon effects (one cause only)

      • woman who marries rich, stupid, ugly man is probably marrying for money

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Inferences Using Noncommon Effects

Prestigious School

Clinical Program

Desirable Location

Lots of Requirements

Prestigious School

Desirable Location

Lots of Requirements

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Inferences Using Noncommon Effects

Prestigious School

Clinical Program

Desirable Location

Prestigious School

Lots of Requirements

Desirable Location

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Attribution Theories (con’t)

3. Attribution and Multiple Observations

  • Kelley’s Covariation Principle

  • To explain other’s behavior we use:

    • consensus- extent others behave in same way

    • consistency- extent person always behaves this way

    • distinctiveness- extent person acts differently in other situations


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Internal vs. External Attributions

  • Internal attribution (e.g., Scott is good climber) made if:

    • Low consensus: others have difficulty climbing this cliff

    • High consistency: Scott has successfully climbed cliff in past

    • Low distinctiveness: Scott has climbed easier/more difficult cliffs

  • External attribution (e.g., restaurant is good) made if:

    • High consensus: others like the food

    • High consistency: Ann liked the food every time

    • High distinctiveness: Ann doesn’t like many restaurants

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The Processes of Causal Attribution

4. Attribution and Imagining an Alternate Chain of Events

a. The influence of what almost happened

counterfactual thoughts - thoughts of what might have, could have, or should have happened “if only” something had been done differently

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Counterfactual Thinking

imagining “what might have been” (mentally undoing events)

  • Counterfactual thinking can

    • regret over missed opportunities

    • increase our understanding of why event happened

    • affect our current moods

      • upward- imagining better outcomes (envy)

        • silver medalist who imagines winning gold

      • downward- imagining worse outcomes (satisfaction)

        • bronze medalist who imagines winning no medal at all

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The Processes of Causal Attribution

emotional amplification - a ratcheting up of an emotional reaction to an event that is proportional to how easy it is to imagine the event not happening

Medvec, et al., (1995) study of counterfactual thinking in Olympic atheletes

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Attributional Errors

  • Attributional Errors

    • Fundamental attribution error (correspondence bias)- tendency to overestimate internal causes of other’s behavior while ignoring external causes

    • Actor-observer effect- tendency to attribute own behavior to external causes, but others to internal

    • Self-serving bias- tendency to take credit for success and blame failures on the situation

  • Western (individualistic) cultures are more susceptible to these biases than Eastern (collectivistic) cultures


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Applications of Attribution Theory

  • Attribution and Depression

    • depressed persons often show a self-defeating pattern of attributions opposite of the self-serving bias

      • attribute positive events to temporary, external causes

      • attribute negative events to internal causes

        cognitive therapy that reverses pattern is effective

  • Attribution and Rape

    • people with a strong belief in a just world (“bad things happen to bad people”) are more likely to blame the rape victim

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Errors and Biases in Attribution

c. Causes of the Fundamental Attribution Error

1. Dispositional inferences can be comforting

2. People tend to attribute behavior to dispositions (they are motivated to do this)

just-world hypothesis - the belief that people get what they deserve in life and deserve what they get

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Causes of the Fundamental Attribution Error Continued

3. People are more salient causes than situations

4. Behavioral information is considered first, before situational factors

5. Because the behavioral (personality) characterization is rather automatic, it is incorruptible (hard to reverse).

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Errors and Biases in Attribution

3. The Actor-Observer Difference in Causal Attributions

differences in attribution based on who is making the causal assessment: the actor (who is relatively disposed to make situational attributions) or the observer (who is relatively disposed to make dispositional attributions)

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Errors and Biases in Attribution

4. Processes that give rise to the Actor-Observer Effect:

1. Assumptions about what it is that needs explaining can vary for actors and observers

2. The perceptual salience of the actor and the surrounding situation is different for the actor and the observer

3. Actors and observers differ in the amount and kind of information that they have about the actor and the actor’s behavior

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Errors and Biases in Attribution

5. The False-consensus effect

false-consensus effect - tendency for people to think that their behavior (as well as their attitudes, values, or responses more generally) is relatively common

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Culture and the Fundamental Attribution Error

1. Cultural Differences in Attending to Context

2. Causal Attribution for Independent and Interdependent Peoples

3. Priming Culture

4. Dispositions: Fixed or Flexible?