Who was the investigator and what was the aim of the study? Yiwei Chen and Fredda Blanchard-Fields (1997) tested the idea that processing resource limitations accounted for the dispositional bias typically observed in older adults. Does older adults’ limited resource capacity prevent them from adjusting initial dispositional biases? In addition, would older adults engage in an adjustment procedure if they were given more time, which would reduce cognitive processing demands? Alternatively, do strong social beliefs and social rules better explain older adults’ dispositional biases?

How did the investigators measure the topic of interest? Chen and Blanchard-Fields presented 12 social dilemmas to participants. Within each situation a character violated a social rule about what is appropriate social behavior in the specific type of situation. On a computer screen, participants had to rate the degree to which the character was to blame for the situation either immediately following the story or 30 seconds later.

Who were the participants in the study? Chen and Blanchard-Fields selected a random sample of older adults and younger adults from the U. S. Southeast. Given that the younger adults were college students and the older adults were from the community, the

sample was not representative of the population at large.

Were there ethical concerns with the study? Because the study used volunteers who performed the computerized task and there were no questions about sensitive topics, there were no ethical concerns.

What were the results? As you can see from Figure 8.4, older adults made higher dispositional ratings than younger adults did in the immediate-rating condition only. Older adults

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made lower dispositional attribution ratings (i. e., adjusted more) when they were forced to take more time to think about the situations than in the immediate-rating condition.

The age differences in immediate versus delayed conditions defined processing limitations in terms of time constraints. Given more time, older adults will adjust their attributions. However, we can only infer this, because the manipulation of processing constraints was not directly

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compared within participants.

Also, adjustment does not always work in the same way. For example, younger adults had a slight tendency to increase their dispositional attributions given more time.

However, Chen and Blanchard-Fields also asked participants to complete brief written essays explaining their attributional judgments. The content of their statements was used to identify each individual’s social rules regarding appropriate behaviors in the social situations
portrayed in the vignettes. They found that older adults made more evaluative rule statements about the main character in the immediate-rating condition (e. g., "You shouldn’t take friendship for granted"). In addition, high dispositional attributional ratings were correlated with such evaluative rule statements about the main character. Finally, the degree to which a participant produced evaluative rule statements about the main character accounted for the relationship between age and

dispositional ratings about the main character in the immediate-rating condition.

What did the investigators conclude? Chen and Blanchard-Fields provide evidence against a resource limitation explanation for older adults’ dispositional bias and provide evidence that the degree to which an individual endorses social rules determines when a dispositional bias will be made. In this case, older adults had more social rules violated in these vignettes and thus displayed a dispositional bias more than did younger adults.

Erin shows how, on the one hand, we can rely on our experience as older adults to guide us through uncomfortable situations; however, on the other hand, a reduction in our capacity does not allow us to consider all the relevant information, in this case, to make an accurate judgment about Brittany’s behavior.

Remember, earlier we questioned whether a processing resource hypothesis was the best expla­nation of social judgment biases. Again, this is par­ticularly important because in Blanchard-Fields’s attribution studies, the dispositional bias was only found for older adults when they were presented with negative relationship situations. This issue was addressed in a study by Chen and Blanchard – Fields (1997), reviewed in the How Do We Know? feature. Finally, Klaczynski and Robinson (2000) have found that everyday reasoning biases in older adults occur not because of declining cognitive ability, but because older adults are more likely than younger adults to base their judgments on their own beliefs.

These findings indicate that the explanations people create to account for behavior vary depend­ing on the type of situation (e. g., relationship or

achievement situations), the age of the person, and whether strong social beliefs have been violated by a person in the situation. What is also emerging is the importance of the sociocultural context in which people are socialized, as this appears to create dif­ferent social rules that are then used to make causal attributions. Additional research supports this idea. For example, Blanchard-Fields and colleagues (2007) examined causal attributions in Chinese younger and older adults in comparison to American younger and older adults. Interestingly they found that older Americans showed a greater correspondence bias than younger Americans. However, both younger and older Chinese performed similarly and showed less correspondence bias. Older Americans may focus their attributions on the individual due to a lifelong experience of an individualistic orientation. In order to adjust this initial judgment, the contex­tual information must be made salient to them in a socially meaningful manner. Support for this idea comes from studies showing that when there is a plausible motivation for the target’s behavior, older adults can correct their judgments to be less biased than in a standard attitude attribution paradigm (Blanchard-Fields & Horhota, 2005).

For older Americans to correct their attribu­tions, the constraint needs to provide a meaningful reason why a person would contradict his or her own beliefs. For Chinese older adults, the mean­ingful nature of the situation does not need to be emphasized because to them situational influences and constraints represent a naturally occurring manner in which to approach any judgment situ­ation and they have a lifelong experience of a col­lectivist orientation. More research is needed to shed additional light on how these age differences are created and under what circumstances they appear.

Concept Checks

1. What is the correspondence bias?

2. What are dispositional and situational attributions?

3. How do social beliefs influence causal attributions?