Article of the Day: How Do People Explain Puzzling Behaviors?

girl-310476_960_720Do people think strange behaviors reflect personality traits? Suppose you see somebody do something odd. How do you explain what they just did?

If you have ever wondered what you would do in this situation, a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin can give you some insight.

For example, someone might walk halfway across the street, then turn around and walk back in the direction they just came from. That is an odd thing to do.

Without knowing much about that, there are several possibilities. You might give a trait explanation for what they did. That is, you might assume they have some important characteristic that led to that behavior. Perhaps they are absent-minded, so they were not paying attention to where they were going until they realized they should not have stepped into the street.

Another possibility is that you assume that they had a specific thought that affected their behavior. They might have gotten into the crosswalk and then realized that they forgot to bring something with them and went hurrying back to their office to get it.

Yet another possibility is that there is some broader social norm or social context that drove the behavior. Perhaps this person is about to go on a long journey and in their family it is good luck to cross half way across a street before going.

Finally, it is possible that the action was driven by a reason that was related to the specific environment. Perhaps the sidewalk on the opposite side of the intersection was blocked.

…people often give trait explanations for the puzzling behaviors of other people.

There are two reasons why it would be interesting to know what people do. First, from a theoretical standpoint, many social psychologists have proposed that people often give trait explanations for the puzzling behaviors of other people. Yet, most of the studies that have tested this possibility have asked people to choose an explanation for a behavior and have contrasted a trait with some aspect of the situation someone was in. These studies did not explore whether traits are the most natural explanation people give for behaviors.

Second, from a practical standpoint, it is useful to know whether people assume that odd behaviors that they observe reflect long-term factors that drive another person’s behavior, or just short-term thoughts.

This question was explored in a paper in the November 2016 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Joanna Korman and Bertram Malle. In four studies, they gave participants the opportunity to explain a number of behaviors of people that would be considered strange.

untitled-4Some of these actions were just strange for that context in the context in which they occurred. For example, a garbage man dropped off a bag of trash on someone’s driveway. That is a strange thing for garbage men to do, because they normally pick up the trash. Some actions used strange objects to accomplish a common task. A person might sit down in a car and start their car with a hairbrush. Finally, some of the actions did too much of an expected action. For example, someone might bring six-hundred tubes of sunscreen to the beach on a vacation.

Participants read these actions and were given a chance to explain why they occurred. This pattern of explanations was compared to the results of several studies in which people explained ordinary actions. Across studies, most of the explanations people gave were specific reasons why the action occurred. That is, they referred to particular circumstances in that moment that drove the behavior. Those reasons could be an aspect of the environment or thoughts.

About a third of the time, people did appeal to some long-term aspect to explain the behavior. Even in these cases, though, it was much more likely to be an aspect of the social context than a trait of the individual. Trait explanations were quite rare.

For example, when finding out that a garbage man left a bag of trash rather than taking it, people are much more likely to give a social explanation (he was protesting unfair wages) than a trait explanation (he is a mean and aggressive person).

…they are actually somewhat more likely to give trait explanations for ordinary events than for puzzling events.

When people explain ordinary events, they show a similar pattern, though they are actually somewhat more likely to give trait explanations for ordinary events than for puzzling events. That is, when people do something common, that seems to be a better cue about their traits than when they do something strange.

Overall, these results suggest that people are generally looking for specific reasons that help them to understand strange or puzzling things that people do. On occasion, they will also appeal to aspects of the social context. Only rarely do they assume that one particular action reflects a trait of another person.

This pattern makes sense. A trait is fairly stable. If you ascribe a trait to a person based on a single observation of a strange action, then you are likely to predict other strange actions they may take in the future. Finding a narrower reason for a puzzling behavior is often better, because most people do not do strange things most of the time. Chances are, you are better off deciding someone has a trait to only when you have more evidence that they will continue that behavior over time.

Art Markman Ph.D.
is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas.

This article appeared in on 21 November 2016

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