LEARNING OBJECTIVES

• What are causal attributions?

• What is the correspondence bias?

• How does the nature of our causal attributions change with age?

• What alternative explanations are there for the dispositional bias found in older adults?

E

rin is cleaning up after her son, who spilled his dinner all over the table and floor. At the same time, she is listening on the cordless phone to her coworker, Brittany, describing how anxious she was when she gave the marketing presentation in front of their new clients that day. Brittany is also describing how the boss had told her the company depended on this presentation to obtain a contract from the new clients. After the phone call, Erin reflected on Brit­tany’s situation. She decided Brittany is an anxious person and should work on reducing her anxiety in these types of situations.

Erin was interested in what caused her coworker Brittany’s anxiety when presenting information at work. Was it something about Brittany, such as being an anxious person? Or was it due to some other reason, such as luck or chance? Or was it due to the pressure placed on Brittany by her boss? Answers to these questions provide insights into particular types of social judgments people make to explain their behavior, which are referred to as causal attributions. Causal attributions can be behavioral explanations that reside within the actor, such as “Brittany is an anxious person.” This is called a dispositional attribution. Or the explanation can reside outside the actor, such as “Brittany is suc­cumbing to pressures from her boss” This is called a situational attribution. In this case, Erin made a dispositional attribution about Brittany. In this s ection, we explore whether there are age differ­ences in the tendency to rely more on dispositional or situational attributions or on a combination of both when making causal attributions.

Historically, the study of attributions and aging has been confined to studying attributional judgments made about the aging population, usu­ally involving competence in memory or cogni­tion. We will discuss these issues when we examine research on stereotypes and attributions about older adults’ mental competence. In that case, attribu­tions about older persons’ successes and failures are compared to similar successes and failures of younger adults. Such attributions go hand-in-hand with the stereotyping of older adults. However, more recently the focus in attribution and aging research has turned to the examination of changes in the nature of attributional processes, per se, from an adult developmental context. Thus the question can be asked whether findings typically found in social psychological attribution theory and research hold true beyond the college years (Blanchard – Fields et al., 2008).