Explaining One's Self to Others: Reason-Giving in a Social Context

By Margaret L. McLaughlin; Michael J. Cody et al. | Go to book overview

3
The Study of Causal Explanation in
Natural Language: Analysing Reports
of the Challenger Disaster
in The New York Times

Denis J. Hilton Ecole Supérieure de Commerce, Toulouse

Rainer H. Mathes Zentrum fuer Umfragen, Methoden und Analysen, Mannheim

Thomas R. Trabasso University of Chicago


CAUSAL EXPLANATION AND ATTRIBUTION THEORY

Causal explanation is central to our understanding of the world we live in. We seek to know not only what happens and when and where it happens, but how and why an event happened the way it did. The study of causal attribution processes has thus become a major topic of study for social psychologists interested in how people understand their own and others' behavior ( Heider, 1958; Jones & Davis, 1965; Kelley, 1967). Research in this area, known as attribution theory, has been prolific (see Harvey & Weary, 1984; Kelley & Michela, 1980; Ross & Fletcher, 1985 for relevant reviews).

The dominant model of the attribution process has been the "man the scientist" model proposed by Heider ( 1958), who suggested that causal attribution proceeds through a process similar to Mill's ( 1872/ 1973) method of difference. Kelley proposed a particular version of this analogy in his ANOVA model, in which he compared lay causal attribution to the scientific analysis of variance. According to this analogy, the layperson analyzes covariation information to determine which factors caused the event in question. Although it took some time for the ANOVA model to be formulated and tested properly ( Hilton, 1990), results show that respondents can use covariation information to arrive at causal judgments much as would be predicted by an analysis of variance ( Cheng & Novick, 1990; Försterling, 1989).

Despite its successes, critics have argued that the ANOVA model has limitations. For example, following research on "explanation-based" story understand

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