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  Psychological research on the attribution of causality

This material is largely copied from Warren Thorngate's site, as a precaution in case it's removed.

  Fritz Heider 1896 - 1988

In the mid 1940s, Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel constructed a simple film animation similar to the one shown below. They asked observers to describe what they saw in the film. Most observers developed elaborate stories about the circle and the little triangle being in love, about the big-bad grey triangle trying to steal away the circle, about the blue triangle fighting back, yelling to his love to escape into the house, and following her inside where they embraced and lived happily ever after.

View the Heider-Simmel demonstration

F. Heider and M. Simmel. "An experimental study of apparent behaviour". American Journal of Psychology, 13, 1944.


Albert Michotte and the perception of causality

   Albert Michotte (1881-1965)

In 1946, Professor Albert Michotte of Louvain University in Belgium first reported a series of experiments on the perception (now called attribution) of causality. Inspired by the philosopher David Hume and others, Michotte devised an elaborate mechanical apparatus that allowed him to manipulate the animation of two objects on a projection screen. Both could move left and right at various speeds and with various delays. Small variations in their movement produced large variations in the way his subjects described what they saw. Sometimes the description would be entirely factual, for example, "The ball on the left moved from left to right about 20 cm, then stopped for about 3 seconds. Then the ball on the right moved about 10 cm from left to right and stopped." At other times the description included words attributing motivations, emotions, age, gendereand relationships between the two objects, for example, "The little ball is trying to play with the big ball, but the big ball doesn't want to play so he chases the little ball away. But the little ball is stubborn and keeps bothering the big ball. Finally, the big ball gets mad and leaves."

Four typical Michotte demonstrations of causal attribution

A. Michotte. The perception of causality. Methuen, Andover, MA, 1962.

More recent work

Leslie (1987) investigated Michotte's proposal that causal perception is present in infancy and suggests that low level motion is processed to obtain a high level description of spatio-temporal properties that provides the causal structure of the event.

A.M. Leslie and S. Keeble. "Do six-month-old infants perceive causality". Cognition, 25, 1987.
The results from Newtson's work are twofold. First, that people normally segment behaviour into actions, and that they are remarkably unaware of their segmentations. Second, that expectation strongly affects action perception because viewers must be prepared to see an action in order for them to see it.

Darren Newtson. Foundations of attribution: the perception of ongoing behaviour. In John H. Harvey, William J. Ickes, and Robert F. Kidd, editors, New Directions in Attribution Research: volume 1, pages 223--247. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1976.


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