Social Cognition and the Self
Chapter 6: Attribution
Introduction: Hate Crimes and Intent
• In the American legal system, it is believed that the punishment should suit the crime and
should reflect the inferred intentions of the criminal.
o ex) “Hate Crimes” are punished more severely than non-hate crimes.
• Intentions can make a large difference in how we interpret the meaning of an act, altering
how we assign blame and how severely we punish.
• The intent of another person is not an observable, measurable entity – it is a psychological
state that needs to be inferred.
o Inferences can be made with varying degrees of confidence, depending on the
o Greater confidence results in better decision-making.
• In our day-to-day lives, we observe others’ actions and the consequences of these actions.
We then attempt to infer what caused these events in order to determine the best course of
action to take ourselves.
o We react to both consequences and intentions.
o Did the person act intentionally? If so, what were the person’s specific intentions? Why
did the person act that way?
Attribution Theory tries to address these questions.
• We make attributions about the reasons for events we observe.
o Attribution: The end result of a process of classifying and explaining observed behavior
in order to arrive at a decision regarding the reason or cause for the behavior.
Heider’s Common-Sense Psychology
Fritz Heider was perhaps the most influential figure in the field of person perception and
o His book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, served as a starting point for
o His approach assumes that to understand the manner in which we think about people
in our social world, we should analyze the language we use to talk about people.
Through examining the words we use to describe why people act as they do, we
can get a sense of the types of reasons and motives that we use to categorize
and explain others.
o His approach is associated with an examination of “surface matters” (the events that
occur in everyday life on a conscious level).
o He believed in a “naïve psychology” which gives us the principles we use to build up
our picture of the social environment and which guides our reactions.
The starting point for Heider’s common-sense psychology (his analysis of the types of causes
people ascribe to the actions of others) was to ask what potential causes exist.
o Heider discussed two global forces to account for why people act as they do: those
emanating from the person (stable character, disposition, or temporary state) and
those emanating from the situation.
o Heider used the term person to refer to personal causality, or intentionality, and the
term situation to refer to impersonal causality, or unintentional events.
Person as Cause
o The force emanating from the person that gives rise to behavior is called the effective
force of the person.
o The disposition of the person is assumed to be especially powerful in determining how
1 perceivers ascribe the cause for why a behavior was performed.
ex) When shown a film of geographic shapes in motion, participants tended to
display anthropomorphism and attribute the behavior to disposition.
o There is a tendency to attribute an observed behavior to person-based causes.
1) Behavior engulfs the field, drawing attention to the person and becoming
more salient than the context in which it appears.
2) The most complete explanations provide a stable, clear and concrete cause.
o Social psychology has perhaps overemphasized the importance of traits as a form of
Situation as Cause
o The extent to which social pressure causes behavior is called the effective force of the
o Attributing a behavior to the situation is easy to do when the situational force that
pressures the person to act is strong and clear (ex: lying during a hostage crisis).
Attribution and Language: The Words “Try” and “Can”
o The words “try” and “can” are commonly used in describing behavior because they
reflect two important underlying dimensions that capture the relationship between the
behavior of others and their disposition – effort and ability.
o Effort is related to one’s intentions (what one is trying to accomplish).
Trying is determined by internal, motivational factors. It is a force of the person.
o Ability is related to what one is capable of doing.
What one can do (capability of accomplishing something) is dependent on both
the personal and situational force.
One may have lots of personal ability, but if prevented by forces in the
environment from acting on that ability (ex: cognitive load) one will not be able
May presupposes that one has the ability to perform an act and asks the related
question of whether there is any external pressure (ex: social sanctions) that
blocks the performance of what one can do.
Dimensions of Attribution
o Behavior can be attributed to a cause that is located either inside the person (person
attribution, internal locus) or outside the person (situation attribution, external locus).
o Behavior may be attributed either to stable or to unstable forces.
Can involves both the person’s ability (stable, unchanging) and the forces from
the environment (can be stable or unstable).
The possible causes of behavior:
Unintended Behavior Attributed to the Person (as Opposed to the Situation)
o Unintended actions can also be caused by the person.
ex) breaking an opponent’s thumb while blocking a shot during a game
o The term situational attribution has been mistakenly thought to mean that external
Internal Locus of External Locus of
(person attribution) (situation
Stable Ability Task Difficulty
Unstabl Effort Luck
2 forces led to the behavior.
Researchers have neglected the fact that the causes for some unintended acts
are not in the situation, but within the person.
Researchers have assumed that the perceiver’s primary goal in person
perception is to determine whether the cause for behavior is internal or
external; they have ignored important questions of whether cause is intended or
unintended, and whether the reason for an event is personal or impersonal.
o According to Malle (1999), reason explanations are used for describing intended
actions, and causal explanations are used for describing unintended actions.
The type of explanation people receive has been shown to alter their
descriptions of intentionality.
The Jones and Davis Theory of Correspondent Inference
• Jones and Davis introduced the first formal model of attribution processes.
o Correspondent Inference: an inference or dispositional attribution asserting that the
behavior of another person corresponds with stable personality traits of that person.
• The model examines the specific rules perceivers follow when engaging in an effortful and
systematic analysis of the behaviour of others (attempting to make inferences about the
traits, personality and disposition of the observed person).
o What factors cause a perceiver to infer that an actor’s behavior corresponds with some
o The Jones and Davis model focuses almost exclusively on trait inference as a reason
o Jones and Davis assumed that the goal of perceivers is to attain a ‘sufficient reason’
for others’ behavior.
o The Jones and Davis model is based on a perceiver’s analysis not only of the observed
behavior, but of the consequences (effects) that arise following the behavior as well.
o Perceivers must discern what effects were intended versus unintended, and what
intended effects carry causal weight.
o From an analysis of multiple effects, perceivers can make better inferences about the
internal state of the actors.
Three Ingredients for Making Correspondent Inferences from an Analysis of Effects
o In order for a perceiver to judge intentionality (make inferences about intent) by
looking at the consequences, these three ingredients must be present:
1) The actor must have knowledge of the consequences of the action.
2) The actor must have the desire or motivation to bring about the known
consequences of the action.
3) The actor must have the capability to bring about the desired consequences.
Factors that Promote Correspondent Inference
o How Desirable the Consequences Are
The desirability of an effect is the measure of how much the actor would derive
pleasure or gain from the effect coming to pass.
The desirability of the consequences of an action is inversely related to the
probability that the perceiver will form a correspondent inference.
Attribute-effect linkages based on universally desired effects are not informative
concerning the unique characteristics of the actor – they simply tell the
perceiver that the actor likes and wants what most people like and want.
o Noncommon Effects
To understand the real reason behind a particular action, perceivers analyze the
effects for both the chosen course of action and the non-chosen course of
3 When the consequences of one choice of action overlap with the consequences
of another, these shared consequences are “common effects”.
• When consequences do not coincide they are “noncommon effects”.
Noncommon effects can be particularly useful in attempting to understand why
a person acted in one way versus anther.
• However, too many noncommon effects reduce the distinctiveness of any
given effect and make attribution less clear-cut.
• As the number of noncommon effects increases, the likelihood of
correspondent inference decreases.
A few distinct (noncommon effects) unique to one course of action and several
overlapping (common) effects with other courses of action provide the clearest
case for correspondent inference.
o Situational Constraint
Correspondent inference declines as the action to be accounted for appears to
be constrained by the setting in which it occurred.
• ex) a senator voting for an issue along party lines
Situational constraint is not enough to rule out a disposition, but it should make
perceivers less likely to infer a disposition or have less confidence in their
o How Normative (vs Unique) the Behavior Is
If behavior is unexpected (different from how the average person would act in
the same situation) then a dispositional attribution is likely.
However, if it is unexpected because it violates what that particular person
would normally do (based on a stereotype or past experiences), then
unexpected behavior leads to a situational attribution.
o The Hedonic Relevance of the A