Attributional style moderates the impact of causal controllability information on helping behavior

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Nancy C. Higgins
Joanne K. Shaw
Cite this article:  Higgins, N., & Shaw, J. (1999). Attributional style moderates the impact of causal controllability information on helping behavior. Social Behavior and Personality: An international journal, 27(3), 221-236.


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The helping behavior of individuals with supportive (i.e., the tendency to view others’ misfortunes as uncontrollable by the targets) and unsupportive (i.e., the tendency to view others’ misfortunes as controllable by the targets) attributional styles was investigated in a natural setting, under conditions of high and low controllability of a target’s need. Helping behavior was a function of the perceived controllability of the target’s need for help and the helper’s attributional style. While nonnegligent targets were helped more than the negligent – supporting an attributional model of helping behavior (Weiner, 1980a, 1995) – the attributional style of potential helpers moderated that effect. Individuals with a supportive style helped a needy peer at the same rate irrespective of the controllability of the need. In contrast, unsupportive style individuals were very kind to the needy peer if the reason was legitimate, and highly neglectful if the peer was negligent. Thus, the causal structure of the situation was more influential in determining the behavior of unsupportive than supportive style respondents. The finding that attributional styles moderated helping reactions demonstrates that the attributional model of helping behavior is incomplete and that person variables must be considered in tandem with situational variables in attributional models of social behavior.


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