Lexical Basis of Causal Attribution and Explanation

Lexical Basis of Causal Attribution and Explanation

Kyung Soo Do (Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1811-3.ch006


This chapter explains how laypeople generate and evaluate explanations. Traditionally, deliberate processing is assumed to be involved in generating and evaluating explanations. However, the author proposes two stages account for causal attribution and explanation to explain how laypeople generate and evaluate explanations quickly: a semi-autonomous processing stage which is primarily dependent on the lexical information of the verb, and a deliberate processing stage that takes many factors into account. The author proposes that verb types play an important role in determining the type of explanation and calls it verb cue hypothesis. In addition, the author proposes that verb cue hypothesis works as a cognitive shortcut that comprises the first stage of the two-stages account. Empirical evidence for the verb cue hypothesis was found in studies on causal attribution and explanation type preference.
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When we encounter some behavior or events that we do not expect, we try to identify the causes of the behavior or the event. There are two stages in identifying the causes: First, we have to identify the parts that need causal explanation. Then we have to generate and select the most adequate causes from a number of possible causes. Of the two stages, the first stage is not difficult in everyday settings because we usually know which part is unexpected. What we usually do in everyday settings is the second stage, generating and selecting the reasonable causes, both of which need domain knowledge in most cases. Furthermore, there are many cues in everyday settings that help determine the type of explanation.

Therefore, it is not easy to test the verb cue hypothesis, the hypothesis that verbs play important role in determining the type of explanation, in everyday settings. To test the verb cue hypothesis, there should be as little information as possible. Typical causal attribution studies in social psychology do not help either. In typical causal attribution studies, the participants are asked to choose between an internal cause (i.e., actor) and an external cause (i.e., situation) after they read a scenario that describes the characteristics of the actor and the situation and the event. We learn quite a lot about the factors affecting causal attribution with this paradigm. However, it is not a good tool to test the verbs cue hypothesis because many factors are described in the typical scenario.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Semantic Role: Role of a constituent of a sentence that is determined by the verb.

Implicit Causality: Causality that is assumed to be included in the meaning of the verb.

How Explanation: Explanation that is focused on the mechanistic cause of an event.

Causal Attribution: Mental process that tries to determine the cause of an event. Traditionally, the cause is attributed to a person or a situation.

Why Explanation: Explanation that is focused on the goal or purpose of an agent or an object.

Implicit Causality Bias: Bias of choosing the subject of explanation depending on the implicit bias of the verb.

Explanation Type Preference: Preference toward one type of explanation over the other type.

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