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

4
An Economy of Explanations

John McClure Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

How many causes or conditions constitute a satisfactory explanation of an action? What are the factors that affect people's perception that an explanation is sufficient? Do people perceive explanations of actions as less plausible if several alternative explanations are available?

In attribution theory these issues are approached through the classic discounting principle, which proposes that the role of any cause in producing a given effect is discounted if other plausible causes are present ( Kelley, 1973). In line with the general idea that attributions simulate scientific inference, the discounting notion reflects the view that scientific explanations are simple and elegant. The discounting notion acquired wide acceptance within and beyond attribution theory, and it is widely assumed that the concept has been confirmed and established by research (e.g., Kelley & Michela, 1980).

Recent investigations concerning explanations point in rather different directions. Investigators have developed concepts of causal relations and causal structures that challenge the notion that causes are always inversely related. Several developments suggest the importance of differences between causal categories in shaping the structure of explanations. These developments imply an interaction between content and process, or at least, they imply that inference processes reflect the content of the logical relations between causes. Increasing attention is paid to knowledge structures that are in some respects similar to the schema framework used in orthodox discounting models but that in other respects imply a very different process of causal selection. A further emerging issue is that the cause that is communicated in a public explanation may not be the only or primary

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