Social cognition begins with
social perception, and social perception has the same purpose
as nonsocial perception:
Accordingly, the social
perceiver has four fundamental
A Brief History of Causality
Philosophical analyses of judgments of causality go back at least as far as Aristotle.
As a first
pass, we should distinguish between two kinds
of relations between cause and effect:
taught that knowledge of a thing requires
description, classification, and causal
explanation. He distinguished among four
types of causality:
the classic analysis of the conditions for
for inferring causality:
Postulates for establishing the cause of an
inference in epidemiology (Bradford Hill,
1965). Example; smoking and health.
Stephen Kern traces the history of our understanding of the causes of human behavior through an analysis of novelistic depictions of murder in A Cultural History of Causality (Princeton University Press, 2004).
In a sense, all of science is about establishing causality, and that goes for psychology as well as physics and biology. What causes us to perceive and remember things the way we do? What causes individual differences in personality? But as Heider (1944, 1958) noted, in social cognition the problem of causal attribution is one of phenomenal causality -- not so much what actually causes events to occur (which is a problem for behavioral and social science), but rather the "naive" social perceiver's intuitive, subjective beliefs about causal relations.
The empirical study of causal inferences begins with work by Michotte (1946, 1950), who asked subjects to view short animated films depicting interactions among colored disks.
In Demonstration 1, the red disk moves into contact with the blue disk, which moves immediately. In this case, subjects typically believed that the movement of the red disk triggered the movement of the blue disk -- what Michotte termed the launching effect. When the red disk contacted the blue disk, as in Demonstration 2, but the blue disk moved only after some delay, the launching effect diminished.
Subjects also perceive causal relations when the two disks move together, even when they do not touch. Michotte termed this the entrainment effect. In Demonstration 3, the larger red disk tends to be perceived as chasing the smaller blue disk, and the blue disk as running away. In Demonstration 4, the larger red disk tends to be perceived as leading the smaller blue disk, and the blue disk as following. Note the ascription --the attribution of human motives -- chasing and running away, leading and following -- to these inanimate objects.
While Hume argued that
causality was inferred from such stimulus features as
spatiotemporal contiguity, Michotte argued that causality
was perceived directly, without need for inferences (much
as Gibson proposed that such properties as distance and
motion were perceived directly, without the involvement of
any "higher" cognitive processes). But in the
present context, Michotte's most interesting observations
concerned the attribution of mental states to inanimate
objects. When ordinary people describe causality,
they very often do so in anthropomorphic terms,
ascribing human motives to nonhuman objects.
Phenomenal causality is very often experienced in social
Still, Michotte was not a
social psychologist, and he was not particularly
interested in social cognition. Within social
psychology, the study of phenomenal causality, and of
causal attribution, really begins with Fritz Heider (1944,
1958). Like Lewin and Asch, Heider (1896-1988) was a
refugee from Hitler's Europe; and like Lewin and Asch,
Heider was greatly influenced by the Gestalt school of
Echoing Lewin's formula, B = f(P, E), Heider argued that there were two possible causes of behavior:
In this way, as we will see, Heider set the stage for a major line of theorizing about causal attribution.
Unlike Lewin, however, he was not concerned about the actual causes of behavior, but rather the perceived causes. Determining the actual causes of behavior is the job of a professional psychologist, and (from Heider's point of view) social cognition is concerned with how the naive, intuitive, "lay" psychologist judges causes. So how does a person go about making attributions of causality?
Heider's own solution was the statement that "Behavior engulfs the field". Because we have no direct access to another's mental states, information about persons is provided by their behavior. Thus, the perceptual field consists of the actor and his or her behavior.
Heider further noted a general tendency for people to ascribe behavior to the actor. On the assumption that actors intend the outcomes of their actions, once an action has been categorized, the intention is given; and then the intention itself is derived from stable traits and other characteristics of the person.
This formulation is an extension of the Gestalt principle that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts". For Heider, the actor and the act are perceived as a unit, joined together by perceived cause and effect, in such a way that the actor is perceived as the cause of his or her action.
Note, too, that for Heider explanation stops at the psychological level of analysis. For Heider, Sue struck John because she was angry. There is no reduction to underlying physiological processes, which would involve an infinite regress of causal explanations. Heider is concerned with phenomenal causality, and with explanations in terms of "folk" or "common-sense" psychology.
Like Michotte, Heider employed a film
to explore phenomenal causality. In the film, two
triangles -- one large (T) and one small (t)
-- and a small circle (c) move in and out of a
rectangular enclosure. But Heider noticed that his
subjects typically described the film in terms of a "plot"
that attributed feelings and desires to the objects.
In other words, subjects organized the chaos of the film
by attributing intentionality to the objects -- giving the
film a narrative structure in which the objects behaved in
accordance with motives and desires.
Link to the Heider/Simmel animation on YouTube.
Here is Heider's own
description of the film (Heider & Simmel, 1944, p. 245):
The Michotte and Heider-Simmel animations undoubtedly set the stage for The Red Balloon (1956), a French short feature directed by Albert Lamorisse. The film portrays the adventures of a little boy (played by the director's son, Pascal) who finds a balloon whose movements have all the hallmarks of sentience and agency. The film won the Palme d;Or for short films at the Cannes Film Festival, and an Oscar for best original screenplay.
Naive Analysis of Action
For Heider (1958), the
key to interpersonal relations is the perception of other
people's behavior. We know what the other person
(P) does; how we respond will depend on why we think
s/he did it. Following "Lewin's grand truism", B = f(P,
E), Heider believed that people attributed individual behavioral
acts to relatively unchanging dispositional properties.
But unlike some later interpretations, "disposition" did not,
for Heider, refer only to personal dispositions,
such as personality traits; there were also environmental
dispositions -- features of the environment that tended to
elicit certain behaviors.
factor, in turn, creates a distinction between personal
and impersonal causality.
Even in cases of personal causality, though, Heider thought that naive observers distinguished among various levels of responsibility.
Although this is all a theoretical analysis, a study by Shaw & Sulzer (1964) largely verified these predictions.
For more details of Heider's analysis of the naive analysis of action, see Shaw and Costanzo, Theories of Social Psychology (1e, 1970), from which this account is taken.
The first formal theory of
causal attribution was proposed by Jones and Davis (1965),
as an elaboration on Heider's principles.
Their correspondent inference theory is
based on what they called the action-attribute
In this way, we make correspondent inferences -- that people's actions correspond to their intentions, and that their intentions correspond to their personal qualities, namely traits and attitudes. In correspondent inferences, an act and an attribute are similarly described -- e.g., a dominant person behaves in a dominant manner. This is known as the attribute-effect linkage:
Given an attribute-effect linkage which is offered to explain why an act occurred, correspondence increases as the judged value of the attribute departs from the judge's conception of the average person's standing on that attribute.
Thus, correspondent inferences are predicated on implicit personality theory -- the observer's intuitions about trait-behavior relations, and about how the "average person" would behave.
Jones and Davis understood
that acts are not performed in isolation, and that usually
actors have a choice between plausible alternatives.
In making causal attributions, people pay attention to:
Noncommon effects are assumed to reflect the actor's intended outcomes, and so correspond to his dispositions.
Jones and Davis argued that correspondence is greater for undesirable effects, which can't be predicted from knowledge of social norms, and which provide information about the dispositions of the individual.
Later, Jones & McGillis (1976) substituted expectancies for desirability. That is, correspondence is greater for unexpected effects; expected effects can be predicted from social norms.
"Since no one
is to blame, I demand no explanation"
The first empirical test of correspondent inference theory was reported by Jones and Harris (1967). Their study employed an attitude-attribution paradigm in which subjects were asked to judge the attitude of another person based on the target's expressed opinion and the context in which the expression occurred. Debaters gave speeches that either favored or opposed recognition of the Castro regime in Cuba, or favored or opposed racial segregation (note that in both cases, at the time, the "con" side was normative). The judges were further informed that the speeches were made under two conditions: choice (the debater could choose which side he would present) or no choice (the debater was assigned a position by his coach).
In the Castro debate, pro-Castro speakers were rated as actually favoring Castro. This was especially true in the choice condition, but it was also true in the no-choice condition. Here is a good example of the role of desirability and expectation: in the United States in 1967, even among college students, favoring Castro was both undesirable and unexpected. So, speakers who favored Castro were rated as actually having pro-Castro attitudes.
The results for the segregation debate were a little more complex, and depended on whether the debater was characterized as from the North or the South. Pro-segregation speakers were generally rated as favoring segregation -- especially if they had a choice, or came from the North. Again, though we see the role of desirability and expectation. Given the stereotypes about the American North and South that prevailed in 1967, we would expect Northerners to oppose racial segregation; Southerners might support racial segregation, or they might simply say they do, in order to conform with local (Southern) norms. But a Northerner, who advocates racial segregation, is doing something that is both undesirable and unexpected, from a "Northern" point of view. Therefore, the inference is that Northerners who spoke favorably about racial segregation really did favor the practice.
The general finding of this
experiment, then, was that attitudes were attributed in
line with the speaker's behavior.
Later, Lee Ross (1977) would argue that this general ignorance of situational constraints reflected the Fundamental Attribution Error: the general tendency to underestimate the role of situational factors in behavior, and to overestimate the role of personal dispositions. But we're not there yet.
A further analysis of causal attribution was provided by Harold Kelley (1967, 1971), who also expanded on Heider's insights. Kelley noted that we do not always simply attribute an action to the actor's dispositions. Sometimes we make more complex and subtle causal judgments. Kelley proposed a covariation model of causal attribution based on the statistical analysis of variance (ANOVA). He proposed that we infer causality from multiple observations of behavior, just as a formal experiment entails multiple trials.
Based on Lewin --
everything in social psychology goes back to Lewin!
-- he argued that there are 3 principal causes of
Following the ANOVA model, Kelly also argued that it was possible to have joint causes -- for example, an interaction between the actor and the target.
From multiple observations
of behavior, Kelley proposed that we extract three kinds
of information relevant to causal attribution:
In making causal attributions, Kelley argued that the judge performs a "naive experiment" in which each type of data varies one principal cause while keeping the others constant. By observing all 8 possible combinations (2x2x2), the judge can determine which element covaries with the behavior, and then infer that this element is the cause of the behavior.
Consider, for example, the
following observation: John laughed at the comedian.
Depending on the particular pattern of consensus,
consistency, and distinctiveness information available,
the perceiver would be expected to make different
attributions for John's behavior. (Slide: President
Obama laughing at a White House Correspondents' Dinner).
The result is what we may call (following Brown, 1986) a covariation calculus for causal attribution -- a framework for analyzing data about causation.
In his original paper, Kelley did not actually provide a test of his "calculus". But intuitively it feels right, and everyday observation provides anecdotal evidence that people do seem to use something like it.
In the movie 10 (1979; directed by Blake Edwards), Dudley Moore plays George Webber, a Hollywood songwriter who should be happy in his marriage ((Julie Andrews plays his wife), but who undergoes a midlife crisis stimulated by a chance encounter with a beautiful, younger woman (Bo Derek) who is on her way to her wedding. On impulse, he follows her to Mexico on her honeymoon. One evening, in the hotel bar, he runs into Mary Lewis (played by Dee Wallace), who recognizes him from one of Truman Capote's parties. They retire to his room, but when George cannot consummate their affair, the following conversation ensues as they lie in bed:
|Mary: George?||George: Huh?|
|Mary: Is it me?||George: No.|
|Mary: Yes it is.||George: OK.|
|Mary: Is it?||George: No!|
|Mary: It is me, isn't it?||George: No!|
|Mary: Has it ever happened to you before?||George: [Shakes his head in silence.]|
Well, it's happened to me before!
[She gets up, gathers her clothes, and leaves]
Mary has determined that the problem happens to her but not to George; covaries with her, holding George constant. Therefore, it is her -- at least, so it seems to her, which is all that matters in the present context.
Here's another example (this one from Roger Brown, 1986). On December 3, 1979, the rock group The Who began its American tour with a concert in Cincinnati, Ohio. The concert sold out -- half of the seats reserved in advance, half of the seats sold for general admission. When only a few doors opened, there was a stampede among the general-admission ticket-holders, resulting in 11 dead. The next concert, in Providence, Rhode Island, was canceled; and when the open date was offered to Portland, Maine, the town refused. On both occasions, politicians and newspaper editorials blamed The Who and its fans for the deaths in Cincinnati -- that the sorts of people who liked The Who were the sorts of people who would kill each other to get a good seat.
The other cities on the tour schedule went ahead with their concerts, and there were no other incidents. At the end of the tour, the general conclusion was that the tragedy was due to the specific situation in Cincinnati: sold-out general admission seats, coupled with the fact that only a few doors were open to allow people into the hall.
Here, again, the determination was that the effect co-varied with the circumstances, holding The Who (and its fans) constant.
More relevant, however, is actual experimental evidence. A classic study by Leslie McArthur (1972) -- McArthur is now Leslie Zebrowitz, the prominent authority on face perception -- constituted the first experimental test of the covariation calculus. McArtuhur presented subjects with event scenarios consisting of the description of an event, accompanied by consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus information -- to wit:
After reading each
scenario, the subjects were asked to choose among five
The results confirmed the essential predictions of the covariation calculus.
|When the actor's consistency is high, but the distinctiveness of his action is low, and the consensus among other actors is also low, attributions for the behavior are driven toward the actor.|
|If consistency remains high, but distinctiveness is high and consensus is high, attributions for the behavior are driven toward the target.|
|If consistency is low, but distinctiveness is high and consensus is high, attributions for the behavior are driven toward the context.|
|If consistency is high, and distinctiveness is high, but consensus is low, subjects don't quite know what to do, but they tend to attribute the behavior to the interaction or the relationship between the actor and the target.|
Here are the basic elements of the covariation calculus -- or, as Roger Brown called it, a "pocket calculus" for making causal attributions.
The covariation calculus is
not all that is involved in causal attribution.
McArthur's and later research determined that there are
other principles operating as well:
Jones and McGillis (1976) noted that both the covariation calculus and correspondent inference theory assume a "naive scientist" -- that perceivers intuitively perform something like an experimental analysis to isolate distinctive causes. In correspondent inference, the "experiment" focuses on noncommon effects, while the covariation calculus focuses on the locus of variance.
In some respects, correspondent inference generates a hypothesis which is then tested by the covariation calculus. If the correspondent inference is correct, then the pattern of consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness information should lead to an attribution to the actor.
But the covariation calculus stops at the level of "something about the actor". It doesn't say what that "something" is. If that is what the pattern of information shows, then correspondent inference goes beyond to make an attribution to some specific trait of the actor.
In the discussion so far, consensus, consistency, and distinctiveness were characterized as dichotomous variables -- high vs. low. But obviously each of these represents a continuously graded dimension.
Additional dimensions were added by Bernard Weiner (1971), a colleague of Kelley's at UCLA, who was interested in causal attributions for success and failure as part of his cognitive theory of achievement motivation.
In Weiner's view, people's desire to work hard
at challenging tasks was determined by their beliefs about
why they succeeded, or failed, at those tasks. According to Weiner,
people primarily attribute success or failure to one of four
factors: ability, effort, task
difficulty, and luck.
So, according to Weiner's
theory, in making attributions about success and failure
people pay attention to information about internality and
stability, and make causal attributions accordingly:
So, according to Weiner's theory, in making attributions about success and failure people pay attention to information about internality and stability, and make causal attributions accordingly:
To illustrate the process,
consider the following scenarios.
To illustrate the process, consider the following scenarios.
1. John passed the
1. John passed the test.
Why did John pass the test? Because of some stable attribute of John that other people didn't have. In other words, John is smart.
2. John passed the
2. John passed the test.
Like Leslie McArthur, Irene Frieze,
a student of Weiner's, did a dissertation showing that
people actually did use consensus and consistency
information to compute internality and stability, and thus
make "logically" correct attributions for success and
Like Leslie McArthur, Irene Frieze, a student of Weiner's, did a dissertation showing that people actually did use consensus and consistency information to compute internality and stability, and thus make "logically" correct attributions for success and failure.
Later, Lyn Abramson, Lauren Alloy, and
their colleagues added a third dimension: globality.
examples suggest, Weiner's dimensions of internality and
stablity are closely related to Kelley's dimensions of
consensus and consistency (Read & Stephan, PSPB
1979). High consistency increases attributions to
stable factors, while low consistency increases
attributions to variable factors. High consensus
increases attributions to external factors, while low
consensus increased attributions to internal
As these examples suggest, Weiner's dimensions of internality and stablity are closely related to Kelley's dimensions of consensus and consistency (Read & Stephan, PSPB 1979). High consistency increases attributions to stable factors, while low consistency increases attributions to variable factors. High consensus increases attributions to external factors, while low consensus increased attributions to internal factors.
In their clinical research, Abramson, Alloy, and their colleagues noticed that depressed individuals often made stable, internal attributions global attributions concerning their own negative outcomes -- that is, they tended to blame themselves for the bad things that happened to them, and these attributions extended to many different aspects of their lives. Now it's one thing to take responsibility for the occasional bad event. It's something else to take responsibility for every bad thing that happens to you. If you do that, you're bound to get depressed!
In their cognitive theory of depression, Abramson and Alloy proposed that a characteristic way of making causal attributions -- attributing bad events to stable, internal, global factors, was a cognitive style that rendered people vulnerable to depression in the face of a negative experience. And they developed the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) to measure this cognitive tendency. The ASQ was later revised by Christopher Peterson, and it's this form -- one for adults, another for children -- that's in use today.
The ASQ poses a number of situations, such as:
You meet a friend
who compliments you on your appearance.
subjects are instructed to vividly imagine the event
happening to him or her.
Then, in a "free listing" portion of the item,
they are asked to write down "the one major cause" of
the event. Then
they are asked to use 1-9 rating scales to answer four
questions about the event.
First, the subjects are instructed to vividly imagine the event happening to him or her. Then, in a "free listing" portion of the item, they are asked to write down "the one major cause" of the event. Then they are asked to use 1-9 rating scales to answer four questions about the event.
questions are intended to gather information about the
perceived internality, stability, and globality of the
cause, and the personal importance of the event,
respectively. The person's free responses can also
be coded for the three attributional dimensions,
although this information does not normally enter into
the scoring of the scale.
These questions are intended to gather information about the perceived internality, stability, and globality of the cause, and the personal importance of the event, respectively. The person's free responses can also be coded for the three attributional dimensions, although this information does not normally enter into the scoring of the scale.
were asked concerning other scenarios, such as:
Half of the
scenarios in the ASQ are positive, the others are
Half of the scenarios in the ASQ are positive, the others are negative.
Based on these responses, we can compute scores representing the person's tendency to make internal (Question #1), stable (#2), and global (#3) attributions -- especially in situations that are important to that individual (#4). Basically, by summing up the scores across items, and giving special weight to "important" items.
Abramson and Alloy
posited that a tendency to make internal, stable, and
global attributions, especially for important
negative events, was a risk factor for depression. Not a cause of
depression, but a risk factor. In technical
jargon, depressogenic attributional style is a
diathesis that interacts with environmental stress to
produce an episode of illness. That is, if something
important and negative happens to such a person, he or she
is likely to take responsibility for it and get depressed.
A person who made external attributions, or thought it was just a one-time thing, or was able to compartmentalize the event, would react differently. But it's the combination of negative events, coupled with a tendency to make internal, stable, global (ISG) attributions about that event and similar events that can lead you to be depressed.
Abramson and Alloy, and their
colleagues, have demonstrated that the ISG attributional
style is, in fact, correlated with depression. But that's
just a correlation.
Based on such studies, we don't know whether the
attributional style causes the depression, or the
depression causes the attributional style.
Abramson and Alloy, and their colleagues, have demonstrated that the ISG attributional style is, in fact, correlated with depression. But that's just a correlation. Based on such studies, we don't know whether the attributional style causes the depression, or the depression causes the attributional style.
But David Cole and his colleagues at
Kelly (1972) noted that the covariation calculus cannot be applied unless there are multiple observations of behavior. That's because the covariation calculus depends on observations of covariation, and there's no variation in a single observation.
In the case of single
observations, the judge can make correspondent
inferences. Or, he can rely on causal schemata
-- abstract ideas about causality in various
domains. Based on the presence or strength of an
effect, a judge can use causal schemata to make
inferences about the cause of the effect.
Consider, for example, the domain of college admissions. There are lots of different reasons why an applicant might be admitted to college: good grades, high test scores, playing oboe, or being a champion basketball player, to name a few. None of these causes is necessary, but any one of them might be sufficient. Thus, the applicable causal schema is multiple sufficient causes. If a talented oboe player gets into Harvard despite having relatively low SATs, then we attribute this outcome to the fact that the Harvard student orchestra needs an oboe player. If he has good SATs, but got into Harvard when someone else with comparable scores did not, then we can discount his SAT scores and augment his oboe-playing.
Suppose that you hold the theory of achievement requires both high ability and serious effort. As the old joke goes, there's only one way to Carnegie Hall: you've got to have talent and you've got to practice. Thus, the applicable schema is multiple necessary causes. If a student graduates with honors, then -- if you hold this theory -- you can infer that he's both smart and studied hard. But if he studied hard and still didn't do well, then you can infer that he's just not very smart.
But suppose you hold a variant on this theory, which holds that, when it comes to academic achievement, high levels of one factor can make up for low levels of another factor. In this case, the applicable schema is compensatory causes. If a student passes a course despite not working very hard, then we infer that he must be really smart. If a student passes despite low aptitude test scores, then we infer that he must have worked really hard.
The examples discussed so far involve dichotomous effects -- admitted or rejected, honors or not, pass or fail. But, of course, sometimes outcomes vary along a continuum -- like the A-F scheme for college grades. This situation calls for the graded effects schema. Suppose that you held the view that high ability and great effort are required to get an A in a course, but high levels of one or the other would be enough to get a C or a B; if both are relatively lacking, the student will flunk. If you observe a student get an A, then you can infer both that he is smart and that he tried hard; if he gets a B, despite being smart, you infer that he didn't try very hard. If he gets a D, maybe he was lacking in both areas.
Counterfactual Reasoning in Causal Attribution
Robert Spellman has noted that causal attribution in legal and
medical cases always involves singular events, which means that
judges (by which we mean jurors can't apply the covaration
calculus either. Because any individual crime is committed
only once, and any episode of illness occurs only once, we can't
even construct a 2x2 table crossing action/no action with
outcome/no outcome. Instead, she has suggested that jurors
and physicians apply a kind of counterfactual reasoning.
To take a medical example, of reasoning about the cause of cancer in a patient:
She further suggests that, under these circumstances, people attribute responsibility by a principle of counterfactual potency:
Causal attribution sometimes involves something like a calculus, and sometimes involves something like a schema, but causal attribution can also be implicit in language.
Consider the following examples of anaphoric
reference from Garvey and Caramazza (1974):
Here is another question of anaphoric
reference, from recent work by Joshua Hartshorne:
Consider the following
problem: Ted helps Paul. Why?
On the basis of such observations, we might hypothesize that there is yet another schema for causal inference, based on the syntax of language -- to wit: Causal attribution is biased toward the grammatical subject of the sentence.
But this isn't always the case. If the problem is changed, to Ted likes Paul, the attribution shifts from Ted, the subject of the sentence, to Paul, the object. This also happens with other verbs, such as detests and notices.
When Ted charms Paul, the attribution is to Ted; but when Ted loathes Paul, the attribution is to Paul. What makes the difference?
Brown and Fish noted that
the pattern of causal attributions seemed to be related
to the derivational morphology of verbs.
That's a mouthful, but the fact that it's a mouthful isn't its only problem. The real problem is that, in order to apply this syntactical schema, judges would have to consult a dictionary every time they made causal attributions!
Brown and Fish found the
solution to this problem by shifting attention from the
syntactic roles of subject and object in the
grammar of a sentence to their semantic
roles. As the UCB linguist Charles Fillmore noted,
there are two pairs of such roles:
A series of formal experiments confirmed that
people actually use these linguistic schemata in making
causal attributions. In these experiments, Brown
and Fish constructed simple sentences such as Ted
likes Paul from behavioral action verbs and
mental-state verbs that had been randomly sampled from
When the sentences were worded in the active voice, as in Ted likes Paul, the subjects attributions generally followed predictions.
This was also true when the subjects were worded in the passive voice, as in Paul is liked by Ted.
And also when the rating scale was replaced by a free list of reasons, where subjects could write about either Ted or Paul.
Finally, Brown and Fish employed a
quite different procedure, in which subjects read
sentences such as Ted likes Paul and then had to
make rating of distinctiveness and consensus:
Applying the Stimulus-Experiencer schema, subjects rated the scenario higher on consensus, which would yield attributions to the Target.
These linguistic schemata have important implications for the Fundamental Attribution Error, to be discussed below. We do not generally attribute causality to the actor. Instead, we attribute causality to the agent, or the stimulus, or the experiencer. In other words, the Fundamental Attribution Error is fundamentally misframed.
In any event, these linguistic schemata indicate that causal attributions are associated with the semantic structure of language.
The implication of this conclusion is that someone ought to re-do the McArthur study, with careful attention to the different semantic roles of Agent and Patient, and Stimulus and Experiencer, and determine the extent to which linguistic schemata alter the application of the covariation calculus. If you do this experiment, remember: You read it here first!
Fish considered, further, whether the linguistic
schemata reflected a "Whorffian" result -- that is,
whether the linguistic schemata implied that thought (in
this case, causal attributions) was structured,
controlled, or influenced by language (in this case,
semantics). They argued that the linguistic
schemata were not Whorffian in nature. The reason
for this is that English derives adjectives from verbs
by adding one or another of a relatively small set of
suffixes, such as -ful and -some.
So, the existence of linguistic schemata for causal attribution appear to be a contra-Whorffian result, in which thought -- something like the Fundamental Attribution Error, perhaps, but not exactly -- is structuring language.
Language and Social Interaction
These linguistic effects on social judgment remind us of the intimate relationship between language and social interaction. Viewed strictly from a cognitive point of view (as Noam Chomsky might, for example), language is a tool of thought -- a powerful means of representing and manipulating knowledge. But from a social point of view, language is a similarly powerful tool for communication -- for expressing one's thoughts, feelings, and desires. Without language, our social interactions would be much different.
Which raises the question of the effect of language on social interaction -- another aspect of the Whorffian hypothesis, I suppose. Do social interactions differ depending on the language in which they are conducted? Maybe.
Sylvia Chen and Michael Bond (2010), two psychologists at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, conducted an interview study of personality in native Chinese who were fluent in English. When the students were interviewed in English, as opposed to Cantonese, these subjects appeared more extraverted, assertive, and open to new experiences. The investigators speculated that speaking a language primes the speaker to express the features of personality stereotypically associated with native speakers of that language.
Like Norman Anderson's cognitive algebra, Kelley's covariation calculus for causal attribution illustrates normative rationality in social judgment and decision-making.
According to the
normative model of human judgment and decision-making:
One aspect of normative rationality is a reliance on algorithms for reasoning. Algorithms are cognitive "recipes" for combining information in the course of reasoning, judgment, choice, decision-making, and problem-solving. When appropriately applied, they are guaranteed to yield the correct answer to a problem. The covariation calculus is, in a sense, an algorithm for causal reasoning -- a recipe that will always yield the logically correct causal explanation.
To some extent, it is clear that people do follow these normative rules -- which is why the covariation calculus has been confirmed experimentally. However, in other respects they appear to depart systematically from them, causing errors and biases to occur in social judgment.
Some of these errors and biases stem from the very nature of social judgment, which is that it frequently takes place under conditions of uncertainty:
But there are other instances where people depart from normative rationality even though there is enough information available to permit them to apply reasoning algorithms such as the covariation calculus, resulting in systematic biases in causal attribution.
Chief among these errors is what has come to be known as the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE; Ross, 1977) -- the tendency for people to overestimate the role of dispositional factors, and underestimate the role of situational factors, in making causal attributions.
As with so many other topics in social psychology, the FAE was first noticed by Heider:
Changes in the environment are almost always caused by acts of persons in combination with other factors. The tendency exists to ascribe the changes entirely to persons (Heider, 1944, p. 361).
Here is Ross's statement of the effect, in his classic review of "The Intuitive Psychologist and His Shortcomings":
[T]he intuitive psychologist's shortcomings...start with his general tendency to overestimate the importance of personal or dispositional factors relative to environmental influences.... He too readily infers broad personal dispositions..., overlooking the impact of relevant environmental forces and constraints (Ross, 1977, p. 183).
And another statement, from a book written by Ross with Richard Nisbett, Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment:
[T]he tendency to attribute behavior exclusively to the actor's dispositions and to ignore powerful situational determinants of the behavior. Nisbett & Ross (1980, p. 31)
evidence of the FAE in Jones and Harris' (1967) studies
employing the attitude attribution paradigm.
Recall that the subjects in this experiment tended to
attribute debater's favorable statements about Castro
(and, to a lesser degree, racial segregation) to their
favorable attitudes toward these objects -- despite
their knowledge that the debaters had no choice in the
position they took. They ignored this situational
information, and made a causal attribution to the
debaters' attitudinal dispositions.
He also found it in McArthur's study of the covariation calculus.
example, in a control condition, people were asked to
make causal attributions in the absence of any
information about consistency, distinctiveness, or
consensus. Under these conditions, they probably
should have made their attributions randomly (setting
aside the linguistic schemata, which nobody knew about
at the time). However, the judges made more
attributions to the actor than to the situation.
McArthur also used ANOVA to
estimate the proportion of variance in causal
attributions that could be attributed to each kind of
information. Overall, the judges relied more on
consistency information, which drives attributions
toward the Actor, than consensus information, which
would drive attributions toward the Situation.
Subsequent research has
identified a number of sources of the FAE:
Now-classic studies uncovered a number of attributional errors, apparently reflecting systematic biases in the attributional process.
In the Actor-Observer
Difference in Causal Attribution (Jones &
Nisbett, 1972), also known as the Self-Other Difference,
people tend to attribute other peoples' behavior to
their dispositions, but their own behavior to the
The person tends to attribute his own reactions to the object world, and those of another, when they differ from his own, to personal characteristics [of the other]. Heider (1958, p. 157)
[T]here is a pervasive tendency for actors to attribute their actions to situational requirements, whereas observers tend to attribute the same actions to stable personal dispositions. Jones & Nisbett (1972, p. 80)
The flavor of the Actor-Observer difference can be given in the following anecdote from Jones and Nisbett (1972, p. 79):
When a student who is doing poorly... discusses his problems with a[n] adviser, there is often a fundamental difference of opinion between the two. The student... is usually able to point to environmental obstacles such as a particularly onerous course load, to temporary emotional stress..., or to a transitory confusion about life goals.... The adviser... is convinced...instead that the failure is due to enduring qualities of the student -- to lack of ability, to irremediable laziness, to neurotic ineptitude.
Notice that the Actor-Observer Difference sets limits on the Fundamental Attribution Error. That is to say, we make the Fundamental Attribution Error when explaining the behavior of other people, but not when explaining our own behavior.
Like the Fundamental Attribution Error, a tremendous amount of attention has been given by social-cognition researchers to the Actor-Observer Difference. One explanation of the Actor-Observer Difference is that actors have more information about the causes of their own behavior than do observers. Presumably, if perceivers had as much information about the behavior of another person as they do about their own behavior, they wouldn't make the Fundamental Attribution Error in the first place.
Nevertheless, subsequent research (reviewed by Watson, 1982) indicated that the Actor-Observer difference is actually rather weak.
We will return to this issue later.
In the Self-Serving Bias in Causal Attribution (Hastorf, Schneider, & Polefka, 1970), also known as the Ego Bias, the Ego-Defensive Bias, the Ego-Protective Bias, or just plain Beneffectance (Greenwald, 1980), people tend to take responsibility for positive outcomes, but not for negative outcomes.
That reason is sought that is personally acceptable. It is usually a reason that flatters us, puts us in a good light, and it is imbued with an added potency by the attribution. Heider (1958, p. 172)
We are prone to alter our perception of causality so as to protect or enhance our self esteem. We attribute success to our own dispositions and failure to external forces. Hastorf, Schneider, & Polefka (1970, p. 73)
Again, the self-serving bias may be illustrated by an academic anecdote:
In asking students to judge an examination's quality as a measure of their ability to master course material, I have repeatedly found a strong correlation between obtained grade and belief that the exam was a proper measure. Students who do well are willing to accept credit for success; those who do poorly, however, are unwilling to accept responsibility for failure, instead seeing the exam (or the instructor) as being insensitive to their abilities (Greenwald, 1980, p. 604).
And maybe by this observation about the power of prayer (from a letter to the editor by Charles F. Eikel, New York Times Magazine, November 2004):
Claims of speaking with God or hearing from God... are made by the same people who, when things go bad, say, "It was God's will", and when they go well, "My prayers were answered".
Much as the Actor-Observer Difference sets limits on the Fundamental Attribution Error, the Self-Serving Bias sets limits on the Actor-Observer Difference. That is, we explain our failures by making external attributions, but we explain our successes by making internal attributions. Of course, those internal attributions presumably entail the Fundamental Attribution Error.
An early review of the empirical evidence for the Self-Serving Bias was mixed (Miller & Ross, 1975):
We shall have more to say about these claims of attributional bias later in the supplement.
But claims that causal attributions and other aspects of social judgment were riddled with errors and biases led to the development of a large industry within social cognition, documenting a large number of ostensible departures from normative rationality. This list was produced by Kruger and Funder in 2004. A quick Google search on "Cognitive Errors" will turn up dozens more errors ostensibly infecting decision-making, belief, probability judgments, social behavior, and memory.
The Ultimate Attributional Error?
Obviously, the UAE is, more or less, an extension of the self-serving bias from the individual to one's ingroup. As such, it makes a great deal of sense. However, a review by Hewstone (Eur. J. soc Psych., 1990) indicates that evidence for the UAE is somewhat limited.
What accounts for these errors and biases?
One view is that they reflect a set of conditions collectively known as judgment under uncertainty. Under these circumstances, when algorithms cannot be applied, people rely on judgment heuristics: shortcuts, or "rules of thumb", that bypass the logical rules of inference. Judgment heuristics permit judgments to be made under conditions of uncertainty, but they also increase the likelihood of making an error in judgment.
Analysis of errors in judgment by Daniel Kahneman (formerly of UC Berkeley), the late Amos Tversky (of Stanford University) and others has revealed a number of heuristic principles that people apply when making both social and nonsocial judgments. Kahneman shared the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on judgment heuristics and other aspects of judgment and decision-making; Tversky did not share the prize as well, because by the time it was awarded he had died from cancer, and the Nobel prizes are not given posthumously.
Four of the
best-known judgment heuristics are:
For an an overview of judgment heuristics, see the General Psychology lecture supplements on Thinking.
heuristics can be employed in making causal
Taylor and Fiske suggested that causal attributions were "top of the head" phenomena, and not the products of the systematic thought implied by the covariation calculus.
A Confirmatory Bias in Hypothesis-Testing?
A similar story can
be told about another frequently cited
error: the confirmatory bias in
hypothesis- testing. In the context
of causal attribution, you can think of
"Something About the Person" as a causal
hypothesis to be tested by collecting
Inspired by a classic study of the "Triples Task" by Johnson-Laird (1960), Snyder (1981a, 1981b) proposed that social judgment was characterized by an inappropriate (and irrational) confirmatory bias.
Testing Logical Hypotheses
In their experiment, Wason and Johnson-Laird presented subjects with cards displaying three numbers, such as 2 - 4 - 6. they were told that the number string conformed to a simple rule, and that their task was to infer this rule. They were to test their hypotheses by generating new strings of three numbers, and would receive feedback as to whether their string conformed to the rule. According to Wason and Johnson-Laird, a typical trial would go something like this:
|8 - 10 - 12||Yes, that conforms|
|14- 16 - 18||Yes|
|20 - 22 - 24||Yes|
|Hypothesis: Add 2 to the preceding number||No, that is incorrect|
|2 - 6 - 10||Yes, that conforms|
|1 - 50 - 99||Yes|
|Hypothesis: The second number is the arithmetic mean of the 1st and 3rd numbers||No, that is incorrect|
|3 - 10 - 17||Yes, that conforms|
|0 - 3 - 6||Yes|
|Hypothesis: Add a constant to the preceding number||No, that is incorrect|
|1 - 4 - 9||Yes, that conforms|
|Hypothesis: Any three numbers, ranked in increasing order of magnitude||Yes, that is correct!|
Johnson-Laird's account of
the modal subject in this experiment goes
A logical approach would construct pairs of alternative hypotheses, so that the subject would offer a sequence that would prove one hypothesis and simultaneously disprove the other.
Something very similar occurs in a variant on the "triples" task, now known as the "Card Task" -- employed by Wason and Johnson-Laird (1968) for the study of formal (logical) hypothesis-testing, in which categorical statements can be disconfirmed by a single counterexample. In the Card Task, subjects are shown four cards, each of which has a letter on one side and a number on the other. The faces shown to the subject might be
The subject is then given a rule, such as:
|If there is a vowel on one side,||Then there is an even number on the other side.|
The subject is then asked to select cards to turn over to determine whether the rule is correct.
Wason and Johnson-Laird
reported that the modal subject either
selected the A card alone, or else
the A card and the 6
card. However, this is logically
Philosophers of science such as Karl Popper and Paul Lakatos have made compelling arguments favoring a disconfirmatory strategy for scientific hypothesis-testing. That doesn't mean that scientists always do it, and in fact many of them (including myself) don't do it very often at all. But it does mean that, technically, the disconfirmatory strategy is far to be preferred, on strictly logical grounds, to a confirmatory (or verificationist) strategy.
In both cases, it seems that
the subjects are employing a confirmatory
strategy: confirming whether the sequence
adds 2 to the previous number (or
whatever), or confirming whether vowels
have even numbers, and even numbers have
vowels. And, in fact, the literature on
human judgment indicates that the
intuitive hypothesis-tester does seem to
be prone to a confirmation bias.
It's this kind of strategy that Snyder and his colleagues thought they observed in social cognition.
Consider an experiment by
Snyder and Swann (1978), employing the
"getting acquainted" paradigm.
First, they presented subjects with a
profile of the "prototypical" extravert or
introvert. then they gave subjects a
pool of 26 questions, from which they were
to select 12 to test the hypothesis that a
target was extraverted or
introverted. The questions were
distributed as follows:
This bias was robust in face of a number of manipulations:
In this light, consider
an experiment by Trope and Bassok (JPSP
Trope and Bassok then
tested for three strategies.
in a further experiment by Trope and
Alon (JPers 1984), subjects
were given the task to discover
whether a target was introverted or
extraverted, but were free to generate
their own questions, rather than
forced to select from a pool of
questions supplied by the
experimenter. The subjects'
questions were then coded:
The result was that there was little evidence of biased questioning, suggesting that the Snyder studies may have forced subjects to do something that they wouldn't ordinarily do. In fact, 73% of the questions were coded as non-directional, with the remainder roughly balanced between consistent and non-consistent.
So, it turns out that the Snyder studies don't provide good evidence for a confirmatory strategy in hypothesis-testing, which motivates us to examine the whole claim a little more closely. It turns out that the confirmatory bias is not all it's cracked up to be: it's not really that all-pervasive, it's not really confirmatory in nature, and it's not really a bias.
Logical Hypothesis-testing Revisited
Consider a conceptual
replication and extension of the "Card
Task" by Johnson-Laird et al.
(1972). In this study, subjects
were given a logical hypothesis of the
form if P then Q -- which, of
course is logically tested by
selecting P and Not Q.
To be fair, it's clear that subjects don't always test hypotheses properly. They don't always handle abstract representations of problems the way they should. They tend to ignore p(evidence | hypothesis is untrue). But in familiar domains, when the structure of the task is made clear to them, they are given a logical hypothesis to test against an alternative, given information about diagnosticity, (or permitted to formulate their own questions), subjects aren't nearly as irrational, illogical, or stupid as some people like to think they are.
The broader point is that people may behave normatively when they understand the task they have been given. When they don't understand the task, it seems hardly fair for us to criticize them for behaving inappropriately. The general principle here is that, when evaluating performance, we need to understand the experimental situation from the subject's point of view. Until we have such an analysis, we probably should hold off on drawing conclusions about bias and irrationality.
Is a Confirmatory Bias Always Bad?
Just to make muddy the waters further, it's not clear that a confirmatory bias is always a bad way to test a hypothesis.
Consider one more analysis, by Klayman and Ha (1987), on rule-discovery as hypothesis testing. They asked subjects to consider a set of objects which differed from another set in some unspecified way, and gave them the task of finding a rule that will exactly specify the members of the target set. Thus, effectively, subjects were asked to test a hypothesis concerning a rule, by making a prediction about whether a given object is in the target set. This is essentially what goes on in concept-identification, and it's also what goes on in the "Triples Task".
Anyway, K&H looked
for two kinds of hypothesis-tests:
Consider the wide
variety of relations between the
hypothesized rule and the correct
rule in hypothesis-testing
Under conditions such as these, unambiguous falsification is impossible, and the positive test strategy is still preferable under many conditions.
This is especially true when you consider the costs associated with the positive and negative test strategies. Consider a real-world variant: if a student gets better than 1300 on the GRE, then s/he will be a good graduate student. If you really want to test the hypothesis using the prescribed negative test strategy, then you would need to admit some poor graduate students (Not Q). But the cost of admitting poor students to graduate school is simply too great to bear.
The bottom line is similar to the lessons drawn concerning judgment heuristics. From a strictly prescriptive point of view, disconfirmation should be the goal of all hypothesis-testing. And, in formal terms, the best route to the goal of disconfirmation is a negative test strategy. But the negative test strategy may be impossible in probabilistic environments, where disconfirmation is not informative. And even when the negative test strategy is possible, it can be very expensive, and makes considerable demands on cognitive capacity.
For these reasons, Klayman and Ha called for a re-evaluation of "confirmation bias". They noted that a number of phenomena, fall under the rubric of a positive test strategy: rule discovery, concept identification, general hypothesis-testing (like the Card Problem), intuitive personality testing, judgments of contingency, and trial-and-error learning. In each of these cases, the positive test strategy is a generally useful heuristic, even if it is normatively wrong.
"confirmatory bias in
hypothesis testing" isn't
really a confirmatory bias
Judgment heuristics, and our biases in hypothesis testing, and the like seem to undermine the assumption, popular in classical philosophy and early cognitive psychology, that the decision-maker is logical and rational -- has an intuitive understanding of statistical principles bearing on sampling, correlation, and probability, follows the principles of formal logic to make inferences, and makes decisions according to the principles of rational choice.
In fact, psychological research shows that when people think, solve problems, make judgments, decisions, and choices, they depart in important ways from the prescriptions of normative rationality. These departures, in turn, challenge the view of humans as rational creatures -- or do they?
The basic functions of learning, perceiving, and remembering depend intimately on judgment, inference, reasoning, and problem solving. In this lecture, I focus on these aspects of thinking. How do we reason about objects and events in order to make judgments and decisions concerning them?
According to the normative model of human judgment and decision making, people follow the principles of logical inference when reasoning about events. Their judgments, decisions, and choices are based on a principle of rational self-interest. Rational self-interest is expressed in the principle of optimality, which means that people seek to maximize their gains and minimize their losses. It is also expressed in the principle of utility, which means that people seek to achieve their goals in as efficient a manner as possible. The normative model of human judgment and decision making is enshrined in traditional economic theory as the principle of rational choice. In psychology, rational choice theory is an idealized description of how judgments and decisions are made.
But in these lectures, we noted a number of departures from normative rationality, particularly with respect to attributions of causality.
These effects seem to undermine the popular assumption of classical philosophy, and early cognitive psychology, that humans are logical, rational decision makers -- who intuitively understand such statistical principles as sampling, correlation, and probability, and who intuitively follow normative rules of inference to make optimal decisions.
But do the kinds of effects documented here really support the conclusion that humans are irrational? Not necessarily. Normative rationality is an idealized description of human thought, a set of prescriptive rules about how people ought to make judgments and decisions under ideal circumstances. But circumstances are not always ideal. It may very well be that most of our judgments are made under conditions of uncertainty, and most of the problems we encounter are ill-defined. And even when they're not, all the information we need may not be available, or it may be too uneconomical to obtain it. Under these circumstances, heuristics are our best bet. They allow fairly adaptive judgments to be made. Yes, perhaps we should appreciate more how they can mislead us, and yes, perhaps we should try harder to apply algorithms when they are applicable, but in the final analysis:
It is rational to inject economies into decision making, so long as you are willing to pay the price of making a mistake.
Human beings are rational after all, it seems. The problem, as noted by William Simon, is that human rationality is bounded. We have a limited capacity for processing information, which prevents us from attending to all the relevant information, and from performing complex calculations in our heads. We live with these limitations, but within these limitations we do the best we can with what we've got. Simon argues that we can improve human decision-making by taking account of these limits, and by understanding the liabilities attached to various judgment heuristics. But there's no escaping judgment heuristics because there's no escaping judgment under uncertainty, and there's no escaping the limitations on human cognitive capacity.
Simon's viewpoint is well expressed in his work on satisficing in organizational decision-making -- work that won him the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Contrary to the precepts of normative rationality, Simon observed that neither people nor organizations necessarily insist on making optimal choices -- that is, always choosing that single option that most maximizes gains and most minimizes losses. Rather, Simon showed that organizations evaluate all the alternatives available to them, and then identify those options whose outcomes are satisfactory (hence the name, satisficing). The choice among these satisfactory outcomes may be arbitrary, or it may be based on non-economic considerations. But it rarely is the optimal choice, because the organization focuses on satisficing, not optimizing.
Satisficing often governs job assignments and personnel selection. Otherwise, people might be overqualified for their jobs, in that they have skills that are way beyond what is needed for the job they will perform.
Satisficing also seems to underlie affirmative action programs. In affirmative action, we create a pool of candidates, all of whom are qualified for a position. But assignment to the position might not go to the candidate with the absolutely "highest" qualifications. Instead, the final choice among qualified candidates might be dictated by other considerations, such as an organizational desire to increase ethnic diversity, or to achieve gender or racial balance. Affirmative action works so long as all the candidates in the pool are qualified for the job.
Another way of stating Simon's principles of bounded rationality and satisficing is with the idea of "fast and frugal heuristics" proposed by the German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer.
The bottom line in the study of cognition is that humans are, first and foremost, cognitive beings, whose behavior is governed by percepts, memories, thoughts, and ideas (as well as by feelings, emotions, motives, and goals). Humans process information in order to understand themselves and the world around them. But human cognition is not tied to the information in the environment.
We go beyond the information given by the environment, making inferences in the course of perceiving and remembering, considering not only what's out there but also what might be out there, not only what happened in the past but what might have happened.
In other cases, we don't use all the information we have. Judgments of categorization and similarity are made not by a mechanistic count of overlapping features, but also by paying attention to typicality. We reason about all sorts of things, but our reasoning is not tied to normative principles. We do the best we can under conditions of uncertainty.
In summary, we cannot understand human action without understanding human thought, and we can't understand human thought solely in terms of events in the current or past environment. In order to understand how people think, we have to understand how objects and events are represented in the mind. And we also have to understand that these mental representations are shaped by a variety of processes -- emotional and motivational as well as cognitive -- so that the representations in our minds do not necessarily conform to the objects and events that they represent.
Nevertheless, it is these representations that determine what we do, as we'll see more clearly when we take up the study of personality and social interaction.
The bottom line is that, precisely because they inject economies into the judgment process, the use of judgment heuristics does not necessarily reflect a departure from normative rationality. So long as we are willing to pay the price of error, the use of what Gigerenzer calls "fast and frugal heuristics" can be very rational indeed -- because it enables us to make everyday judgments quickly, with little effort -- and mostly correctly.
other hand, some psychologists have taken the
position that judgment heuristics and biases are
not "rational" shortcuts, but rather the tools
of lazy reasoners. I have sometimes called
these theorists the "People Are Stupid" School
of Psychology, also PASSP, PeopleAreStupidism,
or simply Stupidism (Kihlstrom, 2004) -- a
school of psychology that occupies a place in
the history of the field alongside the
structuralist, functionalist, behaviorist, and
Choosing Not to Choose
Because We Can't Choose Anyway -- and Because We Don't Know What We Want
"We don't know what our taste is, and we don't know what we are seeing. I'm a great believer in the idea of not choosing based on our taste" -- this from Sheena Iyengar, a social psychologist at Columbia University Business School, and author of the Art of Choosing (2010), discussing how she chooses what she will wear, and how she will decorate her apartment ("An Expert on choice chooses" by Penelope Green, New York Times, 03/18/2010; see also "To Choose or Not to Choose" by Evan R. Goldstein, chronicle of Higher Education, 03/19/2010).
In fact, Iyengar relies on consensus of a sort of "committee of experts" consisting of her husband, friends, and her students. Now, Iyengar is blind, so it's not surprising that she relies on others to tell her how she looks and what her apartment looks like. But notice that this isn't just a strategy for coping with her personal disability-- she actually believes that "We don't know what our taste is".
To the extent that it is really
a trend in social psychology -- and I'm not
entirely sure that it is -- "People Are
Stupid"-ism appears to have a number of
All of this
would be well and good, I suppose, if it were
actually true that social (and nonsocial)
cognition is riddled with error and bias; that
automatic processes dominate conscious ones;
and that free will is an illusion. But
it's not necessarily the case.
In particular, the Actor-Observer Difference has recently been challenged by Malle (2006), who provided the first comprehensive review of this literature since Watson (1982). In contrast to Watson, who offered a narrative review of a selected subset of the literature available to him, Malle performed a quantitative meta-analysis of 173 published studies. For each, he calculated a bias score representing the extent of the Actor-Observer difference:
The results were the same when Malle looked at a subset of studies involving positive and negative events. Here, there was evidence for a weak bias toward external attributions for negative events and internal attributions for positive events -- but the bias was very weak.
And, if you think about it, there wasn't much evidence for the fundamental attribution error. If there is little or no actor-observer difference in causal attribution, then people make attributions about others the same way they make attributions about themselves. And these attributions appear to consist of a nicely balanced mix of the internal and the external.
So, why all this
attention to the Fundamental Attribution
Error, the Actor-Observer Difference, and the
like? Apparently, it takes a long time
to correct the record. In another
analysis, Malle plotted the magnitude of the
Actor-Observer difference as a function of
when the study was published.
In the final analysis, it may be that the classic literature on causal attribution -- the literature that dominates most lectures and textbooks is based on a misconception concerning causal relations in social interaction.
In the first place, consider what started it all: What E.E. Jones called "Lewin's grand truism",
B = f(P, E).
Heider took this scientific statement about the actual causes of behavior as a framework for thinking about the naive scientist's analysis of phenomenal or perceived causality. Just as traditional personality and social psychologists attributed causality to the person (among personality psychologists) or the environment (among social psychologists), Heider assumed that the naive psychologist did pretty much the same thing.
But this argument assumes that P and E are independent of each other -- which was not Lewin's idea at all!. Lewin's view was that P and E were interdependent, and that together they constituted a single field, which he sometimes called the Life Space.
Moreover, according to the Doctrine of Interactionism, we now understand that P constructs E through his or her behavior (evocation, selection, and behavioral manipulation), and through his or her mental activity (cognitive transformation).
Therefore, considering "Lewin's
grand truism" and the Doctrine of
Interactionism, it appears that Heider -- and
especially all the social psychologists who
followed his lead -- made a false
distinction between the person and the
The temptation is to say that we should start the study of causal attribution all over again, from the beginning, abandoning the false distinction between the person and the environment and embracing the implications of the Doctrine of Mentalism and the Doctrine of Interactionism -- and the psychological argument that it's not the situation that causes behavior, but the perception of the situation.
Just such a re-start has been attempted by Bertram Malle (2005), in what he calls a folk-conceptual theory of causal attribution. In this work, Malle abandons the Heiderian model of the social perceiver as naive scientist, and seeks to understand how ordinary people actually reason about behavior. After all, that's what social cognition tries to understand: how people -- folk -- think about themselves and other people.
Malle argues that the
folk-conceptualization of causality makes a
distinction between two kinds of behaviors:
The reasons people give for
voluntary actions typically form a combination
of belief and desire. In the
folk-conceptualization of causality, mental
states of belief and desire are necessary
precursors to intentional action.
The actor's mental state is
often marked linguistically.
The distinction between marked
and unmarked mental states is important,
because the absence of explicit markers for
the actor's beliefs and desires can confuse
internal with external causes.
While reasons apply only to
intentional acts, causes can apply to any
physical event, whether it is behavioral or
not. Malle argues that causes can be
arrayed on several dimensions corresponding to
the dimensions familiar from the discussion
Whether the behavior is
explained by a cause or a reason, the outcome
is often controlled by the presence of factors
that mediate between the cause and the effect:
Beliefs and desires, in turn,
may be explained in terms of causes that make
no assumption of subjectivity or
rationality. These causal
antecedents of reasons may come in many
forms, for example:
Malle doesn't offer anything like Kelley's covariation calculus for causal attribution, but he does provide flowcharts that trace the logic of folk explanation.
Here's what the
flowchart looks like as a whole:
As persuasive as Malle's analysis of the folk conception of causation might be, it is an empirical question whether it alters our understanding of causal attribution.
Malle and his colleagues (2007) performed a number of studies in which they tested the implications of the folk-conception of causality against the traditional P-E framework.
Recall that the traditional framework simply holds that actors tend to attribute their behavior to external causes (situational factors), while observers tend to attribute actors' behavior to internal causes (like personality dispositions). By contrast, Malle's revisionist analysis makes an entirely different, and more subtle, set of predictions:
Across the nine studies,
Malle et al. (2007) found little evidence for
the traditional Actor-Observer asymmetries,
but considerable evidence for the asymmetries
predicted by the folk-conceptual theory.
Malle's work suggests that the folk-conceptual theory offers a powerful framework for understanding how real people actually explain social behavior in the real world.
The traditional P-E framework is
inappropriate, for a number of reasons:
In this respect, it might be said that, because it ignores the Doctrine of Mentalism, the traditional P-E framework is a distinctly unpsychological psychological theory of causal attribution.
And it also ought to be said that, precisely because it invokes the Doctrine of Mentalism, the folk-conceptual theory is better psychology.
Note, too, that beliefs, feelings, and desires are internal states and dispositions of the actor.
The Fundamental Attribution Error is not an error! But it is fundamental!
|For an excellent overview of
traditional attribution theory, see Causal
Attribution: From Cognitive Processes to
Collective Beliefs (1989) by Miles
Hewstone, a British psychologist.
Social interaction involves at least three
If the causal attribution involves factors that are internal to the person, as opposed to external in the situation, the actor often faces a fourth task:
He must often make moral judgment about whether the people, and their actions, are good or bad, desirable or undesirable. Of these three activities, it would seem that only the last one is specific to social cognition. We do not make moral judgments about the revolution of the planets around the sun, or plate tectonics, or even the fact that lions eat gazelles. But we do make moral judgments when someone robs a house, or rescues a kitten from a fire, or takes our girlfriend (or parking space).
How we make these moral judgments has been a concern of philosophers and psychologists for a long time. In the West, this history begins with the Greeks and their debates over "the good life": the Sophists and Plato, the Stoics and the Epicureans. There is the Judeo-Christian tradition, with the Ten Commandments, Jesus' summary of The Law, the Sermon on the Mount, and his "new commandment" that we love one another. The medieval period gave us Aquinas's marriage of Platonic and Christian thought. The Enlightenment brought us Hobbes's ethical naturalism, Hume's utilitarianism, and Kant's categorical imperative. The 20th century saw the rise of meta-ethics, concerned with the nature of moral judgment, rather than with questions of right and wrong per se, and that is where the psychology of moral judgment begins as well. For example, Lawrence Kohlberg (Kohlberg, 1969) offered his neo-Piagetian stage theory of moral development, describing the transitions from preconventional to conventional to postconventional reasoning, and Carol Gilligan (Gilligan, 1982) distinguished between rational moral judgments based on justice and relational judgments based on compassion.
Kohlberg's view dominated the textbooks for a long time -- not just because it was virtually the only game in town, but also because it was consistent with the cognitive revolution in psychology of the 1960s and 1970s. But in retrospect, we can see in the Kohlberg-Gilligan debate a foreshadowing of what might be called the affective counterrevolution which rose in the 1980s, and which affected all of psychology, including the psychology of moral judgment.
Cognition and Emotion in Psychology
To understand what happened, let us quickly review the relations between cognition and emotion in psychology. At its beginnings, psychology was almost exclusively focused on cognition. The primacy of cognition was implicit in psychology's philosophical roots: Descartes' proposition that reason is the mental faculty which is distinctively human, and the corresponding shift from metaphysics to epistemology as the focus of philosophy; and the emphasis of the British empiricists on the experiential origins of knowledge. Accordingly, the 19th-century psychophysicists and physiological psychologists focused their experiments on sensation and perception, and -- with the exception of Wundt -- had very little to say about emotion. With the behaviorist revolution "psychology lost is mind" (to paraphrase R.S. Woodworth (Woodworth, 1929): stimulus-response theory threw cognition out the window, and emotion went with it -- with the salient exception of W.B. Cannon's construal of emotion in terms of the "flight or fight" reflex. The cognitive revolution underscored the role of thought and knowledge as mediators between environmental stimulus and organismal response, gave a cognitive interpretation of learning in terms of the formation of expectancies, and returned a host of topics to psychology, especially attention, "short-term" memory, and language.
The cognitive viewpoint asserts, first and foremost, that people respond to their mental representation of the stimulus. Behavior is mediated by cognitive states of knowledge, belief, and expectation, acquired through perception, stored in and retrieved from memory, manipulated and transformed through processes of reasoning and problem-solving, and translated into behavior through processes of judgment and decision-making. The cognitive point of view was exemplified by a theory of rational choice in which consciousness was the default option. Some cognitive psychologists (and other cognitive scientists) construed the word cognitive as referring to any internal mental state, including emotional and motivational states. But strictly speaking, cognitive psychology construes emotion as a cognitive construction -- a belief about one's emotion that is a product of a more or less rational analysis of the situation in which one finds oneself. Thus, Schacter and Singer (Schachter & Singer, 1962) argued that emotions were shaped by the person's perception of the situation in which he experienced undifferentiated physiological arousal. Lazarus (Lazarus, 1968) argued that we could control our emotions by changing the way we thought about our situation. Smith and Ellsworth (Smith & Ellsworth, 1985) listed the various types of appraisals that gave rise to particular emotions. And Clore and Ortony (e.g., Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988) argued that emotions depended on the cognitive value of an event, with respect to the person's goals ("goals" themselves reflect a cognitive construal of motivation, but that is a topic for another paper). In each theory, cognition comes first, and emotion is determined by the cognition.
The success of the cognitive revolution can be seen in the fact that every university department of psychology has a graduate program devoted to cognitive psychology, but hardly any of them have similar graduate programs devoted to emotion (or motivation, for that matter). Similarly, we have a large number of textbooks devoted to aspects of cognition, but hardly any providing similar coverage of emotion (or motivation, but I digress). Almost half of Henry Gleitman's Psychology, perhaps the best introductory text since James' Principles, is devoted to cognition (8 of 17 chapters and 328 out of 715 pages in the 8th edition of 2011, not counting the material on cognitive development), while motivation and emotion share only a single chapter.
Beginning in the 1980s, the hegemony of cognition was challenged by what I have come to think of as an affective counterrevolution, exemplified by the Zajonc-Lazarus debate (Lazarus, 1981, 1984; Zajonc, 1980, 1984) in the pages of the American Psychologist. The general thrust of this affective counterrevolution was that emotion was at least independent of cognition, if not actually primary. Thus, Zajonc himself argued that "preferences need no inferences" because they could be shaped by "subliminal" stimuli processed outside of conscious awareness. Paul Ekman proposed a set of reflex-like basic emotions that were part of our phylogenetic heritage. Building on the earlier work of Cannon, Bard, and Papez, Paul MacLean (MacLean, 1990), and Joseph LeDoux (LeDoux, 1996), proposed that emotional reactions are controlled by brain structures that are different from those involved in cognitive processing. Accordingly, Jap Panksepp (Panksepp, 1996) argued for a new interdisciplinary affective neuroscience modeled on, but independent of, cognitive neuroscience. Emotion now has its own textbooks (e.g., Niedenthal, Krauth-Gruber, & Ric, 2006), and we can only assume that free-standing graduate groups are not far behind.
Threats to Reason in Moral Psychology
What does all this have to do with moral judgment? My point is that the affective counter-revolution, with its insistence on the independence of affect from cognition, and on the dominance of affect over cognition, constitutes a threat to the role of reason in moral psychology. Actually, it is not the only threat. Moral reason is also threatened by the rise of what I have called a "People Are Stupid" school of psychology (Kihlstrom, 2004), which argues that people are fundamentally irrational, and that our thoughts and actions are overwhelmingly subject to unconscious, automatic influences that operate outside phenomenal awareness and voluntary control. And it is threatened by the biologization of psychology in general, everything from behavior genetics and evolutionary psychology to the neuroscientific doctrine of modularity, the general thrust of which is, once again, to limit the role of mind in behavior -- and, indeed, to dispense with psychology itself (Mike Gazzaniga, the founder of cognitive neuroscience, has written that "Psychology is dead, and the only people who don't know it are psychologists" (M.S Gazzaniga, 1998, p. xi).
If you don't believe this to be the case, check out David Brooks' book, The Social Animal (2011; reviewed in Kihlstrom, 2012). Brooks is probably the foremost interpreter of psychological research and theory to the general public, by virtue of his New York Times Op-Ed pieces even more visible than Malcolm Gladwell or Jonah Lehrer, and in this book he is constantly referring to Hume's dictum that reason is a slave to passion. For Brooks, and the psychologists whom he relies on, thought and action is dominated by unconscious processes of emotion, intuition, and automaticity.
Even more to the point is a series of essays commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation in the spring of 2010, as part of its "Big Questions" series. These essays got almost no attention in the professional media -- neither the APA Monitor nor the APS Observer covered them -- despite the fact that this was the first time a Big Question targeted psychology. The Big Question was: "Does moral action depend on reasoning?" Among other authorities, five psychologists were asked to respond, and four of them said, essentially, "No".
|Mike Gazzaniga led off by asserting that "all decision processes... are carried out before one becomes consciously aware of them.|
|Joshua Greene wrote that "moral judgment depends critically on both automatic settings and manual mode".|
|Jonah Lehrer (not a psychologist, strictly speaking, but one of the foremost interpreters of psychology to the general public, and the immediate source for much of Brooks' book) asserted that "moral decisions often depend on... moral emotions" that "are beyond the reach of reason".|
|Anthony Damasio (a cognitive neurologist, if not exactly a psychologist) wrote that "morality is based on social emotions that have their origins in 'prerational' emotional brain systems, neuromodulator molecules..., and genes which have 'early evolutionary vintage'".|
|And then there was me -- but we're not there yet.|
Critique of Moral Intuitionism
Each in his own way, these authors reflect a point of view proposed by Greene and Jonathan Haidt known as moral intuitionism (Greene & Haidt, 2002; Haidt, 2007; Greene's position has changed somewhat since then). Greene and Haidt note that morality serves two important functions: at the micro level, it guides our social interaction, while at the macro level it binds groups together. But where does morality come from? Greene and Haidt argue for intuitive or rational primacy in moral judgments. Far from reflecting the operation of human reasoning, thee judgments are the product of evolved brain modules that generate what might be called the yuck factor -- an intuitive, emotional "gut feeling" that certain things are, well, just plain wrong. When we are asked to justify them, the reasons we give for our moral judgments are neither necessary nor sufficient; rather, they are more like post-hoc rationalizations.
In fact, they note, much of the time we can't give any reason at all -- the activity -- for example, brother-sister incest or cannibalism -- in question just seems or feels bad. In an unpublished manuscript from early in the development of moral intuitionism, they called this condition moral dumbfounding: "the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of a moral judgment without supporting reasons" (Haidt et al., 2000, p. 1; see also Haidt, 2001).
Although moral intuitionism is relatively new as a psychological theory, the general idea is old enough to have been critiqued by John Stuart Mill, in his 1843 treatise which created A System of Logic (see Ryan, 2011). When we rely on intuitions, Mill wrote, there is no need to question prevalent moral judgments, nor any need to explain how our intuitions came to be what they are; nor do we have any means of resolving competing individuals' intuitions. They just are what they are. Mill agreed that intuition played an important role in some fields, such as mathematics, but he thought that a reliance on intuition should not extend to ethics and politics, because it "sanctifies" traditional opinions and provides an intellectual buttress to conservatism.
Indeed, moral intuitionism can be seen as a threat to democracy. How do you debate, how do you compromise, with someone whose moral judgments rely on intuitions? In this respect, I was put in mind of a quote by Heinrich Himmler, commander of the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, who wrote that "In my work for the Fuhrer and the nation I do what my conscience tells me is right and what is common sense" (quoted in the biography by Peter Longerich, 2011).
Of course, it doesn't matter if moral intuitionism is a threat to democracy, if in fact it is true -- that is, if it's a valid scientific theory about how moral judgments are made. Accordingly, it's important to examine the evidentiary base for moral intuitionism, to determine the extent to which it is actually supported by empirical evidence.
It should also be noted that Haidt and Greene, who initially proposed moral intuitionism, diverge somewhat in their takes on its implications.
Despite these differences in view, both Haidt and Greene argue that moral dumbfounding supports their claim that reasoning plays little or no role in moral judgments, and that, when it comes to moral behavior, we act on feelings rather than for reasons.
At the same time, it should be noted that
dumbfounding doesn't necessarily imply that moral
intuitionism is correct. The consequentialism of
Joshua Greene noted above, based on the views of Peter
Singer, makes that clear. But in a critique of moral
intuitionism, Daniel Jacobson
(2012) offers other arguments against intuitionism.
He argues that, in the face of moral dumbfounding, moral
psychologists and philosophers like Haidt and Greene have
become morally stupified by
their own theories. As a result of this stupefaction by a
narrow-minded theory, they cannot
see the good reasons for the judgments that people make.
To make things
worse, Jacobson invokes (without using the term)
the demand characteristics of the
experiment. The situation
(incest or cannibalism) is explained to the
subjects, they say its wrong,
and then the experimenter, acting as a
devil's advocate, insists that since "no harm was done",
it couldn't be
wrong. At this point, the subject
may feel browbeaten
by the experimenter, and simply
retreat into solipsism. But, Jacobson
argues, harm was done in both
The point here is not so much that Jacobson's arguments against Haidt's theory are correct (they strike me as quite compelling, though because I'm not a trained moral philosopher, I may have missed something about the argument). The point here is that Haidt's subjects may have had perfectly good reasons to reject incest and cannibalism, despite the fact that "no harm" came to pass in either instance. But we never got to find this out, because Haidt's experimenters simply rejected any argument that wasn't based on a narrow definition of "harm".
Tamsin Shaw's Critique of Moral Psychology
Her target, in the latter instance, was a pair of psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who drew on Martin E.P. Seligman's notions of learned helplessness to devise methods of torture used in the "enhanced interrogation" of al-Queda and other "Islamic" terrorists, earning millions of dollars -- $81 million, to be exact, though their actual contract, terminated prematurely, was for much more than that -- in the process; and the officials at the American Psychological Association who enabled the program by either turning a blind eye to it or reinterpreting the APA ethics code to permit their activity.
Shaw also implicates Seligman himself in this sordid business, noting that he had his own contract with the military -- $31 million dollars to support his Positive Psychology Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, which in turn participates in enhancing soldiers' resilience in the face of capture and torture through the Pentagon's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School (SERE). Seligman, in an exchange with Shaw in the NYR ("Learned Helplessness and Torture: An Exchange", 04/21/2016), calls her article "defamatory" and denies having anything to do with the Mitchell-Jessen torture program. [Full disclosure: my PhD is from the University of Pennsylvania, and Seligman was one of my teachers, and his work on learned helplessness was the inspiration for one of my favorite papers, co-authored with Susan Mineka (a Penn classmate), on "Unpredictable and Unavoidable Aversive Events: A New Perspective on Experimental Neurosis" (1978).]Turning to the former instance, which is more relevant in the current context, Shaw's primary target is the moral intuitionism promoted by Haidt, Greene, and others. To recapitulate, Haidt and Greene, and others in the moral intuitionist camp, argue that moral judgments are mediated by two different processes: one fast, intuitive, and emotional; the other slow, deliberate, and rational. However, like other dual-process theorists (such as Kahneman, with his distinction between System 1 and System 2 thinking), they argue that the intuitive process, being faster than the deliberative one, nearly always wins the race. The fast process evolved in an environment in which threats were up-close and personal, and is unsuited to contemporary life, where the threats are more distant and impersonal. For those kinds of threats, intuition may be misleading and needs to be corrected by rational deliberation. These rational deliberations should be premised on a norm of social cooperation, and moral judgments should be validated against the consequences of their ensuing actions -- in particular, whether they avoid conflict. Shaw's argument against this position isn't completely clear, but she seems to object to (1) the intuitionists' criticism of the role of intuition and emotion; (2) their emphasis on conflict-avoidance; and (3) the implication that psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology can and should supplant philosophy as the means for arriving at judgments about morality. She also points to the irony of psychologists asserting the superiority of science while aiding and abetting torture.
Haidt and Steven Pinker, who affiliates with the moral intuitionist camp, disputed this picture in another exchange with Shaw ("Moral Psychology: An Exchange", NYR, 04/07/2016). They asserted, correctly, that Shaw's linking of moral psychology and torture amounted to little more than guilt by association (some prominent moral intuitionists teach in Seligman's "Positive Psychology" program; Mitchell and Jessen were inspired by Seligman's theory of learned helplessness; therefore the moral intuitionists,not to mention Seligman, are associated with torture; and because of their association with torture, science does not provide us with a "reliable moral compass". Whew!). More important, H&P denied that science had any special authority when it comes to moral judgments. They, quite rightly, distinguished between descriptive theories of how people make moral judgments, which is properly the subject of science, and prescriptive theories of what constitutes morality, which is properly the province of psychology. In their dual-process theories, they claim merely to be describing how people make moral judgments, not prescribing what a proper judgment should be.
But, frankly, this isn't quite true. The moral intuitionists do suggest that intuition is often insufficient, and has to be justified, and if necessary corrected, by reasoning; and that this reasoning should be based on norms like social cooperation, leading to something like the biblical Golden Rule or Kant's categorical imperative. As they write, "Psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology, though they cannot by themselves debunk moral intuitions, are highly relevant to evaluating them". And also: "while primitive physical revulsion may serve as an early warning signal indicating that some practice calls for moral scrutiny, it is the 'more sophisticated reasoning' that should guide us through times of crisis" -- reasoning based on a norm of social cooperation. But if science is relevant to the evaluation of moral intuitions, isn't that essentially saying that rationality trumps intuition? So Shaw has a point, even though she spoils her argument by conflating moral psychology (and moral psychologists) and torture.
Shaw isn't just after the moral intuitionists. In another article in the NYR, she goes after Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and their followers, like Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, who have argued that public policy should take advantage of the frailties in human reasoning discovered by the "heuristics and biases" approach to judgment and decision-making ("Invisible Manipulators of Your Mind", 04/20/2017). I discuss her argument in the Lecture Supplements on "Thinking: Reasoning, Judgment, Problem-Solving, and Decision-Making" in my General Psychology course.
The Trolley Problem
as I can tell, the reference experiment for moral
intuitionism is a philosophical conundrum known as the Trolley
Problem, originally devised by Phillipa Foot (1967)
and popularized by Judith Jarvis Thomson (Yale Law Journal,
1985), among others (cartoon by Trevor Spaulding,
New Yorker, 06/26/2017).
Here's the problem with the Trolley Problem: It turns out that many more people think that it's morally justifiable to switch a trolley from one track to another, sacrificing one life to save five, than think it's morally justifiable to push a fat man off a footbridge onto the trolley tracks, killing him but saving those same five lives. The trick, of course, is that both versions of the Trolley Problem involve the same expected outcome -- one life lost, five lives saved. From a rational-choice point of view, it's a no-brainer. So why do people resist the choice And why is there such variance in choice, depending on how equivalent outcomes are framed? The conclusion, therefore, is that rational choice can't account for people's moral judgments. Something else must be involved, and that something else consists of emotional intuitions - -the "yuck factor" generated by a specialized brain module that became part of our phylogenetic equipment over the course of evolutionary time.
But it turns out that there are problems with the Trolley Problem. In the first place, it strikes me that the Trolley Problem lacks ecological validity in Orne's sense (Orne, 1962). It's not at all clear that the Trolley Problem is representative of the kinds of moral dilemmas that confront us in the ordinary course of everyday living. When was the last time you were on a bridge, next to a fat man, with a trolley racing along the tracks below you toward five people tied to the track by some Snidely Whiplash? But of course, that just may be my intuition, and there's no arguing with intuitions.
Moreover, posing the
Trolley Problem the way it is posed necessarily inflicts moral
dumbfoundedness on subjects,
because of the experimenter's insistence that the
harm posed by the two alternatives is equal.
It is equal, in the sense that one person
dies under either
scenario. But the harm may differ in other
respects. But if a morally stupified
experimenter imposes on subjects a narrow definition of
harm, it should not be surprising that the
subjects act as if they are morally
More important, note that, in the Trolley Problem, reason is ruled out by experimental fiat. That is, the Trolley Problem has been constructed such that all outcomes are rationally equivalent, and subjects cannot make a choice based on expected outcomes or utilities. They have to do something else. Perhaps, under such circumstances, people do rely on their moral intuitions, or on some other basis for judgment. But it hardly seems correct to conclude, from their responses in this highly constrained situation, that emotion supplants reason in moral judgment.
Nor is there any comparison of effect size. What we'd really like to see, in an experiment such as this, is an experimental manipulation of both emotional and rational factors, so we can determine when emotion dominates reason, under what circumstances, and by how much.
Finally, there is no consideration of a "cognitive" alternative. In this respect, it's interesting to note that a cognitive alternative to moral intuitionism is available. Inspired by Noam Chomsky's notion of a Universal Grammar underlying human language, John Mikhail (Mikhail, 2007) has offered a universal moral grammar that provides a good explanation of responses to various versions of the Trolley Problem in purely cognitive terms -- it's a grammar, after all -- without invoking emotions or intuitions. Mikhail begins, like any good cognitive psychologist, by invoking what he calls "the poverty of the moral stimulus" -- that the situations that demand moral judgment usually do not contain enough information to enable us to make that judgment. People form a mental representation of the situation, and then apply a moral grammar to render a moral judgment. It's all very cognitive -- all very rational.
The bottom line is that there is no good empirical reason to think that emotion and intuition rules moral judgment. Maybe, as in the Trolley Problem, affect and intuition act as a sort of tie-breaker, in those circumstances when rational choice does not suffice. Maybe reason serves to challenge and correct our moral intuitions. Or maybe affect serves as information for cognition. In any case, the neither cognition nor emotion is dominating the other. Rather, it seems that in moral judgment as in other aspects of mental life, cognitive, emotional, and motivational processes work together, and the balance between them varies depending on the situation.
in this formulation, emotion is more than a cognitive
construction. I'm a cognitive psychologist, but I have
always distrusted the idea that emotions are merely
cognitive constructions -- that we don't really feel
anything, we just think we do. I've always preferred the
formulation by Immanuel Kant, who asserted (in The
Critique of Judgment, 1791, as paraphrased by
Watson) that "there are three absolutely irreducible
faculties of mind: knowledge, feeling, and desire". What
Kant meant was that neither of these faculties could be
reducible to the other(s), as in the
cognitive-constructivist account of emotion. Emotion,
then, has an existence that is independent of cognition.
But just because emotion is not reducible to cognition,
that does not mean that cognition and emotion cannot
interact. We know that emotion can color perception,
memory, and thought; and we know that thinking can
generate, and regulate, emotion. We can dispense with
arguments about the primacy of either cognition or affect,
and get on with the business of discovering how they work,
separately and together, and how they each play a role in
matters such as moral judgment.
One approach to moral
judgment is to think about how we might build a moral sense into
a robot -- not a pie-in-the-sky proposition, given recent
advances, if that's what they are, in robotic warfare, in which
drones pick out their own targets.
One approach was
proposed by Isaac Asimov, the science-fiction author, in his
"Three Laws of Robotics" (I, Robot, 1950). These
are: (1) A robot may not injure a human
being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to
harm; (2) a robot must obey orders given it by human beings
except where such orders would conflict with the First Law;
(3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such
protection does not conflict with the First or Second
that we actually have robots, with increasing degrees
of autonomy, philosophers and other cognitive scientists have
taken seriously the problem of how to get robots to make moral
judgments, and thus behave morally.
Does Moral Judgment Require a Judgment At All?
Morality is usually construed as the province of religion, or philosophy, which is where the discussion and debate over "what's moral" gets heated. But some theorists have argued that religion, and philosophy, are irrelevant, and that science -- particularly neuroscience -- can provide an objective answer to the question of what is moral and what is not. Not all scientists have made this strong claim. Stephen Jay Gould, for one, argued that science and religion constitute non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA): science being concerned with matters of truth, and religion being concerned with matters of value (Gould introduced his argument in an essay, "Nonoverlapping Magisteria" published in Natural History (1997), and developed it further in his book, Rocks of Ages, 1999).
arguments were opposed by some of The New Atheists,
who don't think that religion has a place in any
discussion. For example, the evolutionary
biologist Richard Dawkins argued that religion
should just shut up when it comes to matters of
scientific truth (here he's talking mostly about
evolution versus creationism). And, Sam Harris
has argued that science has the final word about
questions of value, too. In the Moral
Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
(2010), the neuroscientist Sam Harris, has argued
that neuroscience can give objective answers to
questions of moral value. He argues that
questions of morality come down to "facts about the
well-being of conscious creatures", and that
science, and particularly neuroscience, is
well-placed to determine what those facts are.
All -- all! -- we have to do is to determine
the basic components of well-being, and then
identify those choices and behaviors that maximize
well-being, so measured. No more cultural
relativism. No more disputes between Jews and
Christians, Sunni and Shia, fundamentalists and
progressives, etc. And that is something that is
well within the capability of neuroscience (which
seems to include scientific psychology).
If this sounds like utilitarianism, it is (see "Science Knows Best" by Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York Times Book Review, 10/03/2010). The difference is in how we determine "the greatest good for the greatest number". It's no longer a matter of reason and debate, or even of intuition. It's an objective truth, to be determined by something like brain-imaging (I suppose). But in any event, if Harris is right, there's no need for a psychology of moral judgment -- or, for that matter, for any kind of judgment at all. It's really just a matter of physics.
But -- and
this is a big "but" -- even if Harris is right, in
order for science to objectively determine moral
values, there's going to have to be a "well-being"
meter in the head, and we're going to have to have a
technology that can read it. And that reading
has to be the same for everyone. And there has
to be only one such meter, so as to avoid
conflicting "truths" from multiple meters.
Good luck with this.
The work on heuristics and biases laid the foundation for a broader view that most social cognition, and therefore most social behavior as well, is automatic in nature -- closer to reflexes, taxes, instincts, and conditioned responses than to deliberate, conscious, thoughtful action (Bargh, 1984).
In cognitive psychology, automatic processes are distinguished from controlled processes by a number of features:
In cognitive psychology, automaticity is classically illustrated by the Stroop color-word effect. You can't help reading a color word, and that interferes with the task of naming the color in which the word is printed. The general consensus in the field is that two quite different types of processes contribute to performance on any task:
"As Skinner argued so pointedly, the more we know about the situational causes of psychological phenomena, the less need we have for postulating internal conscious mediating processes to explain these phenomena."
As the quotation from Bargh suggests, the automaticity juggernaut is closely related to Skinnerian functional behaviorism, and to the doctrine of situationism that pervaded classic experimental social psychology. Strictly speaking, it is not really behaviorism -- because the proponents of automaticity argue that internal cognitive and other mental processes do mediate between stimulus and response after all; it's just that these mental processes operate unconsciously and automatically.
apologies to Alexander Dubcek and Susan
Sontag, I call this stance:
behaviorism with a cognitive face.
As someone who has devoted his entire career to trying to get psychologists to take a non-Freudian view of unconscious mental life seriously, Bargh's work reminds me of the warning in one or two of Aesop's fables: "Be careful what you pray for: You might get it.".
There is little doubt that
automaticity plays a role in social
cognition and behavior, but there is every
reason to doubt that automatic processes
overshadow controlled processes at every
This page last modified 06/27/2017.