How People Explain Behavior

Behavior explanations lie at the intersection of social cognition and social interaction. They are a cognitive tool by which people make sense of themselves and others, and they are a social tool people use to communicate meaning and to manage impressions.

I have been developing a theoretical framework for the study of behavior explanations that provides an alternative to standard attribution theories (Malle, 1999, 2001b, 2004, 2011a, 2011b). This folk-conceptual theory of explanation suggests that behavior explanations do not differ along a simple person-situation dimension. Rather, they fall into four modes of explanation, one used for unintentional behavior (cause explanations) and three used for intentional behavior (reason explanations, causal history of reason explanations, and enabling factor explanations). (See Figure 1.)

Each of these modes has conceptual features that distinguish them from one another and predict several psychological phenomena. For example, reason explanations refer to the subjective beliefs and desires an agent considered when forming an intention to act (e.g., “She quit her job because she felt the pay was too low”; “They worked extra hours because they wanted to finish the project). Causal history of reason (CHR) explanations refer to factors that lay in the background of those reasons, such as the agent’s unconscious mental states, personality, upbringing, culture, and the immediate context (Malle, 1999; Malle et al., 2000).

People reliably distinguish between these two modes (Malle, 1999) and use them in predictably distinct ways. For example, they explain actions performed by groups with more causal history explanations than actions performed by individuals (O'Laughlin & Malle, 2002); they increase reason explanations when trying to make an agent appear rational (Malle et al., 2000) or socially desirable (Malle, Knobe, & Nelson, 2007); and they routinely explain their own behaviors with more reasons than they explain other people's behaviors (Malle et al., 2007).

Actor-observer asymmetries in explanations provide a strong test for the folk-conceptual theory against traditional attribution theory. Considered one of the hallmarks of the attribution approach, the classic asymmetry was not supported in a meta-analysis of 30 years of research (Malle, 2006). Thus, when treating explanations as person vs. situation attributions, we cannot identify differences between actors' and observers' explanations of behavior. However, when explanations are recognized as a manifold of multiple modes (e.g., reason vs. CHRs), consistent actor-observer asymmetries emerge (Malle et al., 2007).

Malle, B. F. (2011a). Attribution theories: How people make sense of behavior. In Chadee, D. (Ed.), Theories in social psychology (pp. 72-95). Wiley-Blackwell. pdf

Malle, B. F. (2011b). Time to give up the dogmas of attribution: An alternative theory of behavior explanation. In J. M. Olson and M. P. Zanna, Advances of Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 44, pp. 297-352). Burlington: Academic Press.pdf

Malle, B. F., Knobe, J., & Nelson, S. (2007). Actor-observer asymmetries in behavior explanations: New answers to an old question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 491–514.

Malle, B. F. (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in causal attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 895-919.

Malle, B. F. (2004). How the mind explains behavior: Folk explanations, meaning, and social interaction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pdf

O’Laughlin, M. J., & Malle, B. F. (2002). How people explain actions performed by groups and individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 33-48.

Malle, B. F. (2001b). Folk explanations of intentional action. In B. F. Malle, L. J. Moses, & D. A. Baldwin (Eds.), Intentions and intentionality: Foundations of social cognition (pp. 265-286). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. pdf

Malle, B. F., & Knobe, J. (2001). The distinction between desire and intention: A folk-conceptual analysis. In B. F. Malle, L. J. Moses, & D. A. Baldwin (Eds.), Intentions and intentionality: Foundations of social cognition. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Malle, B. F., Knobe, J., O’Laughlin, M., Pearce, G. E., & Nelson, S. E. (2000). Conceptual structure and social functions of behavior explanations: Beyond person–situation attributions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 309-326.

Malle, B. F. (1999). How people explain behavior: A new theoretical framework. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 23-48.

Malle, B.F. & Knobe, J. (1997a). The folk concept of intentionality. Jounal of Experimental Social Psychology, 33, 101-121.