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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Attribution of Cause and the Events in Tucson

One obvious outcome of the Tucson shootings this past weekend has been the search for explanations. This search is, in part, a reflection of a basic human tendency to want to find explanations for high profile and unusual occurrences.

President Obama took note of this fact of life in his Tucson speech Wednesday night:

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations -- to try and pose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system.

Natural disasters -- such as the Haiti earthquake or the current Brisbane, Australia flooding -- have naturalistic, essentially random explanations. These events occur essentially beyond direct human control or intervention. That doesn’t mean that people don’t want to understand why they occur -- in a scientific sense. But the pressure to immediately seek explanations for natural disasters may be less imperative.

The need to find explanations for tragic events caused directly by humans is more pressing. These events involve deviant behavior well outside the structure of what is normatively acceptable in a culture, creating an apparent strong need to find some explanations for how and why they occur.

Tragic events caused directly by humans also generate anger and frustration -- activating a human drive to displace that anger, often aggressively, onto whatever targets are available.

There are two broad categories of explanations for an individual's behavior -- intrinsic, dispositional versus extrinsic, situational. Social psychologists have found that humans tend to attribute causality for an individual's actions to dispositional factors -- that is, to make the assumption that the reasons for the actions reside within the individual him or herself.

This is exactly what the data show has occurred in the case of the deadly shootings in Tucson -- as far as the general public is concerned.

Our Gallup research conducted after the shootings shows that Americans do not believe that inflammatory rhetoric was a major factor in the shootings and that Americans do not think that stricter gun control laws would have prevented the tragedy. A poll by CBS News showed much the same thing. Americans, in short, appear to be focused on intrinsic attribution -- that the shootings occurred because of factors relating to the individual gunman involved. This is exactly what the existing literature on attribution of cause would have predicted.

This has not been the case in terms of professional commentators and pundits. These individuals have tended to look for extrinsic, situational explanations for the heinous actions of the gunman in Tucson.

As soon as the event in Tucson occurred, the army of commentators -- who derive value from being able to speculate, discuss, put in context, and explain events -- began focusing on whatever situational explanations were available. These have included most specifically the causal role of the “level of political discourse and rhetoric” in the U.S. The thesis that inflammatory rhetoric was a factor that led to the shootings was rapidly advanced and soon widely distributed and discussed. (Of course, as predictably happens, the thesis inevitably found its antithesis -- reaction from other commentators that the initial thesis was incorrect. And so forth.)

Why have commentators and pundits tended to follow the opposite course from the average American and to look for explanations in broad, situational factors? In part this may reflect the reality that internal attribution of cause is a less compelling story line. Tying the shootings to broad, national trends provides a much larger stage upon which to discuss the events, in essence broadening the discussion to include the big picture issues which provide the majority of material for today's commentary and punditry. The broad focus also allows for the importation of partisanship into the discussion -- a not incidental factor given that many commentators and pundits derive value from playing to partisan or ideological audiences.

In general, in my experience, the American people usually function as an anchor or brake or reality check on rapidly developing conventional wisdom or instant analysis. This appears to be happening in this situation. Taken as a group, Americans appear hesitant to accept the hypothesis that the shootings in Tucson are mostly a reflection of the nature of political discourse in the country or even on the lack of stringent gun control laws. As more becomes known about the alleged killer and his background, the public's views may change, of course. But for the moment, Americans are being cautious in accepting situational explanations for the shootings.


Dr. Tom said...
January 15, 2011 at 9:18 AM  

Being cautious in accepting situational explanations for shootings is a prudent choice.

Too bad our pundits and pols are so willing to sacrifice it to further political spin.

Sid said...
January 19, 2011 at 3:01 AM  

It is good to see that the American public has been cautious this time. I wonder if the public would have been cautious had the shooter been a Muslim. Predictably, the pundits would have begun their commentary on "How safe we are?" This would have been followed by fear mongering by some politicians. The public then may have been eager to buy the punditry's general conclusions. In some ways media does manufacture public opinion.

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