When do circumstances excuse? Moral prejudices and beliefs about the true self drive preferences for agency-minimizing explanations

Cognition 180 (C):165-181 (2018)
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When explaining human actions, people usually focus on a small subset of potential causes. What leads us to prefer certain explanations for valenced actions over others? The present studies indicate that our moral attitudes often predict our explanatory preferences far better than our beliefs about how causally sensitive actions are to features of the actor's environment. Study 1 found that high-prejudice participants were much more likely to endorse non-agential explanations of an erotic same-sex encounter, such as that one of the men endured a stressful event earlier that day. Study 2 manipulated participants' beliefs about how the agent's behavior depended on features of his environment, finding that such beliefs played no clear role in modeling participants' explanatory preferences. This result emerged both with low- and high-prejudice, US and Indian participants, suggesting that these findings probably reflect a species-typical feature of human psychology. Study 3 found that moral attitudes also predicted explanations for a woman's decision to abort her pregnancy (3a) and a person's decision to convert to Islam (3b). Study 4 found that luck in an action's etiology tends to undermine perceptions of blame more readily than perceptions of praise. Finally, Study 5 found that when explaining support for a rival ideology, both Liberals and Conservatives downplay agential causes while emphasizing environmental ones. Taken together, these studies indicate that our explanatory preferences often reflect a powerful tendency to represent agents as possessing virtuous true selves. Consequently, situation-focused explanations often appear salient because people resist attributing negatively valenced actions to the true self. There is a person/situation distinction, but it is normative.

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Simon Cullen
Carnegie Mellon University


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