Social psychologists interested in social perception and cognition have an ‘intuitive scientist’ model of how people understand their worlds – people seek ‘truths’ in a logical and rational way (as cited in Buchanan et al, 2007, p.106). They suggest that in order for people to have a sense of control over their social interactions, they make inferences and assumptions about people’s behaviour and events that they encounter. This concept falls under the ‘attribution theory’ umbrella, which means; assigning cause to our own or other peoples behaviour. Fritz Heider (cited in Buchanan et al, 2007) was the first to propose a psychological theory of attribution. Heider discussed what he called “naïve” or “commonsense” psychology. In his view, people were like amateur scientists, trying to understand other people’s behaviour by piecing together information until they arrived at a reasonable explanation or cause. However, there is also evidence that suggests that this is not the case and that people do not always behave in ‘rational’ or ‘objective’ ways as expected. This essay therefore aims to evaluate both sides of the argument whilst concluding whether the ‘lay scientist’ view is realistic or not.
Attribution theory is concerned with how individuals interpret events and how this relates to their thinking and behaviour. Attribution theory assumes that people try to determine why people do what they do. When we (the observer) try to understand why another person (the actor) did something, we can either attribute one or more causes to that behaviour, internal/dispositional -the inference that a person is behaving in a certain way because of something about the person, such as attitude, character or personality. Or; external/situational - the inference that a person is behaving a certain way because of something about the situation he or she is in. Heider specifically believed in “Naïve Psychology” which essentially states that people ‘go beyond’ the information they are presented with and assign cause on the basis of their knowledge/opinions of the world, even if their beliefs are ‘inaccurate’. Hence he believed it was essential for the psychologist to take into account the opinions of the layperson when attributing cause towards the actions of themselves or others. Heider's thinking offered an insightful and a valuable way to approach attribution but, it does not provide any evidence regarding how people use the available information in order to arrive at their explanations.
Harold Kelley (cited in Buchanan et al, 2007), focused on this void and subsequently developed the ‘covariation model’ theory. He claimed that we consider how behaviours and situations vary together or correlate based on previous similar situations/behaviour and therefore (like Heider) believed that people behave very much like a scientist, analysing cause and effect. Kelly claimed that people weigh up the following three variables before we assign cause; Consensus – do other people behave in the same way or is it just the actor, Consistency – does the actor always show this behaviour in the same situation and lastly, Distinctiveness – does the actor behave the same way in other situations. We then use the ‘values’ of these variables to determine whether the cause is internal or external, based on the casual relationships in relation to one another. A major virtue of Kelly’s theory is that it offers precise and testable predictions about how different levels of CCD information (consensus, consistency, distinctiveness information) should lead to different attributions of cause (as cited in Buchanan et al, 2007, p.74).
The following table (as cited in Buchanan et al, 2007, p.73) demonstrates how we asses the three variables: