Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Investigations in Spontaneous Discounting

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Investigations in Spontaneous Discounting

Article excerpt

Oppenheimer's (2004) demonstration that causal discounting (when the presence of one cause casts doubt on the presence of another) can happen spontaneously addressed the standing concern that discounting was an artifact of experimental demands, but these results could have resulted from memory inhibition. The present studies rule out this alternative using the same surname frequency estimation paradigm. In Study 1, individuals discounted surname familiarity even when it could be attributed to semantic meaning; in Study 2, participants under cognitive load discounted less; in Study 3, participants who were promised a prize for accuracy discounted more. All three results conform to a spontaneous causal discounting account better than to the inhibition alternative.

When people reason about causation, they tend to prefer to think of a single event as having a single cause. This leads to what has been called causal discounting. When one cause is known to be present, people discount alternate causes as also being present, even though these multiple causes are not necessarily mutually exclusive (Einhorn & Hogarth, 1986). The attribution and causal reasoning literature is full of studies demonstrating this phenomenon (e.g., Hansen & Hall, 1985; Kun, Murray, & Sredl, 1980; Morris & Larrick, 1995; Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Read, 1987; Read & Marcus-Newhall, 1993).

However, critics have argued that the seeming prevalence of discounting is due to the manner in which it has been studied (McClure, 1998). The fact that discounting can be found under laboratory conditions specifically designed to elicit it does not necessarily mean that it occurs frequently in more naturalistic causal reasoning situations. For example, McClure argued that methodological artifacts have led to a false belief among psychologists that discounting is a fairly common phenomenon. In particular, the common methodology of a single bipolar scale-for example, with person on one end and situation on the other (e.g., Elig & Frieze, 1979; F. D. Miller, Smith, & Uleman, 1981; Thibaut & Riecken, 1955)-artificially inflates the frequency by which people discount. When this confound is accounted for and individuals are less constrained in the causal attributions that they are allowed to make, many discounting effects disappear (e.g., Lalljee, Watson, & White, 1982; Wimer & Kelley, 1982). Similarly, pragmatic implicature (Grice, 1975) can subtly create demand characteristics (cf. Hilton, 1995). When experimenters explicitly point out the presence of a cause, participants might construe that as a hint that they should discount, even if they would not have done so naturally. Because of this, some psychologists believe that discounting is actually a fairly infrequent phenomenon in ecologically valid settings (McClure, 1998; Rosenfield & Stephan, 1977).

To get around these critiques, researchers have begun to adopt subtler approaches to the study of discounting. One such approach is to investigate spontaneous discounting-when people spontaneously generate alternative causes and engage in discounting in the absence of an experimenter-specified alternate cause (Oppenheimer, 2004, 2006; Oppenheimer & Frank, 2007). For example, Oppenheimer (2004) asked participants to judge surname frequencies. Typically, participants would use the ease of bringing exemplars to mind as a proxy for frequency, a tendency known as the availability heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973). However, Oppenheimer (2004) found that, when surnames were famous (e.g., Bush, Clinton, etc.), people underestimated name frequencies. Oppenheimer argued that participants spontaneously recognized that the cause of availability was fame and thus discounted frequency as a cause of availability. As the participants were never explicitly told the alternative cause, this would suggest that discounting does indeed occur, even in the absence of experimental demand. …

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