We are all naive scientists

When an event occurs people instinctively attempt to find its cause, this is the same regardless of whether the behaviour is witnessed in others or in ourselves. In his book The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, Fritz Heider described people as naive scientists, in that they often attempt to apply stable causes to underlying behavioural events (Heider, 1958). Heider distinguished between personal causality (something internal that causes us to behave in a particular way) and situational causality (governed by external factors). The question is, therefore, how do people infer that one thing causes another? With reference to student behaviour, there will no doubt be a number of different inferences at play, such as the good (or otherwise) relationship the student has with the teacher, how the student feels about the subject in general, the social dynamic of the group, how well the lesson is planned and/or delivered ... the list goes on.

We can try to explain how people could attribute the causes of behaviour by referring to models of causal inference, that is, models that try to explain how we ascribe causality in social situations. The why questions, in other words. For example:

  • • Why is he in such a bad mood with me?
  • • Why is she being so kind to me?
  • • Why is Tom in 9B such a nightmare in my lesson while everyone else thinks he's a little angel?
  • • Why do people commit crimes when they know that (if caught) they will be punished?
  • • Why do some students continue to misbehave despite incurring multiple sanctions?

Or they might be more personal:

  • • Why did I fail that test?
  • • Why do I get lower grades than everyone in the class even though I work twice as hard?
  • • Why does this kind of thing always happen to me?

Models relating to our understanding of such causality are usually referred to as attribution theory (essentially, common sense methods for inferring causality), but in reality there are number of related yet distinct models.

Attributing cause in social interactions

How we approach a similar task or situation in the future is dependent upon three factors. The first is locus, that is, do we attribute failure to something internal (such as lack of intelligence or a personality flaw) or do we believe that it was caused by something external. Second, people also attribute cause based on how stable they believe the outcome is. For example, if we fail our driving test twice, do we assume that we will also fail it a third time (based on past experience) or do we view our failure to pass as unstable (it will be different next time)? Finally, we base outcomes on how far we believed we had control over the situation. These three components combine to form what is described as the overriding control mechanism, or the belief that we are able to control future outcomes, including academic ones. It also relates to more general life outcomes, as in the following example.

Billy asks Mandy out on a date, only to be told that Mandy really doesn't want to go out on a date with him. Billy's immediate response is one of unhappiness, but he also wants to know why - he searches for the causal attributes. Mandy has no desire to tell him that it's because she finds him boring (an internal cause) so she tells Billy that she really needs to study for an important exam (an excuse or, more technically, a causal substitute). Mandy, therefore, attempts to replace an internal cause with an external cause in the hope that this will protect Billy's feelings of self-worth. The problem is that this often happens to Billy and he can't understand why his friends are always out on dates while he's stuck at home binging on box sets. He concludes that he must be boring and that people will always refuse to go out on dates with him, that is, the outcome is stable. It's easy to see where this might lead. Billy will, in all likelihood, simply stop asking people out on dates, having attributed past failure to some flaw in his personality and the assumption that these past failures are predictive of future failures.

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