Judgments of voluntary and physical causes in causal chains: probabilistic and social functionalist criteria for attributions



Four experiments investigated judgments about voluntary human actions and physical causes that were embedded in causal chains ending in negative outcomes (e.g., a forest fire). Causes were judged for their explanatory quality, their effect on the probability of the outcome, and the extent to which they could be socially controlled. Results supported legal theorists' claim that voluntary actions are judged better explanations than physical causes. Indices derived from theories of probability change generally failed to predict the preference for voluntary actions. In contrast, this preference was mediated by the perceived extent to which voluntary versus physical causes may be brought under social control. These results suggest that causal explanation, at least within causal chains, is not driven solely by changes in the probability of an outcome when a cause is added, and that observers recognize the potential social function of explanations in drawing attention to socially controllable causes. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.