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Inferring Dispositions Using Causal Attribution

15 January, 2016 - 09:19

Learning Objectives

  1. Review the fundamental principles of causal attribution.
  2. Explore the tendency to make personal attributions for unusual events.
  3. Review the main components of the covariation principle.
  4. Outline Weiner’s model of success and failure.

We have seen that we use personality traits to help us understand and communicate about the people we know. But how do we know what traits people have? People don’t walk around with labels saying “I am generous” or “I am aggressive” on their foreheads. In some cases, thinking back to our discussions of reputation in Chapter 3, we may learn about a person indirectly, for instance, through the comments that other people make about that person. We also use the techniques of person perception to help us learn about people and their traits by observing them and interpreting their behaviors. If Zoe hits Joe, we might conclude that Zoe is aggressive. If Cejay leaves a big tip for the waitress, we might conclude that he is generous. It seems natural and reasonable to make such inferences because we can assume (often, but not always, correctly) that behavior is caused by personality. It is Zoe’s aggressiveness that causes her to hit, and it is Cejay’s generosity that led to his big tip.

Although we can sometimes infer personality by observing behavior, this is not always the case. Remember that behavior is influenced by both our personal characteristics and the social context in which we find ourselves. What this means is that the behavior we observe other people engaging in might not always be reflective of their personality; instead, the behavior might have been caused more by the situation rather than by underlying person characteristics. Perhaps Zoe hit Joe not because she is really an aggressive person but because Joe insulted or provoked her first. And perhaps Cejay left a big tip in order to impress his friends rather than because he is truly generous.

Because behavior can be influenced by both the person and the situation, we must attempt to determine which of these two causes actually more strongly determined the behavior. The process of trying to determine the causes of people’s behavior is known as causal attribution (Heider, 1958). Because we cannot see personality, we must work to infer it. When a couple we know breaks up, despite what seemed to be a match made in heaven, we are naturally curious. What could have caused the breakup? Was it something one of them said or did? Or perhaps stress from financial hardship was the culprit?

Making a causal attribution can be a bit like conducting a social psychology experiment. We carefully observe the people we are interested in, and we note how they behave in different social situations. After we have made our observations, we draw our conclusions. We make a personal (or internal or dispositional) attribution when we decide that the behavior was caused primarily by the person. A personal attribution might be something like “I think they broke up because Sarah was not committed to the relationship.” At other times, we may determine that the behavior was caused primarily by the situation—we call this making a situational (or external) attribution. A situational attribution might be something like, “I think they broke up because they were under such financial stress.” At yet other times, we may decide that the behavior was caused by both the person and the situation; “I think they broke up because Sarah’s lack of commitment really became an issue once they had financial troubles.”