What principles do the theories suggest that people employ in explaining everyday social behaviour and events

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Last updated: March 29, 2019

According to Heider (1958, in Hogg and Vaughn, 2002) human beings have a strong desire to understand and control their surrounding environment. This can be achieved by making inferences or assumptions about the causes of people’s behaviour and events that occur. These inferences can be described as attributions; “assigning a cause to one’s own or others’ behaviour”, (Hogg and Vaughn, 2002) and can provide a powerful base for prediction and offer some control over our social environment.

Forsterling and Rudolph, 1988 in Hogg and Vaughn, 2002) Much research has been carried out in an attempt to understand how people attribute causes to other people’s behaviour. This essay intends to look at the principles that people employ when explaining everyday behaviours, it will do so by examining the three main attribution theories; Heider’s Nai?? ve Psychology of the Layperson, Jones and Davis’ Correspondent Inferences Theory and Kelley’s Co-variation and Configuration Theory.Fritz Heider (1958) looked at attributions from the perspective of the layperson rather than the psychologist and how they would attribute causes to behaviours. Heider made an important distinction between the internal and external factors involved when making an attribution, calling those factors internal to the actor ‘person causes’ and those factors external to the actor ‘situational causes’, (Hogg and Vaughn, 2002). Take the example of a child enrolling in the local swimming club; here a person cause would be that the child enjoyed swimming, yet a situational cause may be that the mother had insisted the child attend.

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Ichheiser (1949 in Hewstone, 1989) found that the characteristics of the actor became closely connected to the act that had taken place resulting in a person attribution being made more frequently than a situational one, Heider argued that this led to an ‘underestimation of other factors’ (1944, in Hogg and Vaughn, 2002). Despite Heider’s detailed explanation of attributions his theory was not comprehensive as it merely outlined what an attribution was rather than explaining how it was made. Heider could also provide no evidence to support his work.Jones and Davis (1965) continued Heider’s work on attributions and proposed to ‘formalize some of Heider’s attributional ideas’ (Hewstone, 2002 p, 15). They suggested that the attribution process was carried out to determine whether an observed act corresponds to a personality trait.

For example a young girl who offers her help to an elderly lady may be due to a personality trait of helpfulness. If the word used to describe the act, as in the example above matches the disposition (or trait) then a correspondence inference has been made.However, if you witnessed a violent act but attributed this act to ‘messing around’ then a non-correspondent inference would be made. One problem with this theory is that one act can be due to many different intentions, using the example above the young girl may have only helped the elderly lady in order to get a reward, to appear kind to observers or because she had been asked to. Similarly, one intention can be shown in many different behaviours. Because of this Jones and Davis, suggest that it is important to establish whether the actor knew the consequences of his actions and had the ability to carry out the act.This can discovered by looking at several other pieces of information; non-common effects, social desirability, choice and disconfirmation of expectancies as well as motivational biases.

Non-common effects compare the consequences of the alternative actions that could have been taken with the actions that were taken. The more distinctive the consequences are for the chosen action, the more likely it is that a correspondent inference can be made, (Newstone, 1974, in Hewstone, 1989).The observer can also take into consideration what they believe themselves and others would do in the same situation; however it is important to realise that people usually intend socially desirable outcomes; that is they want to appear favourably to others. Therefore a correspondent inference is stronger when the behaviour is socially undesirable. Jones and McGillis (1976, in Hewstone, 1989) expanded this to argue that only behaviours that disconfirm expectancies are informative about the actor’s behaviour.This disconfirmation of expectancies is divided into two groups; category based where our expectancies stem from knowledge about a group of people and target based where it stems form knowledge about a particular person. This was confirmed by Jones, Davis and Gergen (1961, in Hewstone, 1989) who asked participants questions about selected candidates. In the condition where the candidates performed inconsistently with their job title the attributions made were stronger.

Another important factor the observer must take into consideration is the matter of choice, for example a student is asked to participate in a debate but is not allowed to choose which side to argue for. It would not be possible to argue that the beliefs of the student are truly their beliefs, however if the student had chosen which side to argue for it could be more accurately argued that these are her beliefs as no situational factors are involved. Although factors such as non-common effects and social desirability are important when making attributions it is also important to look at any bias that may be involved in this attribution.Jones and Davis looked at motivational bias and separated these bias’ in two; hedonic relevance and personalism. Hedonic relevance relates to any situation where the actor’s behaviour has an impact on the observer, the more relevant to the observer the more likely the attribution will correspond.

Personalism is a more defined case of hedonic relevance where the behaviour of the actor is directed specifically to the observer. Although Jones and Davis expand on Heider’s theory considerably Nisbett and Ross, 1980 in Hewstone, 1989) still argue that it does not provide an accurate account of how an attribution is actually made.However, the process Jones and Davis describe is a logical one and relies on the observer taking into consideration many different factors when observing a single action however the theory does not look at events where multiple actions occur. This theory also only looks at internal factors when making an attribution and pays little attention to situational factors. Kelley (1967, in Hogg and Vaughn, 2002) extended Heider’s theory that casual attributions were made in order to understand the social environment and unlike Jones and Davis looked at single and multiple actions as well as internal and external factors.

Kelley studied two different situations and the amount of information available to the observer. In the first situation the observer has information from many sources and observations; he is therefore looking for co variation amongst these various sources. When trying to establish cause and effect in this manner the possible causes can be separated into actor, entity and circumstance factors. An actor cause relates to the person carrying out the behaviour, the entity to the object the behaviour is directed to and the circumstance to the context in which the action took place.For example, you invite a friend to the pub, they decline, and you later find out that they usually decline other invitations.

Here the information the observer has received co varies towards an actor attribution. In order to make this attribution more specific it is important to use information about consensus, distinctiveness and consistency. It is these three pieces of information used together that gives the most accurate attribution. Kelley called this his Co-variation theory.In the second situation the observer has information form only one observation and therefore has to configure this information in order to discover a plausible attribution. Kelley found that in situations like this (a car accident for instance) where there is incomplete data to make a sufficient attribution people rely on causal schematas. These are existing concepts about which causes result n certain effects.

It is possible to have either a multiple sufficient cause where a number of causes may have caused the effect or a multiple necessary cause where a number of causes must be grouped together in order to produce an effect.To use the multiple sufficient cause theory a discounting or augmentation principle must be employed to establish which factor actually caused the effect. An example of this could be a student who receives bad exam results, they have been known to be involved with the police therefore all other theories such as bad teaching or lack of ability are likely to be discounted. Kelley’s theories provide the most comprehensive explanation of attribution as it deals with single and multiple events as well as internal and external factors.Much research ahs been carried out that confirms Kelley’s theory about consensus, distinctiveness and consistency however there have been several problems with Kelley’s theory. Garland, Hardy and Stephenson (1975) have shown that when given a choice about the information necessary to arrive at an attribution information such as ‘personality’ and the context in which the behaviour is occurring is chosen over information about consensus, consistency and distinctiveness.

Alloy and Tabachnik (1984) have also provided evidence against Kelley’s theory as they found that participants were not able to use this information effectively.The attribution theories discussed in this essay all view the observer as a rational person and describe a series of logical steps that the observer must take in order to make an attribution. In reality attributions are made much more quickly than the theories allow for. As Kelley himself suggests his theory is ‘an over complex model of common sense attribution’ and is unlikely that the observer goes through this set of steps when making their attribution. These steps seem cognitively expensive yet it maybe that the observer goes through these steps unconsciously.These theories also do not account for the role of the emotions of the observer when making an attribution. All three of theories despite being very different offer a good explanation of the relationship between the stimulus and the response and the perspective of the ‘nai?? ve psychologist’.

However these only focus on attributions made by ‘nai?? ve psychologists’ and do not attempt to explain how attributions may be made by psychologists and scientists or if they are even different from the lay persons approach, (Fiske and Taylor, 1984, in Hewstone, 1989).

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