Culpable Control and Causal Deviance

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Abstract

Actions that are intended to produce harmful consequences can fail to achieve their desired effects in numerous ways. We refer to action sequences in which harmful intentions are thwarted as deviant causal chains. The culpable control model of blame (CCM) is a useful tool for predicting and explaining the attributions that observers make of the actors whose harmful intentions go awry. In this paper, we describe six types of deviant causal chains; those in which: an actor’s attempt is obviated by the intervention of another person or the environment; the intended effects could not have been produced regardless of the actor’s behavior; other causes diminish the actor’s causal role; the actor brings about foreseen but undesired consequences as a result of pursuing his or her focal goal; the focal action produces a chain of increasingly remote causal events; and the actor derives unforeseen benefits from his or her nefarious actions. A basic assumption of the CCM in these cases is that attributions for the participants’ actions will depend on positive and negative evaluations of their intentions and behaviors. We describe empirical findings that are consistent with this assumption, and predict other findings for causal deviance phenomena that have not yet been investigated empirically.

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