by Michael R. Andreychik & Michael J. Gill
Department of Psychology
The present study examined whether social explanations—causal frameworks used to make sense of the outcomes and behavior of others—are associated with empathic orientation—propensity to experience caring, concerned feelings toward others. Results demonstrated that participants with a general tendency toward invoking external social explanations (i.e., outcomes and behavior stem from forces “outside of” persons, such as family or societal influences) showed more empathic orientations than did participants who tended to explain behavior using internal explanations (e.g., outcomes and behavior stem from intrinsic qualities of people, such as inherent ability levels and “character”). Crucially, this pattern obtained only among people who were prone to think deeply about the causes of human behavior. These results suggest that general social explanatory styles are indeed linked to empathic orientations, but that this relationship holds only for some people.
A number of approaches to understanding social attitudes have emphasized the role played by the human proclivity for constructing explanations (e.g., Jost & Banaji, 1994). One possible outcome of this pervasive explanatory tendency is the creation of negative or stereotypic attitudes. These negative social attitudes are created when people observe broad patterns of outcome disparities among groups (e.g., some are wealthy, some are poor) and then explain those disparities in terms of inherent deficiencies of the low-status groups (e.g., they’re lazy) or inherent virtues of the high status groups (e.g., they’re intelligent), with negative attitudes toward those of low status emerging from these “system-justifying” explanations. While we agree with the idea that such internal explanations play an important role in shaping social attitudes, we also believe that past theories are limited by the fact that they concentrate exclusively on one type of causal explanation (i.e., internal explanations). Other theorists have shown that bothinternal and external explanations—explanations focusing on forces “outside of” people such as societal and economic forces as causes of social status and behavior—show up in people’s social reasoning (e.g., Gill & Andreychik, 2007).
Our goal with the present study is to broaden the scope of the types of explanations that are investigated and linked to social attitudes to include both internal and external explanations. Furthermore, we aim to examine the bases of both negative and positive social orientations (i.e., empathy) as well. Also, we will broaden the focus from attitudes toward particular groups to more general social orientations: Empathy—a tendency to experience caring, concerned feelings with respect to others—as a disposition or general personality trait.
Expecting Links between Social Explanations and Empathy. But why should explanations be related to empathy? Weiner (2006), argues that it is the task of the social perceiver to assess the responsibility of someone whose action or outcome he observes. When a target is judged responsible, this implies that the target caused the outcome in question and is morally accountable in the sense of deserving blame/praise or punishment/reward. It seems likely that outcomes or behaviors that are seen as stemming from internal qualities of the actor will result in greater perceived responsibility (e.g., “It’s her own fault; she just won’t apply herself”) than will outcomes or behaviors seen as stemming from forces external to the actor (e.g., “The schools in her neighborhood are terrible; they just didn’t provide her with the skills she needs to succeed”).
A ttributional Complexity. Importantly, we reasoned that the predicted links between social explanations and social orientation might be stronger for those participants who think deeply and carefully about others’ behavior. One variable that might be particular relevant here is Attributional Complexity, which assesses the complexity of people’s attributional reasoning about human behavior. While participants high in attributional complexity are likely to have come to a particular explanation only after having traced out the implications of embracing one explanation rather than another, participants low in attributional complexity might offer particular explanations “off the top of their heads” (e.g., because they have heard such explanations offered by others in the past) without having an appreciation of the implications of embracing such an explanation.
Participants comprised 52 female and 50 male undergraduates at Lehigh University. At a pretest session, participants completed questionnaires assessing their levels of dispositional empathy (IRI; Davis, 1980) and attributional complexity (Fletcher et al., 1986). Participants returned several weeks later and provided explanations for the outcomes and behaviors of both groups and individuals (e.g., “When conflict erupts among the Batek people of Malaysia they try to resolve it through informal discussions rather than through power assertion or violence. How would you explain the behavior the Batek?”).
Did participants show evidence of a social explanatory style? Participants tended to respond (somewhat) consistently across the 12 vignettes in terms of the degree to which their explanations focused on external or internal causal factors (a = .675).
Was social explanatory style related to social orientation? Multiple regression analyses demonstrated that attributional complexity was found, as expected, to moderate the relations between social explanations and empathy. Specifically, externality was positively related to both empathic concern and personal distress for participants high in attributional complexity (t’s > 1.98, p’s < .05) (e.g., among participants high in attributional complexity, a greater focus on social and historical factors as responsible for outcomes and behavior was associated with higher levels of empathic concern), but negatively related to empathic concern and personal distress for participants low in attributional complexity (t’s < -1.74, p’s < .08).
To begin, we did find evidence for the existence of a social explanatory style. Also, we found evidence for the predicted relation between explanatory style and empathy among participants high in attributional complexity. These results suggest that it is only after tracing out the implications of adopting a particular explanatory framework that one shows the relationship between explanations and social orientation suggested by past work.
Michael R. Andreychik is a third year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology working with Professor Michael Gill. His research interests include stereotyping and intergroup relations, the psychology of legitimacy, and the foundations of prosocial behavior. After completing his degree he plans to seek a position in academia.
Davis, M. H. (1980).A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. Catalogue of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10 MS, 2124, 85.
Fletcher, G. J., Danilovics, P., Fernandez, G., Peterson, D., & Redder, G. D. (1986). Attributional complexity: An individual differences measure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 875-884.
Gill, M. J., & Andreychik, M. R. (2007). Explanation and intergroup emotion: Social explanations as a foundation of prejudice-related compunction. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 10, 87-106.
Jost, J. T., & Banaji, M. R. (1994). The role of stereotyping in system-justification and the production of false consciousness. British Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 1-27.
Weiner, B. (2006). Social motivation, justice, and the moral emotions: An attributional approach. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.