For many years, we have known that college students typically produce informational distortions when making causal attributions about problem solving (e. g., Gilbert & Malone, 1995). This is typically called correspondence bias. In this case, youth rely more on dispositional information in explaining behavior and ignore compelling situational information such as extenuating circumstances. For example, suppose you tried to approach your psychology professor yesterday. She did not even acknowledge that you were there but just kept walking with her face buried in a manuscript. You might decide that because your professor ignored your question, she is arrogant (a dispositional attribution). At the same time, you may have ignored important situational information, such as that she has recently been overwhelmed by upcoming deadlines. Thus you did not consider all the pertinent information to make a more accurate judgment. This type of finding has been primarily documented with college youths. However, it may be the case that the life experience accumulated by middle-aged and older adults causes them to reach different conclusions and that they consider equally both types of information in explaining why things happen the way they do.
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In a series of creative investigations, Blanchard – Fields (1994, 1996; Blanchard-Fields & Beatty, 2005; Blanchard-Fields & Horhota, 2005; Blanchard – Fields et al., 2007; Blanchard-Fields & Norris, 1994; Blanchard-Fields et al., 1998; Blanchard-Fields et al., 1999) studied the differences in causal attributions across the adult life span. In a number of studies, Blanchard-Fields presented participants with different situations having positive or negative outcomes and asked them to decide whether something about the main character in the story (dispositional attributions), the situation (situational attributions), or a combination of both (interactive attributions) was responsible for the event. For example, the vignettes represented situations such as that described earlier where Allen was pressuring Joan to live with him before marriage, Joan protested but Allen continued to pressure her, and the relationship ended up falling apart.
When the target events were ambiguous as to what was the specific cause of the outcome, as with Allen and Joan, all adults tended to make interactive attributions, but older adults did so at a higher rate. However, as can be seen from Figure 8.3, older adults paradoxically also blamed the main character more
Younger adults Middle-aged adults Older adults
Figure 8.3 Dispositional attributions as a function of age.
(dispositional attributions) than younger groups, especially in negative relationship situations.
In another study, Blanchard-Fields and Norris (1994) examined the connection between cognitive level similar to post-formal reasoning discussed in Chapter 7 (e. g., the ability to consider multiple perspectives and to synthesize them into a workable solution) and attributions. They found that middle – aged adults scored higher on dialectical attributional reasoning (considering multiple explanations such as dispositional and situational factors and how these factors can be incorporated into a workable explanation of behavior) than adolescents, young adults, or older adults. And, again, older adults made stronger dispositional attributions.
Blanchard-Fields and Norris took a sociocultural perspective in explaining why older adults were more predisposed to making dispositional attributions and engaged in less dialectical reasoning in negative relationship situations. First, note that the correspondence bias in older adults only occurred in negative relationship situations. In this case, older adults appeared to apply specific social rules about relationships in making their attribu – tional judgments, apparently because of their stage in life and the cohort in which they were socialized (such as the rule “Marriage comes before career”). In these situations, strong beliefs about how one should act in relationship situations appeared to be violated for the older adults, particularly older women. Therefore, these women made snap judgments about the main character who violated their strong beliefs and did not feel it was necessary to engage in conscious, deliberate analyses. They knew the character was wrong, as in the husband who chose to work long hours and not spend time with his family.
The interesting question arises, however, as to whether these attributional biases in older adults are truly due to activated belief systems that strongly impact their judgments or whether the older adults are deficient in conducting a causal analysis. This deficiency could take the form of limited cognitive resources that might prevent them from processing all details of the situation (e. g., extenuating situational circumstances). The vignette involving
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