The Effects Of Consensus Information On Causal Attributions And Trait Evaluations: Indications Of Intuitive Psychologist And Intuitive Lawyer Models Of Judgment

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Sidney J. Arenson


Social psychology

Subject Categories

Social Psychology


The explanatory intuitive psychologist model of causal attribution (Heider, 1958) uses explicit consensus information according to the consensus principle (Kelley, 1967), whereas the sanctioning intuitive lawyer model (Hamilton, 1980) uses the simpler "could have done otherwise" rule. An exploratory study was conducted to see if and how subjects use both models in the same setting. The questionnaire items were single sentence descriptions of 12 antisocial behaviors prerated as high or low in level of implicit consensus information, with standard phrases conveying a high or low level of explicit consensus information. Three explanation-requesting scales were for rating the causal importance of the actor, target (victim) and circumstances; and three sanction-requesting scales were for evaluating three traits of the actor. Groups 1 and 2 received both kinds of scales, but in different orders; Group 3 received only causal importance scales and Group 4, only trait evaluation scales. The subjects were 120 undergraduates at Syracuse University, 15 males and 15 females per group.

Only the males used explicit consensus information when rating the causal importance of the actor; both sexes used that information for rating the causal importance of the circumstances. Females' trait evaluations were more severe overall, and both sexes gave more severe evaluations were more severe overall, and both sexes gave more severe evaluations when explicit consensus information was high rather than low, counter to the consensus principle. The order factor affected only unlikeable-likeable ratings, which were most severe when they preceded and least severe when they followed causal importance ratings.

The results were interpreted as demonstrating use of both models for different judgments about the same event, exemplified by the males' use of the psychologist model for causal importance ratings and the lawyer model for trait evaluations. Except in the case of the likeableness ratings, use of each model of causal attribution was unaffected by order with or nonuse of the other model. The unprecedented effect of explicit consensus information may have occurred because the total amount of harm was greater, calling for more sanction, when many rather than few coactors were involved. The sex effects are discussed in terms of ingroup-outgroup perspectives on the actors, all of whom were male.