Goal Versus Trait Explanations: Causal Attributions Beyond the Trait-Situation Dichotomy

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In 4 studies, we show that two behavioral dimensions specified in Kelley’s (1967) model of attribution, consistency and distinctiveness of behaviors, determine perceivers’ likelihood to explain others’ behaviors in terms of their goals versus traits. Participants tended to attribute the cause of others’ behaviors to their goals (vs. traits and other characteristics) when behaviors were characterized by high distinctiveness (Study 1A & 1B) or low consistency (Study 2). On the other hand, traits were ascribed as predominant causal explanations when behaviors had low distinctiveness or high consistency. Study 3 investigated the combined effect of those behavioral dimensions on causal attributions and showed that behaviors with high distinctiveness and consistency as well as low distinctiveness and consistency trigger goal attributions. We discuss the implications of the present research in terms of going beyond the dominant approach of trait-situation dichotomy in attribution research.

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