Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Mar 01, 2018

How Do Dispositional Tendencies Shape How We Assign Blame?

Illustration of mutlicultural jury

Accidents happen, and when misfortunes occur we tend to look for someone or something to blame.

When such accidents lead to court cases, it often falls upon a jury to determine fault. How does an individual’s attributional tendency impact how they assign blame?

This is the question Ashley Votruba from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sought to answer in her opening presentation titled The Influence of Social Attributions on Juror Perceptions, presented for the Social Psychology and Law: In the Courtroom and Beyond preconference at the SPSP Annual Convention. Votruba found that individuals’ dispositional tendencies influence their attributions of fault and blameworthiness.

Votruba’s research is based upon the theoretical concept of social attributions. Individuals may hold more situational or dispositional tendencies when making attributions. Those with more situational tendencies are likely to rely on contextual factors such as social roles to form judgements. Alternatively, those with dispositional tendencies are more likely to rely on individual factors such as the person’s personality or history.

Across three studies, Votruba tested how social attributions impact jurors’ perceptions of responsibility in negligent tort cases. In one study, respondents examined a case in which a car accident took place. Respondents with higher dispositional tendencies were more likely to allocate higher rates of fault to the driver in the scenario, perceive the driver as being more blameworthy, and reported that higher damage amounts were owed. 

A medical malpractice case was used to assess similar concepts in study two. Once again, the findings suggested that those with higher dispositional tendencies were likely to assign more responsibility to the individual. These individuals were likely to agree that the doctor’s actions were inappropriate and that he failed to uphold the accepted standard of care. The findings of this study provide further evidence that attributional tendencies can influence jurors’ perceptions of blame. 

This line of research is important as it points to the possibility that jurors may rely on their existing attributional tendencies. It is not difficult to see why this may be problematic. We expect that jurors consider the evidence objectively but this research suggests that other factors may play a role.

It may seem that priming individuals to a more situational orientation could help to solve this challenge. However, Votruba’s study three suggests that doing so may prove to be difficult. The goal of this study was to use an experimental manipulation to determine if respondents could be made to be more situationally focused. The manipulation did not have a statistical impact. However, it is possible that alternative manipulations could lead to priming jurors to be more situationally focused.

Ultimately, several questions remain for future exploration, including whether manipulating attributional tendencies is possible. Further, how can these findings inform the legal system to help better guide juror decision making. And finally, does the presentation of character evidence in a court case interact with dispositional tendencies to influence attributions of blame?

Written by Kristan Russell, PhD Student at the University of Nevada, Reno

Preconference: Social Psychology and Law: In the Courtroom and Beyond

Presentation: The Influence of Social Attributions on Juror Perceptions

Speaker: Ashley Votruba, JD, PhD - University of Nebraska - Lincoln



About our Blog

Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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