The Social Explanatory Styles Questionnaire: Assessing Moderators of Basic Social-Cognitive Phenomena Including Spontaneous Trait Inference, the Fundamental Attribution Error, and Moral Blame
and Moral Blame. PLoS ONE 9(7): e100886. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100886
The Social Explanatory Styles Questionnaire: Assessing Moderators of Basic Social-Cognitive Phenomena Including Spontaneous Trait Inference, the Fundamental Attribution Error, and Moral Blame
Michael J. Gill 0
Michael R. Andreychik 0
Brock Bastian, University of New South Wales, Australia
0 1 Department of Psychology, Lehigh University , Bethlehem , Pennsylvania, United States of America, 2 Department of Psychology, Fairfield University , Fairfield, Connecticut , United States of America
Why is he poor? Why is she failing academically? Why is he so generous? Why is she so conscientious? Answers to such everyday questions-social explanations-have powerful effects on relationships at the interpersonal and societal levels. How do people select an explanation in particular cases? We suggest that, often, explanations are selected based on the individual's pre-existing general theories of social causality. More specifically, we suggest that over time individuals develop general beliefs regarding the causes of social events. We refer to these beliefs as social explanatory styles. Our goal in the present article is to offer and validate a measure of individual differences in social explanatory styles. Accordingly, we offer the Social Explanatory Styles Questionnaire (SESQ), which measures three independent dimensions of social explanatory style: Dispositionism, historicism, and controllability. Studies 1-3 examine basic psychometric properties of the SESQ and provide positive evidence regarding internal consistency, factor structure, and both convergent and divergent validity. Studies 4-6 examine predictive validity for each subscale: Does each explanatory dimension moderate an important phenomenon of social cognition? Results suggest that they do. In Study 4, we show that SESQ dispositionism moderates the tendency to make spontaneous trait inferences. In Study 5, we show that SESQ historicism moderates the tendency to commit the Fundamental Attribution Error. Finally, in Study 6 we show that SESQ controllability predicts polarization of moral blame judgments: Heightened blaming toward controllable stigmas (assimilation), and attenuated blaming toward uncontrollable stigmas (contrast). Decades of research suggest that explanatory style regarding the self is a powerful predictor of selffunctioning. We think it is likely that social explanatory styles-perhaps comprising interactive combinations of the basic dimensions tapped by the SESQ-will be similarly potent predictors of social functioning. We hope the SESQ will be a useful tool for exploring that possibility.
Constructing explanations is vital for the human comprehension
of reality. Furthermore, as social beings our explanatory abilities
are often aimed at understanding other people. Social explanations
are the product of this social sense-making activity. Why is he helpful
to strangers? Why is she so successful? Our answers to such everyday
questions have powerful effects on interpersonal relationships ,
, moral emotions , reactions to success and failure ,
, intergroup relations , and marital quality . It
seems that all major domains of social life are shaped by patterns
of social explanation.
Here, we are interested in the possibility that individuals have
enduring, characteristic styles of social explanation, which we call
social explanatory styles , . Given the centrality of explanation
to social life, social explanatory styles should have broad
implications for the social life of the individual, pervasively
shaping her cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to
others. Indeed, a large body of work suggests that characteristic
styles of explaining ones own acts and outcomes have profound
effects on individual adaptation . We expect that social
explanatory styles have similarly potent implications for social
Below, we offer a measure of individual differences in social
explanatory styles: The Social Explanatory Styles Questionnaire (SESQ).
The measure taps three basic explanatory dimensions (described
below). To validate the measure, we will provide evidence that
each of these basic dimensions moderates an important
phenomenon of social cognition: Spontaneous trait inferences , the
fundamental attribution error , and blaming of those with
stigmatizing conditions . Although we focus here on the
preliminary task of separately validating each dimension of the
SESQ, we encourage researchers to consider interactions among
these basic dimensions as they try to illuminate particular social
judgment phenomena. Prior to presenting evidence regarding the
reliability and validity of the SESQ, we will situate the construct of
social explanatory styles it in the literature in two ways. First, we
will show how our conception of social explanatory styles grows
out of classic work regarding the conceptual structure of social
explanations. Second, we will elaborate on how our approach is
rooted in a particular view of the social explanatory process.
The Conceptual Structure of Social Explanations
Heider  pioneered the image of everyday social life as
suffused by causal analysis. He also offered seminal ideas about the
conceptual structure of lay thinking about social causality. In
particular, Heider noted that lay perceivers view others as both
affected by their personal and impersonal environment and as
able to cause changes in the environment (p. 17; italics in
original). This distinction between being affected by versus
causing is seen in the longstanding theoretical distinction
between external (or situational) causes, which involve personal and
impersonal forces that surround an actor and shape her acts or
outcomes, and internal (or dispositional) causes, which involve personal
abilities, motives, or traits that reside within the actor. This
distinction takes center stage in the majority of empirical work on
social explanation ; but see  for an argument that this
distinction should not take center stage. Although early work
assumed that internal and external causes are mutually exclusive
causal choices, research has undermined this assumption ; for
in-depth discussion see also . Perhaps the most powerful
argument against an internal/external dichotomy is that external
forces can be seen as creating internal dispositions [e.g., He lacks
confidence (internal) because his parents were very critical (external).].
Thus, our conception of social explanatory styles treats internal
and external causes as independent dimensions.
Weiner  played a major role in pushing psychologists to
think beyond internal and external causes. Most famously, Weiner
highlights the causal property of controllability. For example,
according to Weiner and Kukla , evaluations of others
achievements are shaped by the perceived causal role of
internal-controllable (effort) versus internal-uncontrollable
(intelligence) causes. Controllable failures evoke blame and anger, whereas
uncontrollable failures evoke compassion. Broadly speaking,
controllability perceptions are high when the perceiver thinks that
volitional activity by the actor could have made things turn out
otherwise and low when the actor is seen as having little volitional
control over how things turned out. Weiner  also highlighted
the notion of causal stability: Some causes are constant (traits),
whereas others fluctuate (moods). We included the stability
dimension in our research for quite some time, but found no
evidence that it mattered for the phenomena we studied. Thus, we
will not discuss it further.
The Process of Social Explanation
From Nave Scientist to Cognitive Miser
In addition to focusing on conceptual structure, classic work also
attempted to describe how perceivers select an explanation ,
. Classic models focused on how perceivers choose between
internal and external causes, and portray perceivers as engaged in
logical analysis like a nave scientist. Furthermore, classic models
portray the explanatory process as largely bottom up, assuming
that explanations are selected based on case-specific observations
regarding the particular actor and act being explained . For
example, Jones and Davis  proposed that perceivers select an
internal explanation if they answer affirmatively to the question:
Did the actor intentionally bring about effects that most people would try to
avoid? Kelley  proposed that internal explanations are selected
when the perceiver answers affirmatively to three questions: Has
the actor previously acted like this in similar contexts? Does the actor act like
this in many contexts? Is the act different from what others would do?
Although these models contain some truth , research has
also uncovered important shortcomings. Most famously, Jones and
Harris  found that perceivers select internal causes even when
classic models suggest it is logically inappropriate to do so (i.e.,
when there is an obvious external cause present). This pervasive
bias has been dubbed the Fundamental Attribution Error  or the
Correspondence Bias . Gilbert, Pelham, and Krull 
illuminated a major cause of the FAE. They presented evidence that
perceivers automatically generate internal explanations for acts,
and only consider external causes if they are both motivated and
able to do so , . This work frames the perceiver as an
unscientific cognitive miser who prefers to exert as little cognitive
effort as possible. The miser prefers internal explanations
because they are easy to generate , .
The Lay Theories Perspective: Perceiver as
An alternative perspectivereflected in our concept of social
explanatory styles along with other work to be discussed belowis
that explanation selection is guided by the perceivers preexisting
theories. This lay theories perspective assumes that perceivers vary in
their general beliefs and expectations regarding social causality.
The starting point for the lay theories perspective is the
overwhelming complexity of the social world, the vast array of
social events one must explain daily and the vast array of causes
that might potentially have given rise to each of those events. In
the face of such complexity, pre-existing theoriesgeneral beliefs
and expectations about how things typically workare
indispensable for making sense of it all. Although theories do render the
world easier to manage cognitively, the lay theories perspective
asserts that needs for understanding and meaningnot miserliness
are the primary motives underlying theory development , ,
, , . After building a theory, perceivers are not
openminded but rather tend to automatically see the world in terms of
their theories. Our major prediction, rooted in this lay theories
perspective, is that several well-documented social-cognitive
phenomena will be moderated by individual differences in theories
of social causality .
The existing literature contains two major lines of work
reflecting a lay theories perspective. The first examines cultural
differences. For example, Miller  found that Americans show a
preference for internal explanations, whereas Indians show a
preference for external explanations. Similar results have been
reported by Morris and Peng . Various challenges have been
offered to the simplistic idea that Westerners prefer internal
whereas Easterners prefer external causes. For example, some
work has suggested that cultural differences emerge only when
external causal information is highly salient, in which case
Easterners use it and Westerners continue to ignore it , .
More subtly, Menon, Morris, Chui, and Hong  suggest that
Westerners and Easterners both emphasize internal causes, but
Easterners are more likely to see dispositions residing in groups (the
organization is corrupt) whereas Westerners are more likely to see
dispositions as residing in individuals (he or she is corrupt). In spite
of these nuances, the literature is clear that there are cultural
differences in general theories of social causality, which guide
explanation selection in specific cases.
Beyond this work on culture, the best-known approach to lay
theories comes from Dweck and her colleagues work on implicit
person theories , , , ; see also  for a distinct,
more recent approach. They take an individual differences (rather
than cultural) approach and suggest that lay perceivers can be
classified either as entity theorists, who believe that the characteristics
of human beings are highly stable (Everyone is a certain kind of
person and there is not much that can be done to change that), or
incremental theorists, who believe that human characteristics are
malleable and unstable (All people can change even their most
basic qualities). One of the clearest demonstrations of the effects
of implicit person theories comes from Chiu, Hong, and Dweck
. They found that entity theorists were more likely than
incremental theorists to believe that an actors behavior in one
context would predict his behavior in a different context and that
even a single instance of behavior is indicative of an enduring
behavioral tendency. Other work [Hong, 1994, unpublished] has
suggested, in contrast, that incremental theorists favor
explanations that point to dynamic processes in the actors mind (e.g.,
momentary needs, goals, or strategies), which create expectations
of less behavioral stability.
More recently, Church and his colleagues  proposed an
alternative conceptualization of lay theories. First, they offer the
concept of implicit trait beliefs, which are a persons beliefs about the
stability of traits over time, the consistency of trait-relevant
behavior across situations, the ease of predicting behavior from
traits, the ease of inferring traits from scant behavioral
observations, and the adequacy of traits for understanding a person. They
contrast implicit trait beliefs with implicit contextual beliefs, which are
a persons beliefs about the instability of traits over time, the
inconsistency of trait-relevant behavior across situations, the
inability to predict specific behaviors from traits, the difficulty of
inferring traits from scant behavioral observations, and the
importance of context (e.g., roles, statuses) for predicting behavior.
Church et al. developed the Personal Beliefs Inventory (PBI) to
measure these two dimensions of lay theories. They found that the
PBI comprised two underlying latent factors, which corresponded
to implicit trait and implicit contextual theories. This, of course,
provides additional evidence regarding the orthogonality of
internal and external casual explanations noted above.
Furthermore, Church et al. presented evidence that implicit trait beliefs
were only weakly related to Dweck et al.s implicit person theories,
and implicit contextual beliefs were not related to them at all.
Our concept of social explanatory styles has much in common
with this prior work. How will we contribute beyond it? First, our
focus on individual differences distinguishes our approach from
work on culture. Second, although Dweck et al. and Church et al.
focus on individual differences, we conceive of social explanatory
styles in terms of three independent dimensions, only one of which
seems likely a priori to be empirically related to their constructs (and
which we will show below is only moderately related to Churchs
implicit trait beliefs and is unrelated to Dweck et al.s theories). To
elaborate, unlike the SESQ, Dweck et al. do not directly measure
belief in the efficacy of external causes. This is important given the
arguments above that such belief is orthogonal to belief in the
efficacy of internal causes (which Dweck et al. do measure).
Relatedly, unlike the SESQ, Church et al. do not measure belief in
the efficacy of actor volition/control. Finally, whereas Church et
al. do measure belief in the efficacy of external causes, they
conceive of external causes as contextual influences that cause an
actor to behave differently on different occasions. In contrast, as
will be elaborated below, we conceive of external causes as historical
and formative influences that have caused an actor to become a
particular kind of person. Our conception grows out of our research on
moral psychology, which suggests that moral emotions such as
blame and compassion are linked to beliefs about the role of
historical, formative influences in shaping potentially blameworthy
agents , . To maintain clarity, we will use more descriptive
labels such as historicism and historical causes when discussing the
types of external causes assessed by the Social Explanatory Styles
Questionnaire. The upshot here is that, in relation to existing lay
theories measures, the SESQ provides predominantly novel
information. We will provide evidence below regarding the
relation between the SESQ, Dweck et al.s implicit person theories
measure, and Church et al.s PBI.
Social Explanatory Styles
What are social explanatory styles and where do they come
from? We propose that, over time, cultural influences, individual
learning experiences, and individual cognitive and motivational
influences combine to create individual differences in general
beliefs about the causes of action. We propose that important
individual differences exist in general beliefs about the causal
importance of internal dispositions, historical, formative influences
in an agents life, and agent volition/control. Thus, we
conceptualize social explanatory styles in terms of three independent
dimensions: Dispositionism, historicism, and controllability. Although we
suspect that these different dimensions likely interact to predict
certain social judgments, in the present paper we focus on the
preliminary task of separately validating our measure of each
Individual differences in social explanatory styles are likely
shaped by a wide array of factors. At the broadest level, cultures
vary in terms of beliefs about social causality (see above). There is
also evidence for ethnic group differences in causal perceptions
within the United States . At a more specific level, educational
experiences likely shape social explanatory styles. For example,
higher education can reduce internal explanations  and
increase reliance on more sophisticated interactionist
explanations . Higher education in the social sciences strengthens
belief in historicism, at least for understanding group-level
outcomes , . Finally, at an intrapsychic level, those who
are contemplative are relatively likely to adopt a belief in
historicism . Surely, much future work is needed to understand
the full array of factors that create variability in social explanatory
Understanding the causes and consequences of diversity in
social explanatory styles will be greatly facilitated by the
availability of a reliable and valid measure. Thus, below we
present six studies that examine the convergent and divergent
validity of the Social Explanatory Styles Questionnaire. As noted
above, given the central role of explanation in social life, individual
differences in social explanatory styleslikely involving interactive
relations among the independent dimensions tapped by the
SESQshould have broad implications for the individuals social
life. That assumption provides the motivation for the present work.
Measuring Social Explanatory Styles
Beyond the work of Dweck et al. and Church et al., other
scholars have developed instruments that are similar in some ways
to what we are attempting. For example, Fincham and Bradbury
 developed the Relationship Attribution Measure (RAM).
Research using the RAM shows that explanatory styles in the
marital context plays a role in shaping marital quality. But, the
RAM does not tap broader explanatory tendencies that generalize
beyond ones marriage. Relatedly, Peterson, Semmel, von Baeyer,
Abramson, Metalsky, and Seligman  developed the
Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ). The ASQ taps explanatory style, or
ones characteristic style of explaining ones own acts and
outcomes . Work with the ASQ has suggested the existence
of a depressive attributional style: Those who attribute negative
personal events to their own stable, global dispositions (i.e., an
interactive combination of belief in internality, stability, and
globality) are at increased risk of depression. The notion of
explanatory styles is quite similar to our notion of social
explanatory styles, and its role in predicting depression speaks to
the importance of general explanatory theories. The major
difference, of course, is that explanatory styles concern the self,
whereas social explanatory styles concern others.
To measure our construct, over a period of years we have
developed the SESQ, which can be seen in Appendix S1.
Respondents are presented with descriptions of the action patterns
of eight different individuals. Each of the eight scenarios was
designed to describe the general character of a target. That is, the
SESQ taps explanations regarding the enduring character of a
person rather than explanations for single, isolated acts. Half the
targets show positive character and half show negative character.
For each target individual, respondents are asked: Why has [this
target] become [this way]? They provide ratings of the extent to which
the cause is the targets traits (dispositionism), the targets external
circumstances/life experiences (historicism), and factors over which
the actor can exert control (controllability). Scoring of the SESQ
involves calculation of mean dispositionism, historicism, and
The Present Studies
All studies were approved by Lehigh Universitys Institutional
Review Board (IRB). For each study, participants provided written
consent. The consent forms were approved by Lehigh Universitys
Overview of Studies
Below, we present six studies. Studies 1, 2 and 3 will examine
basic psychometric properties of the SESQ. We will present
evidence regarding the internal consistency of responses to each
dimension of the SESQ, factor structure of the SESQ, relation to
personality traits and political ideologies, and relation to the lay
theories measures of Dweck et al. and Church et al.
Studies 4, 5, and 6 address predictive validity. The approach in
each study is to validate a particular subscale of the SESQ. As
noted above, however, we encourage users to examine interactions
among SESQ dimensions for predicting social judgments and
behaviors. Such interactions will be more meaningful to the extent
that the contributing dimensions from the SESQ have been
separately validated. Thus, such preliminary validation is the task
of the present studies. Study 4 will test whether SESQ
dispositionism moderates the tendency to make spontaneous trait
inferences from behaviors . Study 5 will test whether SESQ
historicism moderates the tendency to commit the FAE in the
classic Jones and Harris  attitude attribution paradigm. Study
6 will examine whether SESQ controllability moderates blaming
of those from stigmatized categories . Taken together, these
studies will show that social explanatory styles play an important
role in moderating several basic phenomena of social cognition
and thus that each separate subscale of the SESQ has an
important degree of predictive validity.
Study 1: Internal Consistency and Factor
Structure of the SESQ
Participants. Three-hundred and ten participants (184
males, 126 females) participated on-line via the Mechanical Turk
interface created by Amazon. They ranged in age from 18 to 68
(M = 29.5). Many participants had completed a 4-year college
degree (35%) and some had also completed an advanced
professional or graduate degree (8%). Other participants had
completed a 2-year degree (11%), less than two years of college
(30%), or a high school degree (15%). A few participants (1%) had
not completed high school. The sample was predominately White
(87%), but also included individuals who identified as East Asian,
African-American, and Hispanic.
Procedure. After clicking the agree box on an on-line
consent form, participants completed the SESQ along with some
Results and Discussion
We began by examining internal consistency for each scale
dimension. Cronbachs alpha suggested strong internal consistency
for dispositionism (a = .89), historicism (a = .85), and
controllability (a = .88). These support the idea that people have coherent
social explanatory styles. Next, we submitted mean ratings on each
dimension to a repeated-measures ANOVA. This revealed a
strong effect of causal dimension, F(2, 308) = 113.11, p,.001. The
pattern was such that controllability ratings were the highest
(M = 4.37, SD = .68), dispositionism ratings were next (M = 3.98,
SD = .64), and historicism ratings were lowest (M = 3.51,
SD = .66). Controllability ratings were significantly higher than
both dispositionism and historicism ratings (Fs.46.96, ps ,.001,
ds..78), and dispositionism ratings were significantly higher than
historicism ratings (F = 67.47, p,.001, d = .94). This pattern fits
the notion that those in Western cultures tend to view actions as
highly controllable  and to emphasize internal over external
causes , . Of course, these mean differences should be
interpreted cautiously given that we did not obtain data from a
comparison culture to see if the pattern of means would change.
Finally, we examined correlations among SESQ dimensions.
Supporting our decision to measure them separately,
dispositionism and historicism were unrelated, r(308) = .08, ns. In contrast,
dispositionism and controllability showed a modest positive
relation, r(308) = .19, p,.001, and historicism and controllability
showed a weak negative relation, r(308) = 2.11, p,.05.
Finally, we computed a principal components factor analysis
with varimax rotation. Looking at the scree plot, it was clear that a
three factor solution described the data quite well. The eigenvalues
of these three factors were 5.77, 4.45, and 3.18, and together they
accounted for 56% of the variance. There were two additional
factors with eigenvalues between 1.0 and 1.2 but these factors had
just one or two items with factor loadings over |.50|. Thus, the
structure of the SESQ is dominated by three factors. These three
factors are displayed in Table 1. Clearly, each causal dimension
tapped by the SESQdispositionism, historicism,
controllabilityrepresents a separate underlying latent factor. Thus, the
SESQ reliably measures three independent facets of peoples social
Study 2: Relation of the SESQ to Cognitive Style,
Personality Traits, and Political Ideology
Study 2 sought evidence regarding the relation of social
explanatory styles to cognitive processing style, personality traits,
Dispositionism: Susans Love
Dispositionism: Bills Helpfulness
Dispositionism: Stevens Disagreeableness
Dispositionism: Roberts Crimes
Dispositionism: Jamess Community Service
Dispositionism: Sarahs Verbal Abuse of Children
Dispositionism: Janets Volunteering
Dispositionism: Beths Infidelities
Control: Janets Volunteering
Control: Jamess Community Service
Control: Bills Helpfulness
Control: Beths Infidelities
Control: Stevens Disagreeableness
Control: Roberts Crimes
Control: Sarahs Verbal Abuse of Children
Historicism: Bills Helpfulness
Historicism: Jamess Community Service
Historicism: Janets Volunteering
Historicism: Susans Love
Historicism: Roberts Crimes
Historicism: Sarahs Verbal Abuse of Children
Historicism: Stevens Disagreeableness
Historicism: Beths Infidelities
Note. Factor loadings (including cross-loadings) less than |.25| are deleted.
and political ideology. We propose that social explanatory styles
are specific social cognitive orientations and thus they should
relate, at most, only modestly to broad personality traits. Beyond
this, we expected that individuals prone to thorough cognitive
processing would be more historicist and less dispositional in their
social explanatory styles , . Finally, we expected that social
explanatory style would not be closely aligned with political
ideology. With regard to this latter issue, there is evidence that
liberals and conservative do show some differences in their
thinking about social causality . However, as we have
argued elsewhere , these differences are specific to thinking
about socio-economic inequality and do not reflect the type of
broad explanatory theories we are trying to tap with the SESQ; see
 for a similar perspective.
Participants. Two-hundred eighty undergraduate
participants (145 female) participated for credit in their introductory
Procedure. After signing a written consent form, all
participants completed the SESQ. In addition, a subset of sixty-seven
completed the Need for Cognitive Closure scale (NFCC) , a
separate subset of ninety-seven completed the Big Five Inventory
(BFI)  and the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale
(DERS) , and another subset of one-hundred sixteen
completed the Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA)  and
Social Dominance Orientation scales (SDO) . As per standard
scoring methods, participants received a single score for NFCC
[M = 3.49 (scale: 1 to 6), SD = .42, a = .83], DERS [M = 2.30
(scale: 1 to 5), SD = .64, a = .88], RWA [M = 21.09 (scale: 24 to
4), SD = 1.24, a = .92], and SDO [M = 3.00 (scale: 1 to 7),
SD = 1.19, a = .94]. Also as per standard scoring methods, the BFI
yielded five scores (scale: 1 to 5), with each score representing one
of the Big Five Personality Factors: Extroversion (M = 3.25, SD
= .85, a = .88), Agreeableness (M = 3.67, SD = .53, a = .66),
Conscientiousness (M = 3.52, SD = .63, a = .79), Neuroticism
(M = 2.90, SD = .72, a = .79), and Openness (M = 3.38, SD = .64,
a = .77).
Results and Discussion
Correlations were computed between the SESQ dimensions
and the other constructs (see Table 2). We also computed multiple
regression analyses. For all regression analyses presented in this
paper, predictor variables were centered on their means prior to
being multiplied to create interaction terms . In the present
case, we tested main effects and all 2- and 3-way interactions
involving the SESQ dimensions. We found only one significant
interaction effect out of 32 possible interactions, so we will treat
that effect as spurious (it was not a highly sensible pattern).
As can be seen in Table 2, the strongest correlations were
between the SESQ dimensions and NFCC. Specifically, among
those high in NFCC social explanatory styles tended to be more
dispositional, less historicist, and marginally more likely to
emphasize controllability. This is consistent with the notion that
careful and thorough thinking increases ones focus on external
forces such as agent history, whereas shallow thinking leaves one
focused on internal factors such as dispositions and volition.
Dispositionism was unrelated to all the other variables measured.
In contrast, beyond its relation to NFCC, historicism was also
modestly related to Agreeableness. This fits with the idea that
historicism is associated with prosocial responding , .
Finally, controllability was associated with several variables
beyond NFCC. In particular, controllability was negatively related
to DERS and Neuroticism. It seems likely that these relations
involve extrapolation from the selfmy emotions are strong and I have
difficulty controlling themto a general belief about humanitypeople
are not in control. Also, those high in Openness were similarly likely
to reject the idea that people are in control of their actions. This
relation likely stems from an influence similar to that of NFCC:
Contemplation tends to undermine belief in free will. Finally, in
contrast, those high in Conscientiousness were more likely to score
high on controllability. This, as with DERS and Neuroticism,
seems likely to reflect extrapolation from the selfI am consistently
able to exercise self-control and enact appropriate behaviorsto humanity
people are in control of their actions. None of the SESQ dimensions were
related to political ideology.
Study 3: Social Explanatory Styles, Implicit Person Theories, and Implicit Trait and Contextual Beliefs
In Study 3, we will examine the relation between the SESQ
dimensions, Church et al.s implicit trait and implicit contextual
beliefs, and Dweck et al.s implicit person theories.
Participants. One-hundred thirty-nine participants (76
female) participated for credit in their introductory psychology
course. An additional one-hundred nineteen participants (87
males, 32 females) participated on-line via Amazons Mechanical
Turk interface. They ranged in age from 18 to 66 (M = 35). Many
of the on-line participants had completed a 4-year college degree
(51%) and some had also completed an advanced professional or
graduate degree (10%). Other participants had completed a 2-year
degree (10%), less than two years of college (17%), or a high school
degree (12%). The sample was predominately White (81%), but
also included individuals who identified as East Asian,
AfricanAmerican, and Hispanic.
Procedure. After providing consent, participants completed
the SESQ. In addition, the introductory psychology sample
completed Levy and Dwecks [unpublished] 8-item IPT measure
(e.g., Everyone is a certain kind of person, and there is not much they can really
do to change that). After appropriate reverse coding, items were
averaged such that high scores reflected an entity theory (M = 4.0
of 7; SD = 1.3; a = .93). In scoring, we followed the procedure of
Chiu et al.  by deleting those who scored around the midpoint
(4) of the scale (who lack a clear theory). Specifically, we
categorized those scoring over 4.5 as entity theorists and those
scoring below 3.5 as incremental theorists. This resulted in the
deletion of roughly 33% of cases, which is comparable to Chui et
al. The on-line sample completed Church et al.s  PBI
measure, which taps implicit trait (M = 3.83 of 5; SD = .34; a = .88)
and implicit contextual beliefs (M = 3.22; SD = .36; a = .86).
Results and Discussion
We computed correlations between the three SESQ
dimensions, IPT, and the two dimensions of the PBI. As can be seen in
Table 3, there were no significant relations between the SESQ
dimensions and Dweck et al.s IPT measure. Indeed, there were
only two significant correlations among the nine we computed.
One of thesea positive relation between SESQ controllability
and PBI implicit trait theorieswas quite small. There was a
somewhat larger relation between SESQ dispositionism and PBI
implicit trait theories, although this correlation hardly suggests that
the measures are redundant. Taken together, these correlations
suggest that the SESQ is providing predominately novel
informationnot tapped by alternative measuresregarding lay theories
of social causality. One task for the future will be to more precisely
understand the differences among the constructs being assessed by
these measures, a task that will become more achievable as more
data are collected involving the newer measures (i.e., PBI, SESQ).
Indeed, Church and colleagues  showed that the PBI was only
weakly related to Dweck et al.s IPT measure. In particular, then,
further investigation is needed to more fully understand why the
IPT measure, PBI implicit traits beliefs, and SESQ dispositionism
are only weakly to moderately correlated, given their shared
emphasis on traits/internal factors.
Study 4: Dispositionism and the Tendency to
Make Spontaneous Trait Inferences
Studies 13 provided strong evidence regarding the internal
consistency, factor structure, and divergent validity of the SESQ.
None of the evidence, however, demonstrates the predictive
validity of each SESQ dimension. Thus, the purpose of the next
three studies is to show that each dimension of the SESQ enables
prediction of a relevant social psychological phenomenon. Study 4
will provide evidence that SESQ dispositionism moderates the
tendency to make spontaneous trait inferences from behavior.
Study 5 will provide evidence that SESQ historicism moderates
the tendency to commit the Fundamental Attribution Error.
Finally, Study 6 will show that SESQ controllability moderates
blaming of those in stigmatized categories. As noted above, here
we focus on the preliminary task of separately demonstrating the
validity of each SESQ dimension. Future research will, we hope,
consider whether interactions among particular social explanatory
dimensions might be relevant for understanding a target
phenomenon (e.g., as with depressive attributional style).
In Study 4, we utilize a probe recognition paradigm  to
examine whether the tendency to make spontaneous trait inferences
(STIs) is moderated by the dispositionism facet of social
explanatory styles. Such a result takes us outside the realm of
self-reports and would provide compelling evidence that
dispositionism (as tapped by the SESQ) guides presumably automatic,
uncontrollable social cognitive processes.
In the STI paradigm, participants read a series of one-sentence
behavior descriptions which are followed by a probe word. Their
task is to indicate as quickly and accurately as possible whether the
probe word actually appeared in the behavior description. In
reality, the probe word did not appear. On critical trials, however,
the probe word is a trait (or situation) implied by the behavior
description. On control trials the probe word is not implied by the
behavior description. The logic behind this paradigm , [70,
 is that if participants make a STI, then they should have
difficulty correctly reporting that an implied probe word did not
actually appear. Indeed, evidence for the occurrence of STIs
comes when participants take longer to respond that a probe word
(smart) did not appear on a critical trial (John got an A on the test) than
on a control trial (Ben jumped over the fence). Such slow responding
suggests that participants spontaneously inferred the probe word,
an inference that interferes with correctly reporting that the word
was not actually in the sentence. Ham and Vonk  expanded
the STI paradigm to also measure spontaneous situation inferences
(SSIs). The logic is identical to that just described. For example,
evidence for an SSI happens if, after reading Eric lifted the boulder,
participants are slower to report that light was not in the sentence
than after reading a control behavior description (Steven swam the
lake). We use the stimuli from Ham and Vonk for our study below.
Our major prediction is that SESQ dispositionism scores will be
positively related to the tendency to make STIs. Indeed, because
lay theories presumably structure ones understanding of social
events on a daily basis, those with strong dispositionist theories
should be well-practiced at generating relevant trait concepts from
behavioral observations. Thus, such inferences should be highly
automatized and hence likely to be detectable in a STI paradigm.
If our prediction is confirmed, it will suggest that the dispositionist
lay theory tapped by the SESQ is evident even on implicit
One might expect that SESQ historicism scores should predict
SSIs, but we were not so sure. The reason has to do with the
specific content of the situational explanations used by Ham and
Vonk (2003), whose stimuli we use here. Specifically, the SSI
stimuli from Ham and Vonk (2003) refer primarily to properties of
objects with which an actor has a momentary interaction (e.g., the
fence was low; the boulder was light). In contrast, historicism on the
SESQ concerns nurture beliefs (e.g., parents and community have
shaped the type of person she is). It seems to us that these two notions of
external causes are so different that historicism scores might well
be unrelated to SSIs.
Table 3. Correlations of SESQ dimensions with Dweck et al.s Implicit Person Theories and Church et al.s Implicit Trait and Implicit
Contextual Theories (Study 3).
Dweck et al.: Implicit Person Theories Church et al.: Implicit Trait Theories Church et al. Implicit Contextual Theories
Note: *p,.05; ***p,.001.
Procedure. After signing a written consent form, participants
completed the SESQ at a pretest. A few weeks later, they returned
individually to take part in an ostensibly unrelated study.
Participants were randomly assigned to either the STI condition or
SSI condition and were seated at a computer terminal. After signing
a written consent form, participants received instructions
indicating that their task would consist of reading behavior descriptions
displayed on the screen and then indicating as quickly and
accurately as possible whether or not a word displayed
immediately afterward had actually appeared in the behavior description.
To motivate participants, a reward of $20 was promised to the
participant whose responses were the fastest and most accurate.
Participants were instructed to press the a key if the probe word
had actually appeared in the behavior description and to press the
6 key on the number pad if the probe word had not actually
appeared in the behavior description. They were also instructed to
keep their left and right index fingers on the keys during the entire
task. Participants completed 12 practice trials to familiarize them
with the task.
Next, they began the actual task. On each trial, a row of Xs was
presented in the center of the screen for 1000 ms. Then, a
behavior description was displayed for 3000 ms followed by a
blank screen which lasted for 500 ms. A row of Xs then appeared
for 500 ms, followed by a probe word. The probe word remained
on the screen until participants indicated Yes or No (Was this
word actually in the sentence you just read?). Once an answer was
provided, a blank screen was displayed for 1000 ms. Then the next
trial began. There were 10 critical trials on which the probe word
was implied by the preceding behavior description. There were
also 10 control trials on which the probe word was not implied by
the preceding behavior description. The critical and control trials
consisted of the same behavior descriptions and probe words, but
in the control trials the probes were rearranged to be irrelevant to
the behavior descriptions. Although the 10 behavior descriptions
were always the same, in the STI condition the probe words were
traits whereas in the SSI condition probe words were features of
the situation. Forty filler trials were also included and these served
to add trials on which yes was the correct response and on
which participants needed to attend to the verb in the behavior
description; see Ham & Vonk  for rationale. The 60
combinations of behavior descriptions and probes were presented
in random order. Response times (RT) and correctness were
recorded by the computer.
Results and Discussion
Reaction times. Overall, error rates were very low
(M = 1.01%, SD = .02, Range = 0 to 5%). RTs were analyzed
only if the response had been correct. Because analyses of RTs can
be very sensitive to outliers, we analyzed our response time data
using two methods. First, we employed an absolute cutoff criterion
of ,200 ms and .2000 ms. Using this cutoff criterion resulted in
the deletion of only .28% of responses. Second, because the RT
data were positively skewed, we performed a natural log
transformation. Results using either approach were virtually
identical. For ease of interpretation, the analyses presented below
are based on the cutoff criterion.
Prior to testing our primary hypotheses, we computed a 2(Trial
Type: control, critical) X 2(Probe Type: trait, situation)
betweenwithin ANOVA. This revealed a main effect of Trial Type, F(113)
= 9.77, p = .002, which reflected that fact that RTs were slower on
critical trials (M = 657) than on control trials (M = 637). Neither
the main effect of Probe Type nor the interaction was significant,
Fs,1.83. This replicates the findings of Ham and Vonk and
suggests that participants were making both STIs and SSIs in our
Next, to test our hypotheses regarding dispositionism, we
followed the recommendations of Judd, Kenny, and McClelland
 for testing moderation in a within-subjects design. First, we
transformed the within-subjects variable of trial type (critical vs.
control) into a difference score that represented the difference
between RTs on critical versus control trials. This was done such
that higher scores indicated slower RT on critical as compared to
control, suggesting the presence of a spontaneous inference. Thus,
we will hereafter call this variable spontaneous inferences.
We regressed the spontaneous inference variable on condition
(STI vs. SSI), SESQ dispositionism, SESQ historicism, and all
their 2- and 3-way interactions (the version of the SESQ used in
this study omitted the controllability dimension). This analysis
revealed only the predicted condition by SESQ dispositionism
interaction, t(107) = 2.93, p = .004 (all other ts ,|1.19|, ps..24).
Follow-up simple slope analysesplotting the relation between
dispositionism and spontaneous inferences separately for the STI
and SSI conditionswere computed. See Figure 1. In the STI
condition, we found a significant positive relation between SESQ
dispositionism and spontaneous inferences, t(111) = 2.33, p = .02
(d = .44). In the SSI condition, there was a slight reversal of this
pattern which did not attain statistical significance, t(111) = 21.47,
p = .15 (d = .28). Thus, SESQ dispositionism scores predicted an
increased tendency to make spontaneous trait inferences, and were
weakly predictive of a reduced tendency to make spontaneous
situation inferences. As noted earlier, we questioned whether
SESQ historicism would predict SSIs, and the evidence suggests
that they did not. Validity evidence for SESQ historicism comes
Study 5: SESQ Historicism and the Fundamental
In Study 5, we examine the predictive validity of the historicism
dimension of the SESQ. To do so, we examine whether
historicism moderates one of the most fundamental phenomena
of social cognition: The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is
the tendency to neglect or underweight external causes when
making social judgments , , . To test this, we
performed a conceptual replication of Jones and Harriss 
We predicted that SESQ dispositionism would not moderate the
tendency to commit the FAE. Given that lay dispositionism is a
frequently given explanation for the FAE , our prediction
deserves some comment. A careful reading of Gilbert and
Malones analysis  (see especially pp. 2224) shows that it is
not belief in dispositions per se that fosters the FAE. Rather, it is
either blindness about or explicit dismissal of the power of the
situation in shaping actions and dispositions. As noted above,
dispositionism is independent of belief in the power of the situation
 (see also Study 1 regarding the lack of correlation between
dispositionism and historicism). Thus, we expect that
dispositionism will not moderate the FAE, but rather it will be those who
explicitly affirm the power of external social forces to mold the individual (i.e.,
high historicism) who will be less prone to committing the FAE.
Participants. Eighty-nine participants (43 female)
participated for credit in their introductory psychology course.
Procedure. After signing a written consent form, participants
completed the SESQ at a pretest. A few weeks later, they returned
to a different location in small groups, met a different
experimenter, signed a written consent form, and completed an
experiment modeled after Jones and Harris. Specifically, they
learned that they would be reading an essay about Affirmative
Action (AA) written by a college student, Pat OMalley, for a
journalism class. Participants were randomly assigned to either the
no choice condition or the choice condition and to the anti-AA condition or
the pro-AA condition.
Participants in the no choice condition learned that the
professor told each student which position to defend. Thus, Pat did
not choose which position to argue. Participants in the choice
condition learned that the professor allowed each student to
choose which position to defend. Thus, Pat chose to argue the
position in the essay youll read. Next, participants in the anti-AA
condition read an essay ostensibly written by Pat that provided
several arguments against Affirmative Action, whereas participants
in the pro-AA condition read an essay ostensibly written by Pat
that provided several arguments in favor of Affirmative Action.
Finally, participants were asked to diagnose Pats true, personal
attitude on two 9-point scales with endpoints labeled Definitely
Opposes Affirmative Action and Definitely Supports Affirmative Action or
Definitely Against Affirmative Action and Definitely In Favor of Affirmative
Action. These two items were highly correlated (r = .92), and thus
were averaged to form an index of the extent to which Pat was
perceived as favorable toward AA (M = 4.57, SD = 2.39).
Results and Discussion
Ratings of Pats attitude were regressed on the choice
manipulation, the position manipulation (anti or pro), SESQ
historicism, SESQ dispositionism, and all their 2-, 3-, and 4-way
interactions (again, the controllability dimension was omitted on
the version of the SESQ used in this study). The analysis revealed
a main effect of position, t(73) = 8.83, p,.001 (d = 2.1), with those
in the pro-AA condition perceiving Pat as more favorable to
Affirmative Action than those in the anti-AA condition. There was
a marginal and not particularly intelligible main effect of
dispositionism, t(73) = 1.67, p = .10, suggesting that those who
scored high in dispositionism tended to rate Pat as more favorable
toward Affirmative Action. More importantly, replicating Jones
and Harris, there was a position by choice interaction, t(73) = 4.00,
p,.001. The nature of this was such that the effect of position on
ratings of Pats attitude was stronger in the choice condition,
t(84) = 9.29, p,.001 (d = 2.0), than in the no choice condition,
t(84) = 3.83, p,.001 (d = .84). Notably, the fact that there remained
a significant difference between the anti- and pro-AA conditions
even in the no choice condition replicates the evidence for the FAE
found by Jones and Harris.
Going beyond Jones and Harris, however, our analysis also
revealed that this two-way interaction was moderated by SESQ
historicism, creating a three-way interaction, t(73) = 2.33, p = .023.
As can be seen in Figure 2, this interaction was driven by the fact
that, as predicted, those high in SESQ historicism were more
strongly affected by the choice manipulation than were those low
in historicism. Indeed, in the anti-AA condition, those high (+1
SD) in historicism rated Pat as more opposed to Affirmative Action
when Pat had choice than when Pat had no choice, t(41) = 22.27,
p = .028 (d = .71), whereas the choice manipulation made no
difference to those low (21 SD) in historicism, t,1. Similarly, in
the pro-AA condition, those high (+1 SD) in historicism rated Pat
as more in favor of Affirmative Action when Pat had choice than
when Pat had no choice, t(39) = 3.31, p = .002 (d = 1.06), whereas
the choice manipulation made no difference to those low (21 SD)
in historicism, t = 1.12, p = .27.
Another way of parsing these data is to look specifically at
judgments within the no choice condition, in which, logically, the
pro- and anti-AA essay writers should receive similar ratings
because of the professors strong influence on their attitude
expressions. Examining that condition reveals that those high in
historicism came quite close to avoiding the FAE altogether.
Specifically, in the no choice condition those high in historicism (+
1 SD) showed only a marginal tendency to rate Pats attitude
differently in the anti-AA (M = 3.8) as compared to the pro-AA
condition (M = 5.0), t(39) = 1.77, p = .08 (d = .57). In contrast, this
same difference was twice as large among those low (21 SD) in
historicism (Ms = 3.3 and 5.9, respectively; t(39) = 3.57, p = .001;
d = 1.14).
Study 6: SESQ Controllability and the Polarization
of Moral Judgments
In Study 6, we focus on the controllability dimension of the
SESQ. The study is based on Weiners  insight that
controllability perceptions play a crucial role in moral blame. In
particular, Weiner et al.  showed that when a stigmatizing
condition is seen as controllable by its possessor, blame is
amplified. In contrast, when a stigmatizing condition is seen as
uncontrollable by its possessor, blame is inhibited.
Study 6 will examine whether those with a strong general belief
in controllability (according to the SESQ) tend to perceive
relatively controllable stigmas as highly controllable, and thus to
show heightened blame compared to those with a weak general
belief in controllability. We will also include a condition in which
participants respond to relatively uncontrollable stigmas. We are
interested in the possibility of a contrast effect: When a stigma is
uncontrollable, will those with strong general belief in
controllability perceive that stigma as highly uncontrollable because the
stigma contrasts so markedly with their generally high control
expectations? Such a contrast effect would ironically produce
attenuated blame responses among those with strong general belief
in controllability. In effect, then, Study 6 explores whether the
controllability dimension of social explanatory style predicts
polarizationboth amplification and attenuationof blame
Figure 2. SESQ historicism and the Fundamental Attribution Error. SESQ historicism predicts increased sensitivity to the choice manipulation
of the classic Jones and Harris (1967) paradigm, and thus a reduced tendency to commit the FAE.
Participants. Sixty-seven participants (44 female)
participated for credit in their introductory psychology course.
Procedure. After signing a written consent form, participants
completed the SESQ at a pretest. A few weeks later, they returned
to a different location and met a different experimenter. At this
follow-up session, after signing a written consent form, they rated
four stigmatized categories taken from Weiner et al. . Based on
pilot testing, we chose the two categories that were rated highest in
controllability (controllable stigmas: Child Abusers, The Obese) and the
two categories that were rated lowest in controllability
(uncontrollable stigmas: People with Alzheimers, The Blind). Participants in the
present study rated the two controllable and the two
uncontrollable stigmas in terms of controllability (e.g., Did a child abuser have
control over whether he/she became a child abuser?). Responses were made
on a 9-point scale with endpoints labeled No Control At All (1) and
Total Control (9). Participants also rated how much blame they
assigned to each stigma group (e.g., To what extent do you blame a child
abuser?). Responses were made on a 9-point scale with endpoints
labeled No Blame (1) and Total Blame (9). The order in which these
ratings were made was counter-balanced across participants.
There were no order effects. To prepare these ratings for analysis,
we averaged the controllability ratings for the two controllable
stigmas (M = 7.45, SD = 1.24) and for the two uncontrollable
stigmas (M = 1.75, SD = .84). Next, we averaged the blame ratings
for the two controllable stigmas (M = 7.03, SD = 1.22) and for the
two uncontrollable stigmas (M = 1.28, SD = .47).
Results and Discussion
Our primary hypotheses were that SESQ controllability scores
would predict heightened perceptions of control over controllable
stigmas (an assimilation effect) and perhaps also attenuated
perceptions of control over uncontrollable stigmas (a contrast
effect). These alterations in perceived control should, in turn,
translate into heightened blame for controllable stigmas and
attenuated blame for uncontrollable stigmas.
To test these possibilities, we first looked at perceived control
ratings. Specifically, we computed a repeated-measures ANCOVA
(repeated measure: controllability ratings for controllable stigmas,
controllability ratings for uncontrollable stigmas) with SESQ
controllability as a continuous covariate. This analysis revealed a
significant interaction, F(1, 65) = 23.54, p,.001. We calculated
predicted means for high and low levels of SESQ controllability
and the pattern of means fit our predictions. Specifically, perceived
control over controllable stigmas was higher among those with
strong general belief in controllability (Mcontrollable = 8.0 at +1 SD
of SESQ controllability) than among those with weak general
belief in controllability (Mcontrollable = 6.84 at 21 SD of SESQ
controllability). And, in contrast, perceived control over
uncontrollable stigmas was lower among those with strong general belief
in controllability (Muncontrollable = 1.50 at 21 SD of SESQ
controllability) than among those with weak general belief in
controllability (Muncontrollable = 1.99).
Next, we examined blame ratings in the same
repeatedmeasures ANCOVA. Once again, the interaction with SESQ
controllability was significant, F(1, 65) = 32.47, p,.001. Once
again, we calculated predicted means at high and low levels of
SESQ controllability and the pattern of means fit our predictions.
Specifically, blame for controllable stigmas was higher among
those with strong general belief in controllability (Mcontrollable
= 7.58 at +1 SD of SESQ controllability) than among those with
weak general belief in controllability (Mcontrollable = 6.39 at 21 SD
of SESQ controllability). And, in contrast, blame for
uncontrollable stigmas was lower among those with strong general belief in
controllability (Muncontrollable = 1.04 at 21 SD of SESQ
controllability) than among those with weak general belief in
controllability (Muncontrollable = 1.53 at 21 SD of SESQ controllability).
To capture this blame polarization process in a single analysis,
we computed the path model depicted in Figure 3. The model
assumes that general belief in controllability (from the SESQ)
affects perceived control over both controllable and uncontrollable
stigmas, and these controllability perceptions, in turn, contribute
to blame. Because they are correlational, of course, the present
data cannot rule in any pattern of causal relations. We note,
however, that prior literature provides overwhelming evidence for
a causal effect of lay theories on perceptions of specific instances
, , , ,  and also for a causal effect of perceived
Figure 3. SESQ controllability and blame. SESQ controllability predicts polarization of moral judgments. Among those scoring high on SESQ
controllability, perceived control and blame are intensified for relatively controllable stigmas, but attenuated for relatively uncontrollable stigmas.
*p,.05, **p,.01, ***p,.001.
control on blame . As can be seen in Figure 3, for controllable
stigmas, SESQ controllability scores significantly predicted
heightened perceptions of control and these heightened
perceptions of control, in turn, significantly predicted heightened blame.
In contrast, for uncontrollable stigmas, SESQ controllability scores
significantly predicted attenuated perceptions of control and these
attenuated perceptions of control, in turn, significantly predicted
Elsewhere  we suggest that historicism can foster
compassionate, non-blaming responses. Thus, we examined the relation of
SESQ historicism to blaming of the stigma categories. In
regression analyses that also included SESQ controllability scores
as a predictor, we found that SESQ historicism predicted less
blaming of controllable stigmas, t(64) = 22.90, p = .005 (b = 2.31).
In contrast, SESQ historicism was unrelated to blaming of
uncontrollable stigmas, t,1.
The key finding here is that general belief in controllabilityas
tapped by the SESQis associated with polarized moral blame:
Intensifying perceived control and blame for relatively controllable
stigmas, and attenuating perceived control and blame for relatively
uncontrollable stigmas. Also worthy of note is that SESQ
historicismindependent of SESQ controllabilitypredicts less
blame of controllable stigmas.
Explanation pervades social life. Furthermore, the explanations
people generate powerfully shape their social emotions and social
interactions. How do people select an explanation for an observed
social event? Early work suggested that they rely on a logical
reasoning process , , and subsequent work suggested that
they do whatever is cognitively easiest . More recent work
focuses on the perceivers pre-existing general theories , ,
. Our work grows out of this latter tradition. We suggest
thatbased on cultural, educational, and personal experiences,
filtered through ones cognitive and motivational
styleindividuals develop various general beliefs regarding the causes of social
events. We refer to these beliefs as social explanatory styles. Our
main goal in the present article was to offer a measure of
individual differences in three dimensions of social explanatory
styles, along with separate validity evidence for each of these
Accordingly, we have offered the Social Explanatory Styles
Questionnaire (SESQ). Rooted in classic theorizing, the SESQ
measures three independent dimensions of social explanatory
styles: Dispositionism, historicism, and controllability. Studies 13
examined basic psychometric properties of the SESQ along with
its relations to other relevant constructs (to establish divergent
validity). Study 1 revealed that each dimension of the SESQ shows
strong internal consistency. Also, based on both factor analysis and
correlational analyses, Study 1 suggested that the three SESQ
dimensions are largely unrelated to each other. Study 2 provided
evidence that the SESQ dimensions are independent of political
ideology (RWA, SDO) and only modestly related (in sensible ways)
to the Big Five traits and to emotion regulation. Study 2 also
suggested that those high in Need for Cognitive Closure are more
dispositional and less historicist in their social explanatory styles.
Finally, Study 3 looked at relations between the SESQ and other
lay theories constructs: Implicit person theories, implicit trait
beliefs, and implicit context beliefs. Results indicated that SESQ
historicism and SESQ controllability are essentially unrelated to
any of these other lay theories measures. Thus, the majority of
information provided by the SESQ is not provided by other
measures. In contrast, SESQ dispositionism is moderately (not
highly) related to the implicit trait beliefs construct offered by
Church, Ortiz, and their colleagues . Future work is needed to
more precisely understand the differences in what is being assessed
by the SESQ dispositionism subscale and the implicit trait beliefs
Do the three dimensions of the SESQ have predictive validity in
relation to important social cognitive phenomena? Yes, they do.
This was the focus of Studies 46. In Study 4, we examined
whether SESQ dispositionism moderates the tendency to make
spontaneous trait inferences (STIs). Given that STIs can affect
downstream consequences such as impression formation and
approach/avoidance tendencies, it is important to understand
when they will be made. Study 4 presented evidence that STIs are
especially likely to be made by perceivers with a strong belief in
dispositionism. In Study 5, we examined whether SESQ
historicism moderates the tendency to commit the Fundamental
Attribution Error. We found that it did, with high scorers on the
SESQ historicism dimension being significantly less likely to
commit the FAE than were low scorers. Finally, in Study 6, we
examined whether general controllability beliefs would moderate
blame judgments. Study 6 revealed that, interestingly, SESQ
controllability predicted polarization of blame judgments:
Heightened perceptions of control and blameworthiness for controllable
stigmas, and attenuated perceptions of control and
blameworthiness for uncontrollable stigmas. Thus, general controllability
beliefs might paradoxically contribute to both condemnation and
compassion toward others, a possibility surely worthy of further
exploration. Indeed, existing work tends to emphasize the
negative, condemnatory side of controllability beliefs , .
SESQ historicism also predicted reduced blame of those with
controllable stigmas, independent of SESQ controllability scores.
In sum, Studies 46 provide predictive validity evidence
regarding the three fundamental dimensions of social explanatory
styles tapped by the SESQ. It is worth noting that SESQ scores in
Studies 46 were always obtained several weeks prior to the main
dependent variables, suggesting that social explanatory styles are
robust and stable dimensions of peoples thinking.
Where do we go from here? First, as noted above, we expect
that social explanatory styles develop from a variety of influences
including culture, socialization experiences, extrapolation from the
self, general cognitive styles, and so on. Future work is needed to
examine the contributions of these various factors to the
development and modification of the three social explanatory
dimensions tapped by the SESQ. Such work will be especially
valuable if social explanatory styles are eventually shown to have
the types of pervasive effects on social responding that we expect
they will have.
Furthermore, we anticipate that, as with the Attributional Style
Questionnaire , future research will suggest that certain
configurations of explanatory beliefsinteractive combinations of
the three basic explanatory dimensionsare particularly
important. Researchers should therefore think in terms of interactions
among the SESQ dimensions when attempting to understand
social phenomena. Indeed, the fact that we independently
validated each subscale of the SESQ should not be taken to mean
that those subscales should always be treated separately in future
theorizing and research. In fact, unpublished data from our lab
already highlight the importance of interactions among social
explanatory style dimensions for predicting implicit blame. In one
study, we had participants learn about a violent criminal.
Immediately afterwards, we assessed the extent to which
blamerelevant constructs were automatically activated by priming with
the criminals name. The theoretical question was whether implicit
blame is impacted by social explanatory styles in the same manner
as explicit blame (as in Study 6 above), or whether, alternatively,
implicit blame shows a different pattern than explicit blame [e.g.,
everyone experiences blame at the implicit level, but certain
peoplebased on their general beliefs in controllability and
historicism (see Study 6)adjust their explicit judgments towards
reduced blame]. We found an interaction between historicism and
controllability beliefs (the same dimensions relevant for predicting
explicit blame; see Study 6) for predicting implicit blame: Those
who score both high on historicism and low on controllability show
especially low levels of implicit blame. In addition to showing
interactive effects of social explanatory style dimensions, this study
also highlights how social explanatory styles shape immediate,
uncontrollable responses to social stimuli (see also Study 4 above).
What other types of effects on social responding should be
explored? We have an enduring interest in moral emotions,
especially prosocial moral emotions that reflect concern for others
(e.g., compunction regarding mistreatment of others and
compassion for the plight of others;  , , ). Thus, an ongoing
program of research in our labs involves connecting social
explanatory styles to enduring moral emotional tendencies. To
date, we have shown that the SESQ historicism predicts
dispositional compassion-proneness and that historicism has a
causal impact on compassionate responding . One issue that
remains to be investigated is why historicism has these effects. Gill
et al.  offer a model in which historicist explanations for
negative aspects of a target increase the sense that the target has
suffered, and perceived suffering mediates the impact of historicist
explanations on compassion. Gill et al. examined their model in
the context of intergroup attitudes and not general explanatory
styles. Thus, a task for future research is to examine whether a
general belief that suffering lies behind peoples negative acts and
outcomes mediates the connection between SESQ historicism and
dispositional compassion-proneness. More broadly, research on
social explanatory styles needs to move beyond predicting
personality self-reports (e.g., compassion-proneness) and responses
to verbal stimuli in the lab (as in Studies 46 above). Researchers
should examine whether social explanatory styles predict patterns
of responding in face-to-face interactions with novel social
partners, emotional responding within enduring relationships,
patterns of blame vs. compassion reflected in social policy
positions, and so on. We are examining all these domains of
social life in our labs. Also, more work is needed regarding causal
effects of social explanatory styles, although, of course, it is no easy
task to manipulate general beliefs in social causality.
We will conclude by noting the massive body of work
supporting the importance of self-oriented explanatory style in
shaping self-relevant cognitive, emotional, and behavioral
outcomes . Explanatory stylean interactive combination
internality, globality, and stability beliefsis most famously linked
to the development of depression , . Beyond this, however,
it has also been linked to performance in law school ,
productivity in the workplace , athletic performance ,
tendency toward risky aggression , and even physical health
. If explanatory style regarding the self is such a potent
predictor of diverse areas of self-functioning, then it is plausible
that social explanatory stylesperhaps including particular,
interactive configurations of basic social explanatory
dimensionswill be a similarly potent predictor of diverse areas of
social functioning. We believe that this is a possibility worthy of
exploration and we hope the SESQ will be a useful tool in that
The Social Explanatory Styles
QuestionSincere thanks are extended to Dorian Arbelaez, Derek DeBellis,
Shaundra Gallogly, Melissa Knapp, Jessica Lubitz, Syreeta McCutcheon,
Tim Palumbo, Dheera Reddy, Kurt Schmenger, and Melissa Yates for
their assistance with data collection and management.
Conceived and designed the experiments: MJG MRA. Performed the
experiments: MRA. Analyzed the data: MJG MRA. Wrote the paper:
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