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Culture and Cause: American and Chinese Attributions for Social and Physical Events

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Argue that attribution patterns reflect implicit theories acquired from induction and socialization and hence differentially distributed across human cultures. In particular, the authors tested the hypothesis that dispositionalism in attribution for behavior reflects a theory of social behavior more widespread in individualist than collectivist cultures. Study 1 demonstrated that causal perceptions of social events but not physical events differed between American and Chinese students. Study 2 found English-language newspapers were more dispositional and Chinese-language newspapers were more situational in explanations of the same crimes. Study 3 found that Chinese survey respondents differed in weightings of personal dispositions and situational factors as causes of recent murders and in counterfactual judgments about how murders might have been averted by changed situations. Implications for issues in cognitive, social, and organizational psychology are discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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ATTITUDES AND SOCIAL COGNITION
Culture and Cause: American and Chinese Attributions
for Social and Physical Events
Michael
W.
Morris and Kaiping Peng
The authors argue that attribution patterns reflect implicit theories acquired from induction and
socialization and hence differentially distributed across human cultures. In particular, the authors
tested the hypothesis that dispositionalism in attribution for behavior reflects a theory of social
behavior more widespread in individualist than collectivist cultures. Study 1 demonstrated that
causal perceptions of social events but not physical events differed between American and Chinese
students. Study 2 found English-language newspapers were more dispositional and Chinese-language
newspapers were more situational in explanations of the same crimes. Study 3 found that Chinese
survey respondents differed in weightings of personal dispositions and situational factors as causes
of recent murders and in counterfactual judgments about how murders might have been averted by
changed situations. Implications for issues in cognitive, social, and organizational psychology are
discussed.
If causal inference is the "cement of the universe" (Hume,
1739/1987), do cultures construct their models of
the
universe
with different kinds of cement? Do principles of causal attribu-
tion vary across cultures? Psychologists traditionally assumed
that they do not: Attribution patterns were explained in terms
of underlying perceptual or judgmental processes. For example,
a tendency to overemphasize internal dispositions
was
noted by
Lewin (1935) in early scientific explanations for physical events
(e.g., a log floats because of
its
"levity") and social events (e.g.,
a man kills because of his "hostility"), and a similar pattern has
been experimentally documented by subsequent researchers in
lay persons' attributions
(see
reviews by Holland, Holyoak, Nis-
bett,
&
Thagard, 1986;McCloskey,
1983;
Ross,
1977).
This pat-
tern was linked by Heider (1958) to perceptual gestalts
(i.e.,
the
person tends to "engulf the total field") and by Ross (1977) to
Michael W. Morris, Graduate School of Business, Stanford Univer-
sity; Kaiping Peng, Department of Social Psychology, University of
Michigan.
This article draws on a dissertation completed by Michael W. Morris
under the guidance of Richard E. Nisbett at the University of Michigan,
which received the 1993 Society of Experimental Social Psychology
Dissertation Award. This research was supported by a National Science
Foundation (NSF) grant to Richard E. Nisbett and an NSF doctoral
fellowship and a University of Michigan dissertation research grant to
Michael W. Morris.
Thanks to Richard E. Nisbett for sage advice and skilled assistance at
every stage of this project. Thanks also to Lawrence Hirschfeld, Richard
Larrick, Hazel Markus, and Edward Smith for commenting on earlier
versions of the article, to Shaojian Chen, Chongkeng Cheng, Panfang
Fu, Larry Quesada, and Marie Ting for assistance in the research, and
to Amy Spade for assistance in preparing figures.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Mi-
chael W. Morris, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University,
Stanford, California 94305-5015.
judgmental heuristics (i.e., personal dispositions have a higher
"availability" and "representativeness" than situational causes
of
behavior).
In sum, the precise mechanisms posited for this
"fundamental attribution error" changed over the decades, but
the assumption of cultural invariance did not change.
By
contrast, anthropologists traditionally reported that attri-
bution patterns vary, reflecting social structures or cultural
symbol systems (Evans-Pritchard, 1937; Levy-Bruhl, 1910/
1926).
For example, ethnographers in non-Western cultures
have long noted that behavior is explained with greater empha-
sis on the concrete situation, temporal occasion, and social
context (Geertz, 1975; Hsu, 1953; Levy, 1973; Mauss, 1938/
1985;Selby, 1974, 1975;Strauss, 1973). Consistent with ethno-
graphic claims are recent
findings
of cultural psychologists that
Indians (compared with Americans) refer more to situational
factors and less to dispositions when asked to describe a person
they know (Miller, 1987; Shweder & Bourne, 1982) and when
asked to explain a behavior by such a person (Miller, 1984).
However, these findings do not necessarily indicate different
processes
of attribution because the
objects
of attribution also
differed (Americans talked about their American acquain-
tances, and Indians about their Indian acquaintances). In other
words,
findings
may merely reflect that cultures differ in the ac-
tual impact of personal versus situational causes on behavior
(Argyle, Shimoda,
&
Little,
1978). Our studies were designed to
close this evidential gap and to test hypotheses about the mech-
anism for dispositionalism that varies across cultures. Before
presenting hypotheses in detail, we review traditional psycho-
logical and anthropological approaches and recent interdisci-
plinary approaches to causal attribution.
Psychological Approaches
Perceptual Mechanisms
Early approaches to causal attribution were based on the Ge-
stalt theory principle that important abstract forms are per-
Joumal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1994, Vol. 67, No. 6, 949-971
Copyright 1994 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 0022-3514/94/S3.00
949
950
MICHAEL W. MORRIS AND KAIPING PENG
ceived with innate mechanisms that respond to patterns in the
perceptual field (see Koffka, 1939). Michotte (1952) proposed
that forms of physical causality may be directly perceived from
trajectories of objects A and B, not necessarily derived from
experience of succession of
A
and
B,
as Hume (1739/1987) had
argued. After testing hundreds of displays, Michotte concluded
that two evoke "universal" and "immediate" impressions of
causality:
entraining,
in which
A
collides with stationary
B
and
they move off together; and
launching,
in which
A
collides with
stationary B and B alone moves off. Methodological flaws and
failures to replicate cast doubt on Michotte's evidence for uni-
versality and immediacy,
1
yet his thesis has been reincarnated
in the form of proposed "modules" for causal perception. Ha-
bituation experiments (Leslie, 1982, 1987) have revealed that
young
children,
and
even
infants, distinguish launching displays
that conform to physical constraints from highly similar trajec-
tories that deviate from these constraints (e.g., object
B
begins
to move just before A collides with it).
2
Stewart (1984) found
with similar displays that subjects perceive an object's behavior
as caused by external, situational force when it conforms to
physical constraints (essentially, Newton's laws of motion) but
perceive an internal, dispositional force when object behavior
deviates from these constraints.
Research on perception of
social causality
began with Heider
and Simmel's (1944) experiments involving animated displays
of moving shapes. Trajectories that reliably evoked causal im-
pressions were similar to Michotte's: "simultaneous move-
ments with prolonged contact. . . successive movements with
momentary contact . . . simultaneous movements without
contact. . . successive movements without contact" (pp. 252-
255).
Most striking in their results was the frequency with
which subjects attributed behavior of shapes to internal per-
sonal dispositions, such as intentions, motives, and traits.
Heider and Simmel offered a Gestalt account for this disposi-
tionalism: "Just as . . .a landscape seen through the window
of a moving train can only be 'resolved,' or made to yield a
meaningful unit, by reference to distant objects laid out in
space, so acts of persons have to be viewed in terms of motives"
(p.
258). Heider (1944, 1958) extended this to account for dis-
regard of external, situational causes: "Behavior . . . tends to
engulf the total
field,
rather than be confined to its proper posi-
tion as a local stimulus whose interpretation requires the addi-
tional data of
a
surrounding field—the situation in social per-
ception" (1958, p. 54).
Jones and
Davis (1965)
proposed that dispositional
causes
are
most clearly perceived ("the heart is on the sleeve") when be-
havior deviates from expectations of a social role (Jones, Davis,
& Gergen, 1961) or from a norm of
social
desirability (Jones &
Harris, 1967). Jones and Nisbett (1972) extended the Gestalt
account to explain why behavior is attributed to personal dis-
positions more by observers than by actors. In the perceptual
field of an observer, the person
is
"figural" against the "ground"
of the social situation. However, the actor cannot see himself as
he acts; thus, in the perceptual field of
the
actor, it is the situa-
tion, and not the person, which is
figural.
Further experiments
demonstrated that dispositionalism is affected by perceptual
variables as mundane as perspective on the actor
(S.
E. Taylor
&
Fiske, 1975) and illumination of
the
actor (MacArthur
&
Post,
1977).
Finally, some researchers have returned to Heider's ap-
proach and have demonstrated that subjects, including young
children, distinguish the trajectories that indicate that behavior
is caused by an intention (Bassili, 1976; Dasser, Ulbaek, & Pre-
mack, 1989). Modular theorists contend that "perception of in-
tention, like that of
causality,
is a hard-wired perception based
not on repeated experience but on appropriate stimulation"
(Premack, 1990, p. 2).
Judgmental Heuristics
Others approached attribution as a complex computational
problem (Kelley, 1967), which people simplify by the use of
heuristics (see Kahneman
&
Tversky,
1973;
Tversky
&
Kahne-
man, 1973, 1974). Research on
physical causality
has revealed
that perceptions of force in object collisions are based on sa-
lient, single dimensions of trajectory, such as postcollision ve-
locity, rather than on the correct multidimensional parameters
(Gilden & Proffitt, 1989; Proffitt & Gilden, 1989). Patterns in
attribution of
social causality
have been linked to heuristics of
availability, representativeness, or consistency. Ross (1977) ex-
plained the bias toward personal dispositions in terms of their
high availability
(i.e.,
proximity of actor to act) and representa-
tiveness
(i.e.,
similarity to the acts they are adduced to explain).
After reviewing its consequences, Ross concluded that "the ten-
dency to underestimate the impact of situational factors and
to overestimate the role of dispositional factors in controlling
behavior" is the "fundamental attribution error" (p. 183). Pet-
tigrew (1979) proposed that the "consistency" of negative dis-
positions with stereotypes about outgroup members leads to
heightened dispositionalism for deviant or undesirable behavior
by an outgroup actor, which he designated the "ultimate attri-
bution error."
Cognitive Structures
Finally, others have modeled attribution as "top-down" ap-
plication of pre-stored knowledge in the form of an implicit
theory, schema, or script (Bartlett,
1932;
Goffman, 1974; Min-
sky, 1975; Schank & Abelson, 1977). Researchers of
physical
causality have identified a tendency to overpredict persistence
or consistency in object trajectories and have proposed that the
lay person's implicit theory is akin to the early scientific theory
that the internal force of impetus drives a moving object (Kai-
ser, McCloskey, & Proffitt, 1986). The operation of
an
implicit
theory in social
causality
attribution was suggested by Heider
(1958) and Nisbett and Ross
(1980).
Both, in fact, drew on Ich-
heiser's
(1943,
1949, 1970) description of
the
tendency "to in-
terpret in our everyday life the behavior of individuals in terms
1
Evidence for universality is weakened by the fact that, in many ex-
periments, he and his co-workers were the only subjects, and evidence
for immediacy is weakened by the fact that displays were often shown
repeatedly before recording the subject's response. In replications, as
few as 50% of subjects have perceived causality immediately (Beasley,
1968;
Boyle, 1960; Gemelli & Cappellini, 1958; Gruber, Fink, &
Damm, 1957; Powesland, 1959).
2
Some have argued on this basis that perception of physical causality
from object trajectories is an innate ability (Leslie & Keeble, 1987),
whereas others have offered alternative explanations (see White, 1988),
and others have demonstrated improvement in this ability through
childhood and adolescence, which points to a substantial role for ac-
quired knowledge (Kaiser & Proffitt, 1984).
CULTURE
AND
CAUSE
951
of specific personal qualities rather than
in
terms of specific
sit-
uations
. . .
based
on the
[ideological] presupposition
of per-
sonal determination
of
behavior
(as
opposed
to the
situational
or social determination
of
behavior)"
(1943,
p. 151).
However,
Heider and Nisbett and Ross
did not
posit that theories were the
primary mechanisms underlying dispositionalism
and,
hence,
did
not
limit their claims
to the
cultures they
had
researched
nor suggest
how
attribution patterns might differ across
cul-
tures.
Recently, Dweck
and
colleagues have traced individual
differences
in
dispositionalism among American subjects
to an
implicit social theory,
but the
distribution of this theory across
cultures
has not yet
been investigated
(for a
review,
see
Dweck,
Hong,&Chiu, 1993).
More specific cognitive structures have been proposed
to ex-
plain when dispositional attributions are made despite plausible
situational attributions. Kelley (1972) proposed that attributors
apply
one of
several schemas
for
causal configurations (e.g.,
multiple sufficient causes) that differ with regard
to
whether
in-
ternal dispositional causes
are
discounted
by
external situa-
tional causes. Reeder
and
Brewer (1979) posited specific sche-
mas
for
types
of
dispositions (e.g., capacities)
to
account
for
finer grained patterns in the discounting of dispositional causes.
Others have suggested that explanations
are
guided
by
scripts
for particular routine behaviors (Abelson & Lalljee, 1988;
Mor-
ris
&
Murphy,
1990;
Schank
&
Abelson, 1977). Because
the
content
of
scripts varies across cultures, script-based models
predict cultural differences
in the
explanations given
for
partic-
ular behaviors. However, these models
do not
yield predictions
about cultural differences
in
general patterns such
as
dispositionalism.
Anthropological Approaches
Symbol Systems
Ethnographers have long recorded patterns
in
causal expla-
nation
and
interpreted them
as
reflections
of
cultural systems
of symbols
or
forms of discourse. Levy-Bruhl (1910/1926)
and
Fauconnet (1928) described tendencies
of
traditional cultures
to attribute disruptive events (e.g., inclement weather
or
unsuc-
cessful hunts)
to the
presence
of
foreigners (e.g., missionaries
or explorers). Evans-Pritchard (1937) interpreted
a
pattern
of
attributing
an
event
to
both
a
local, proximal cause (e.g.,
a pot
was cracked
by the
fire,
or a man
was killed
by a
murderer)
and
simultaneously
to a
remote, ultimate cause (e.g., witchcraft)
in
terms of a Zandean metaphysics of dual causation. Other Afri-
canists have also described patterns
in
which disruptive events
are attributed
to
ultimate causes
in the
social fabric (Marwick,
1982;
Turner, 1975).
An
influential account
is
that theory-based
attributions
to
unseen causes
are
found
in
both traditional
Af-
rican cultures
and
modern Western cultures,
but
patterns differ
because
the
public discourse comprising Western scientific
the-
ory is open, whereas that comprising non-Western religious the-
ory is closed (Horton, 1970).
Asian ethnographies were marshaled
in
support
of
Mauss's
(1938/1985) thesis that
the
concept
of a
person (personne)
guided
by
internal dispositions
has
evolved
and
replaced
the
concept
of
role
or
character
(personage)
only
in
modern West-
ern social conditions. Mauss's evolutionary argument
has
been
discredited,
but the
relativity
of
social concepts
has
received
considerable ethnographic support (Carrithers, Collins,
&
Lukes, 1985).
Hsu
(1953) argued that social conceptions
of
Americans
are
person-centered, whereas Chinese conceptions
are situation-centered, reflecting societies based
on
individual-
ism versus interdependence. According
to
Geertz (1975),
Bal-
inese people attribute behavior
to
scripted roles because social
thinking occurs within forms of public discourse that direct
at-
tention
to
roles,
not
dispositions. Scholars
of
Indian social
thought also contend that behavior
is
understood primarily
in
terms of social relations,
not
individuals (Dumont, 1970).
Dis-
tinctive patterns
of
causal attribution, such
as
those involving
the notion
of
karma, have been traced
to
symbols
in
Indian
philosophical
and
medical systems (O'Flaherty, 1980).
Native American ethnographies have linked tendencies
to-
ward situational explanations
to
cultural systems (Gearing,
1970;
Selby, 1974; Strauss, 1973). Selby argued that
the
Zapo-
tec people understand behavior
in
"sociological, rather than
psychological, concepts."
The
belief that internal traits have
no
"explanatory power
for
understanding social relations"
is rep-
resented
in a
proverb—"We
see the
face
but do not
know what
is
in the
heart"—which
is not (as it
would
be to us) an
expres-
sion
of
despair (1975,
p. 21).
Selby reports that even rare
and
deviant behaviors, such
as
murder, were explained
in
terms
of
the actor's social situation
and
context. Moreover, situation-
alism could
be
seen
not
only
in
their words
but in
their judg-
ments:
A man who had
murdered
in one
situation
was not
judged likely
to do so in
another,
as
evidenced
by the
fact that
"within four years
of his
conviction
for
premeditated murder,
he
was
holding
a
political post
in the
village
and,
ironically,
it
involved looking after
all the
children during fiestas" (1974,
p.
66).
Cognitive Structures
In recent years,
a
number
of
anthropologists have shifted
from
the
position that attribution patterns reflect disembodied
symbol systems
or
social structures (sociocultural determin-
ism),
just
as
psychologists have shifted from
the
position that
they reflect innate, culturally invariant processes (psychobio-
logical determinism; Strauss, 1992a). Interest
in
models of cog-
nitive structure
has
been spurred
by
Sperber's
(1983,
1985,
1991) critique of symbolism
and
call
for
descriptions of cultural
representations that
are
consistent with
how
people store,
re-
trieve,
and
communicate information.
For
example,
a
tightly
structured "spirit attack script" has been proposed by Nuckolls
(1991)
to
explain Jalari Indian attributions
for
sudden illness.
Others have found connectionist models more appealing
and
have proposed loosely structured networks
of
semantic
and ep-
isodic knowledge
to
account
for
American explanations
of
ro-
mance (Holland,
1992) and of
success (Strauss, 1992b).
In
short, anthropologists have increasingly posited cognitive struc-
tures,
but
they have focused
on
patterns
of
attribution that
are
specific
to
particular events rather than
on
patterns that
are
more general, such
as the
dispositionalist patterns
in
social
ex-
planations noted
by
previous ethnographers.
Cultural Psychology
Ethnographic reports that attribution
is
less dispositionalist
in non-Western cultures have received some support
in
recent
952
MICHAEL W. MORRIS AND KAIPING PENG
cross-cultural psychological
studies.
Bond
(1983)
found that, al-
though American and Chinese attributions fell into the same
general categories, Chinese people attributed more to circum-
stances of
a
social nature and to situations involving social re-
lationships than did Americans. Shweder and Bourne (1982)
found that Hindu
Indians gave
more descriptions of an acquain-
tance's behavior as situated in a particular time, place, and so-
cial relationship, whereas Americans gave more decontextua-
lized descriptions in terms of general, cross-situational disposi-
tions.
They proposed that, in cultures with a "holistic world
view," persons and perhaps also physical objects are thought of
in terms of specific occasions and concrete contexts rather than
in terms of abstract dispositions.
Miller (1984) extended this research to explanations for be-
havior
by
proposing that "individuals' acquisition of more rela-
tional conceptions of
person
in non-Western cultures may lead
them to give less weight than Western attributers to general dis-
positions of the agent. . . [and more weight] to the contextual
determinants of action" (p. 964). She asked subjects of various
ages to explain a behavior of
an
acquaintance witnessed in ev-
eryday life. Explanations of children in the two cultures were
alike. Yet with age (and presumably acculturation) Americans
were increasingly dispositionalist and Indians were increasingly
situationalist, particularly for deviant
behaviors.
This
finding
of
cultural
divergence was also
obtained in descriptions of persons,
both those known well and not known well (Miller, 1987).
Our studies were designed to complement the evidence pro-
vided by previous studies. In previous studies, the object of ex-
planation or description was not held constant (Americans
talked about their American acquaintances, and Indians talked
about their Indian acquaintances). Although this design has
many virtues, such as protecting against spurious cultural
differences due to differential familiarity with stimuli, it has the
drawback of confounding two possible sources of the effect: a
difference between American and Indian subjects' attribution
processes and an objective difference in the actual causes of
their acquaintances' behavior.
3
And research indicates such a
difference between Western and non-Western cultures in the ac-
tual impact of personal versus situational causes on behavior
(Argyle et al., 1978). Our studies were designed to close this
evidential gap and to test hypotheses about a culturally variable
mechanism fordispositionalism.
Hypotheses
We propose that dispositionalism in social attribution (the
"fundamental attribution error") reflects an implicit theory
about social behavior that is more widespread in individualist
cultures than in collectivist
cultures.
We
assume that an implicit
theory about a domain is acquired from culturally bound expe-
rience with events in the domain and with public representa-
tions of the domain
(e.g.,
folktales, sacred
texts,
laws,
and works
of
art).
Because the individualism-collectivism dimension cap-
tures substantial variation among national cultures in social ex-
periences and representations (Hofstede, 1980,1983,1991;Tri-
andis,
1990),
4
we submit that the distribution of implicit social
theories differs between cultures at opposite ends of this dimen-
sion. In highly individualist cultures, such
as
the United States,
persons are primarily identified as individual units, they can
leave groups at
will,
and they are socialized to behave according
to personal preferences. In highly collectivist cultures, such as
China, persons are primarily identified
as
group members, they
cannot freely leave groups, and they are socialized to behave
according to group norms, role constraints, and situational
scripts. The dominant social representations in individualist
American culture are rooted in the Judeo-Christian notion of
the individual soul and the English legal tradition of free will.
Those in collectivist Chinese culture are rooted in Confucian
precepts about the primacy of
social
relations and the virtue of
role-appropriate behavior (Hsu, 1981b; King & Bond, 1985).
Thus,
the person-centered theory that social behavior expresses
stable, global, internal dispositions is more widespread in indi-
vidualist cultures; the situation-centered theory that social be-
havior is shaped by relationships, roles, and situational pres-
sures is more prevalent in collectivist cultures.
From this proposal, we hypothesize that attributional differ-
ences between Americans and Chinese are
broad
in scope. The
scope of implicit theories has been elucidated by developmental
findings that categorization and inference rules are organized
according to domains of
things
having the same kind of causal
properties, such as physical (Keil, 1986, 1989), animate (Gel-
man, 1990; Gelman & Spelke, 1981), psychological (Shultz,
1980;
Wellman & Gelman, 1992), and social kinds (Shultz,
1982).
Some evidence suggests that boundaries of these do-
mains are culturally invariant (see Atran,
1989;
Gelman, 1990;
Jeyifous, 1985) even if content of domain theories differ. Do-
mains are marked by the way things move (animates can propel
themselves, psychological creatures move on intentional paths,
and social creatures move according to intentions about inten-
tions;
see Bassili, 1976; Dennett, 1983, 1987; Premack, in
press).
Hence, the trajectory of motion in an event may trigger
the implicit theory used to process it. This would account for
cases when everyday perception is animistic (a leaf swirling in
the wind seems animate) and anthropomorphic (trees swaying
in the wind seem to be socially interacting). Attributional pat-
terns due to an implicit theory differ in scope from those due to
3
In an attempt to address this issue, Miller (1984) presented Ameri-
can subjects with narratives about behaviors that had been originally
generated by Indian subjects, and she compared American explanations
to the original explanations of the Indian subjects. She found, as pre-
dicted, that Americans gave more dispositional explanations. However,
in this study, American culture is confounded with another factor that
increases dispositional attribution: second-hand as opposed to first-
hand information about behavior (Gilovitch, 1987). The finding would
be expected simply because Americans were working with second-hand
information.
4
Although Hofstede's analysis of major dimensions of cultural varia-
tion provided the catalyst for psychological research on individualism-
collectivism, related constructs have been used previously by many so-
cial theorists such as de Tocqueville (1840/1946), Tawney (1926), We-
ber (1930), and Lukes (1973) as well as social scientists, including those
concerned with culture (Hsu, 1953, 1971; Triandis, 1972), values
(KJuckhorn & Strodtbeck, 1961), character (Riesman, 1950, 1954), so-
cial systems (Parsons & Shils, 1951), religion (Bakan, 1966), ecology
(Berry, 1979), and so forth. The dimension has reliably emerged in sub-
sequent studies (Bond, 1988; Hofstede & Bond, 1984; Triandis et al.,
1986) and has been found to predict free-riding in group tasks (Earley,
1989),
frequency of social interactions (Wheeler, Reis, & Bond, 1989),
favored types of verbal abuse (Semin & Rubini, 1990), and many other
social psychological phenomena (for a review, see Triandis, 1990; for a
critical view, see Kashima. 1987).
CULTURE AND CAUSE
953
other proposed mechanisms: Any event that triggers a social
theory would be processed differently by Americans and Chi-
nese
people.
Cultural differences due to implicit theories would
extend across types of social events (unlike differences due to
scripts) and across types of social actors (unlike differences due
to stereotypes). Yet differences would not be so broad as to ex-
tend across domains (unlike differences due to world views).
Our studies investigated the breadth hypothesis with empha-
sis on types of actors, which had not been varied in previous
studies. The events that subjects explained in previous studies
were
behaviors of acquaintances. Our studies focused on behav-
iors of strangers and of outgroup members. We predicted that
Chinese people would commit neither the "fundamental attri-
bution error" nor the "ultimate attribution error." Further-
more, we tested whether cultural differences extend even to
nonhuman events that are interpreted as social
events.
Because
Chinese people and Americans would interpret animal behavior
with reference to different social theories, we predicted that
they make different attributions. Imagine, for
example,
one fish
swimming in front of
a
group. Americans might attribute the
fish's behavior to an internal disposition (e.g., leadership abil-
ity),
whereas Chinese people might attribute it to an external,
situational force
(e.g.,
pressure from the
group).
In short, where
Americans might see an individual leading a group, Chinese
people might see a group chasing an individual. This cultural
difference, however, would not extend to physical events, as
these would not trigger social theories. Imagine, for example, a
soccer ball bouncing down a soccer
field.
Its movements can be
causally attributed to internal properties (e.g., its elasticity) or
to external forces
(e.g.,
kicks) but one would not expect Ameri-
cans to emphasize the former and Chinese people the latter.
Cultural differences due to implicit theories would also be
cognitively
deep.
Dweck and colleagues have explored how sub-
jects who hold the social theory predictive of dispositionalism
differ from other subjects in their processing of behavior. They
attend to and encode different features into the representation
of the behavior (Dweck, Hong, & Chiu, 1993), which makes
them more likely to infer dispositions based on limited evidence
(Gervey, Chiu, & Dweck, 1992) and to overpredict the consis-
tency of future behavior (Erdley & Dweck, 1993). Processing
may result in a more decontextualized representation of behav-
ior that hinders judgmental sensitivity to the impact of future
contexts (Semin & Fiedler, 1991). In sum, because theories
shape encoding, representation, and inferences drawn from be-
havior, cultural differences would be found not only at the level
of verbal discourse about behavior but also in other modes of
causal cognition.
We tested predictions about differential encoding by investi-
gating whether Americans and Chinese people differ in their on-
line visual perceptions of causality (Study
1).
We
tested whether
different kinds of attributions are generated by comparing the
explanations of American and Chinese newspaper reporters for
the same events (Study 2). We investigated whether American
and Chinese people represent events differently by comparing
how they evaluate various kinds of explanations (Study 3). We
also investigated whether they draw different inferences from
their representations of events by comparing their judgments
about counterfactual situations (Study 3).
Study 1
In Study
1,
American and Chinese subjects watched cartoon
displays of
physical
and social events and reported their causal
perceptions. The contexts chosen were familiar in both cul-
tures:
Physical events involved an object moving across a soccer
field, and social events involved a group offish swimming in a
lake.
For physical events, we predicted no cultural differences:
An object's trajectory will be attributed to internal dispositions
to the extent that it deviates from certain trajectory constraints.
For social events, we predicted cultural differences: A
fish's
be-
havior that deviates from others will be attributed more to its
internal dispositions by Americans and more to its external sit-
uation by Chinese subjects. All subjects were shown many
events of each kind to investigate additional hypotheses about
perception of dynamics from trajectories.
For physical events, we hypothesized that Americans and
Chinese people have the same implicit theory that accords ob-
ject motion within certain trajectory constraints
to
external fac-
tors and accords motion that deviates from these constraints to
internal factors. One proposed constraint (Stewart, 1984) that
we investigated is conservation of rest (e.g., a stationary soccer
ball stays at rest). Another constraint investigated involved ve-
locity. The constraint was not conservation of velocity, but
rather Runeson's
(1974)
proposed constraint that terrestrial
ob-
jects gradually lose velocity or decelerate, (e.g., a rolling soccer
ball gradually decelerates).
F