Features of social psychological theories

The Attribution Theory looks at how people try to explain the behaviour of others. Behaviour is divided into internal and external factors, an internal attribution is made by looking at a person’s characteristics, such as intelligence or personality, external attribution is made when looking at factors outside the person’s control, such as bad luck or peer pressure (Heider, 1958).

The correspondent inference theory describes that an attribution is made when a judgement made by one person on another person’s behaviour, which has been caused by a particular trait. This suggests that we believe that a person’s behaviour is intentional and after identifying this we try to look for a personal characteristic which may have caused this behaviour (Manstead, & Hewstone, 1996).

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According to the correspondent inference theory we can make a correspondent inference based on 2 major factors, the first is when we perceive that the person freely chose the behaviour, and the second is when we perceive that the person intended to do whatever he or she did. An example of correspondent inference is if we see someone beating someone else up, we will assume that they are going this deliberately, not because they are pretending and that they are a violent person by nature.

The covariation theory believes that people decide that the most likely cause of any behaviour is the factor that occurs as the time as the behaviour. The covariation theory focuses on external attributions in contrast to the correspondent inference theory which focuses on the process of making internal attributions and the factors beyond the person that may be causing the behaviour. According to the covariation theory, to make an attribution 3 pieces of information are needed, the first is consensus information, which informs us of whether other people have had a similar or different reaction when in the same situation. The second piece of information needed is distinctiveness information, which describes the situation in which behaviour occurred, and determines whether or not the situation is unique or distinctive which may have caused the behaviour (Bordens & Horowitz, 2002). The last piece of information needed is consistency information, which informs us of whether the person has acted this way before or if this is a one-time behaviour. One of the limitations of the covariation theory is that it fails to distinguish between the intentional and unintentional behaviour of a person (Hayes, 2002)

Jurors often make internal and external attributions of the defendant and of the victim when declaring their verdicts within the courtroom. In one study researchers found that the jurors verdicts or suspicions of whether or not the defendant was guilty were not influenced by whether the defendant was disabled or not. Those jurors who did think that the defendant was guilty were less likely to convict the defendant if they were described as disabled rather than non-disabled. This tendency occurred because the jurors made fewer internal attributions for the disabled juvenile’s actions (Najdowski, Bottoms, Vargas & Cummens, 2009).

One case study investigated the trials in which the defendant was charged with a firearms related offence, it was found that if the accused had intended to use the firearm then they were found guilty by the jurors. This case study shows supports for the correspondent inference theory as the defendant chose and freely intended to use the firearms (Tinsley, 2001).

In a film called 12 Angry Men, a young boy is put on trial for the murder of this father, the majority of jurors decide that the boy is guilty. One juror, played by Lee J. Cobb makes internal attributions of the boy’s behaviour based on the fact that he is from the slums, and believes that the boy must have no respect or sense of morality because of where he is from. A criticism of the correspondent inference theory is that is does not account for fundamental attribution error, which is a term used when people intensify internal attributions and reduce external attributions linked to the situation which occurred to explain a person’s behaviour (Heffner, 2001). In the film 12 Angry Men, evidence used against the boy includes when he is heard shouting at this father “I’ll kill ya” before leaving the house, as the film continues, jurors begin to argue among themselves and Lee J. Cobb is insulted, to which he replies “I’ll kill ya” in anger. This is a good example of fundamental attribution error as Lee J. Cobb was angry in the situation and does not actually mean he is going to kill the other juror. In addition to this another pointed out that if the boy went back to retrieve the knife he must have been guilty and was trying to cover up the evidence, which suggests that if he did kill his father then he intended to do so (Lumet, 1957).

When jurors are provided with previous convictions of the defendant in trial, this can provide them with extra information as well as influence their decision. One study found high conviction rates if the defendant had a prior conviction of the same charge, compared to low conviction rates if the defendant did not (Wissler & Saks, 1985). This shows support for the consistency element of the covariation theory, as previous convictions of the same present charge provide jurors which an attribution that this person has behaved this way before and is repeating this behaviour despite being convicted.

Padawar-Singer and Barton (1974) found that there was a 50% more chance that jurors decided the defendant was guilty if they were aware of the defendants past criminal record, compared to if they did not have this information (Brewer, 2002). In support of this, one study found that mock jurors were more likely to convict the defendant when they had evidence of a prior conviction than when they had no evidence (Greene & Dodge, 1995).

It may argued that jurors should make their decisions based on the evidence available and not on information about the defendant’s past convictions because people do change and just because a person was convicted once does not mean that this should be used against them for their entire life. However in one case study it was found that Simon Berowitz was cleared of burglary at a solicitors office without the jury knowing that he had 230 previous convictions for burglary. In this instance jurors should have been provided with the information of Berowitzs’ previous convictions as the consistency of his actions would have allowed jurors to make a more informed decision, but as the jurors were not provided with the defendants previous convictions they may have made a situational attribution using distinctive information, believing that Berowitz had never been charged for burglary before (Brewer, 2002).

Not all research has found that jurors make internal or external attributions about the defendant when making decisions. In one study, a survey was performed and it was found by researchers that one of the most influential factors contributing to jury making decision was the knowledge jurors had of the law as well as the instructions and information about the case (Kakar, 2002).

Other factors may also affect jurors’ decision making such as the ages of the jurors, in one court case, researchers found a difference in length of sentence and the amount of responsibility attributed to the parent between undergraduate mock jurors and high school mock jurors (Ackerman, McMahon & Fehr, 1984).

Racial leniency is also another contributing factor found in many jury studies, Sommers & Ellsworth (2000) and Ugweugbu (1976) both found that the jurors decisions were influenced when the juror was of the same race as the victim or defendant.

People make internal and external attributions on a day-to-day basis trying to find an explanation as to why people behave in a certain way and although many studies have found that jurors use the information of intent of the defendant, past convictions and the behaviour and verdicts of their fellow jurors to help them making a decision, there have also been other studies which show other contributing factors which should be taken into account, such the age, race, gender of the juror and the defendant as well the amount of knowledge the juror has about the law.

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Sommers, S.R. & Ellsworth, P.C. (2000). Race in the Courtroom: Perception of Guilt and Dispositional Attributions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 26 (11), 1367-1379

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