A Gricean approach to the use of consensus and distinctiveness in causal attributions of verbally described interpersonal events



Various causal attribution theories, starting with the covariation model, argue that people use consensus, distinctiveness, and consistency information to causally explain events and behaviors. Yet, the visual presentation of the covariation model in the form of a cube is based on the assumptions that these dimensions generally affect attributions independently, symmetrically, and equally. A Gricean analysis suggests that these assumptions may not generally hold in the case of causal judgments for verbally communicated interpersonal events. We had participants judge the causal role of an actor and a patient in interpersonal events that were described through actor-verb-patient sentences under high versus low consensus and distinctiveness (Studies 1, 2, and 3) or without such information (Studies 2 and 3). As predicted by Gricean logic, consensus and distinctiveness effects on causality ratings depended on the target whose causal role participants assessed, on the information about the alternative dimension, and, most consistently, on consensus and distinctiveness being high versus low. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.