Reaching Causal Inferences

One goal of attribution theorists has been to identify the personal and situational determinants of causal understanding. It has been assumed that humans want to attain a cognitive mastery of their world. Further, people are regarded as naive scientists, logical and rational—albeit not infallible—and subject to systematic biases and errors. The following discussion introduces a few specific research directions and some empirical findings regarding causal inferences.

In the desire for understanding, it has been documented that causal search is not undertaken in all instances but is most likely given an important, unexpected, and negative event or outcome. This might be failure at a crucial exam, rejection of a marriage proposal, and the like. Principles found in covariation analyses regarding the presence and absence of causes and effects are important sources of causal information to help determine the answers to "why" questions. For example, failure at an exam is more likely to be self-attributed if there have been many prior personal failures and knowledge of the successes of others. In addition, causal rules are used such that, for example, if beliefs of multiple causality are elicited, then even in the presence of insufficient effort there will be additional attributions to lack of ability or to some environmental factors as causes of the failure. Further, the presence of some causes may result in other causes being discounted. One controversy associated with the latter process concerns the hypothesis that rewarding pupils for successful achievement performance reduces their motivation because the extrinsic reward results in a discounting of their intrinsic interest.

It also has been reasoned (again, with controversy) that the behavior of others tends to be ascribed to a stable disposition or trait inasmuch as explanations that capture enduring aspects of the world often are preferred, and the other is dominant in social perception. The underestimation of the situation as a perceived cause of the behavior of others and overattribution to the person has been labeled "the fundamental attribution error." This principle has been challenged in cross-cultural research, for it has been argued that situational attributions are more salient among Asians.

Another bias that has been documented in attribution research concerns beliefs about the causes of positive and negative events. Self-attributions tend to be given for positive outcomes ("I succeeded because I studied hard"), whereas negative outcomes elicit external attributions ("I failed because the exam was unfair"). This pattern of attributions has been labeled the "hedonic bias" inasmuch as positive self-directed emotions and the maintenance of self-esteem are fostered.

has revealed that when the behavior of a mentally ill family member is ascribed to a cause under personal control ("He is just being lazy")—in other words, when the cause implicates personal blame—then the likelihood increases that the ill person will return to institutionalization because of the negative emotions this elicits among family members.

Assignment of responsibility and blame is central in many other contexts as well, suggesting that in addition to being naive scientists, humans also act as naive judges. Other-blame, which is one indicator of marital distress, also is elicited by a variety of stigmas, including alcoholism and obesity, and decreases help giving. The anticipation of the negative consequences of being perceived as responsible gives rise to a variety of impression-management techniques that deflect this inference. For example, students publicly claim lack of ability rather than low effort as the cause when explaining their failure to authority figures (but not when ascribing the cause of failure to peers).

Adaptive and maladaptive attributions also have been identified in studies of coping with stress. Following a negative life stressor, such as rape, individuals ascribing this event to their character ("I am a risk taker") do not cope as well as those attributing the event to a particular behavior ("I accidentally was in the wrong place at the wrong time").

Individual differences in coping with aversive circumstances are linked with disparate beliefs about the perceived causes of negative events. For these reasons, attri-butional therapies have been devised that attempt to change causal beliefs so they are more adaptive.

In sum, causal beliefs play an important role in self- and other-understanding and significantly influence emotions and subsequent actions. The study of causal attributions therefore provides one of the foundations for social psychology and also has great relevance for other subareas within psychology.

Bernard Weiner

University of California, Los Angeles

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