Racism, Counterfactual Thinking, and Judgment Severity

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  • Racism, Counterfactual Thinking, and Judgment Severity]


    Two contrasting models of the effects of motivational influences on the relation- ship between counterfactual thinking and social judgment were tested, using a modi- fied version of Wells and Gavanskis (1989) cab driver vignette. Undergraduates (N= 208) assigned blame to a negligent white or black target after imagining how the targets alternative behavior could have either easily or improbably averted two accident-related fatalities. Results suggested that motivational variables such as racism moderate the relationship between counterfactual thinking and judgment severity rather than directly affect the counterfactual thinking process itself. Implica- tions for current conceptions of both counterfactual thinking and racism are dis- cussed.

    Counterfactual thinking, or the imagining of alternatives to a given out- come, has been recently implicated as a central mechanism in judgments of causality, responsibility, and blame (e.g., Branscombe & Weir, 1991, 1992; Miller & McFarland, 1986; Wells & Gavanski, 1989). In general, causality is ascribed to the simulated (or mutated) element that eliminates what actually occurred. If, for example, the imagined alternative to a given targets actual behavior mentally averts or undoes the real outcome, then the target is regarded as the causal agent. Conversely, the target would be judged as less causal to the degree that imagined behavioral alternatives (or mutations) fail to undo the outcome.

    Consider the concrete example of a cab driver who refuses to transport a disabled couple who are later involved in a fatal bridge accident (cf. Wells & Gavanski, 1989, Study 2). Imagine that the cab driver himself either drives off the same bridge as the couple did, barely surviving, or that he crosses the bridge without incident. In the former instance, the disabled couples survi- val is difficult to imagine even if the cab driver had transported them. In the latter instance, however, the disabled couples survival is easy to imagine if only the cab driver had given them the transportation they requested. Wells and Gavanski in fact found that subjectsjudged the driver as more causal of, and responsible for, the couples deaths in the latter scenario than in the

    We thank James Downing, Allen Omoto, and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments, and Martin Altstaedten, Gary Komar, Ross Levin, and Kristen Myers for their assistance with data collection and coding. Portions of this paper were presented at the annual meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association, Chicago, Illinois, April 30-May 2, 1992.

    Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Nyla R. Branscombe, Department of Psychology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045.


    Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1993, 23, 12, pp. 980-995. Copyright Q 1993 by V. H. Winston & Son, Inc. All rights reserved.


    former, especially after they had explicitly imagined alternative scenarios in which the couples deaths were avoided. Additionally, subjects were more likely to mentally undo the tragic outcome by imagining the cab driver as having transported the disabled couple when he himself crossed the bridge safely.

    Wells and Gavanskis (1989) findings suggest a model of the effects of counterfactual thinking on social judgment. First, event characteristics con- strain the ease with which a given outcome can be mentally undone. In our example, the cab drivers near-demise off the collapsed bridge eliminates a compellingly simple mental option for undoing the couples deaths. In that situation, even if the cab driver had transported the couple, it is unlikely he could have saved them both from drowning. Thus, the ease with which a targets (i.e., the cab drivers) alternative behaviors can undo the outcome affects the likelihood that the target will be spontaneously included in an individuals mutations. Finally, whether an individuals mutations implicate the target determines the degree of causality, responsibility, and blame (i.e., judgment severity) assigned to the target. This model, summarized in Figure la, is purely cognitive, although not necessarily rational.

    The often laborious screening process that potential jurors must undergo to reduce bias in controversial cases such as the Rodney King incident serves to remind us, however, that differences in judgment are not the product of purely cognitive processes. Rather, individual differences in motivation and perception are assumed to play a major role in such judgments. Two critical questions, then, are how and to what extent individual differences in motiva- tion affect the counterfactual thinking process and its relationship to social judgment?

    Motivation and Counterfactual Thinking: Two Possible Points of Influence

    Figure l b illustrates one possible point at which motivation might affect the counterfactual thinking process. Motivational influences can, along with the ease of undoing a given outcome, constrain the types of mutations made by the individual. Consider whether our reluctant cab driver were identified as black or white, for example, and either crossed the bridge safely or crashed as before. How might individuals high in racism respond when asked to mentally undo the drowning deaths of the disabled couple?

    Such individuals might be especially willing to implicate the black driver in their mutations, especially when he crossed the bridge safely. An implicat- ing mutation in this instance would serve as a natural cognitive bridge to relatively harsh judgment of the black target. Conversely, individuals high in racism might be unwilling to implicate the white driver in their mutations,



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    Figure 1. Comparison of the standard counterfactual model (a), two motivation-influenced counterfactual models (b and c), the racism-mutation model (d), and the mutation severity- moderated model (e) of judgment severity.


    especially when he himself crashed. The absence of implicating mutations in this instance would serve as a cognitive bridge to relatively lenient judgment of the white driver.

    In contrast, individuals low in racism might be expected to be relatively uninfluenced by the targets race: Their mutations should implicate the white and black targets approximately equally. For individuals low in racism, the ease of undoing the outcome alone would be expected to determine whether mutations implicate the target. That is, the driver would be expected to provoke more implicating mutations when safe than when crashed (cf. Wells & Gavanski, 1989).

    Figure l c illustrates a second possible point of motivational influences on counterfactual thinking: subsequent to, rather than prior to, mutation. That is, rather than constraining the types of mutations made, motivational influ- ences might moderate the relationship between mutation and judgment sever- ity. For example, an individual high in racism might be expected to judge especially severely a safe black driver who has been implicated in the indi- viduals mutations. In this instance, the individual may feel wholly justified in his or her harsh judgment, for all of the mental evidence seems supportive (e.g., The black driver could have very easily prevented this tragedy). Individuals low in racism would presumably be relatively uninfluenced by the targets race, however, such that the severity of their judgments should be solely influenced by whether their mutations implicate the target.

    The Present Research

    In order to test empirically these two possible points of influence, it was necessary to create a situation in which the ease of undoing an outcome and individual differences in motivation could be simultaneously brought to bear on the mutation of, and judgment severity assigned to, a target. Racism, because of its substantial impact on social judgments (cf. Sears, 1988), served as the motivational variable for the present research.

    As foreshadowed by our example, we employed a modified version of Wells and Gavanskis (1989) cab driver vignette. The original studys ease of undoing manipulation was replicated by varying whether the cab driver remained safe or crashed (but survived) in his own vehicle. Race was manip- ulated by presenting the cab driver as either black or white.

    Default mutations. Subsequent to reading the vignette, subjects completed a mutation listing task, as in the original Wells and Gavanski (1989) study. Although subjects listed up to four mutations that could have undone the real outcome, we were primarily interested in their first. We reasoned that subjects first mutations were their default mutations and, therefore, were the mutations most likely to affect their subsequent judgments (see Wells &


    Gavanski, 1989, for a discussion of default events). Thus, we regarded whether subjects first listed mutations involved the cab driver behaving differently to be an index of subjects willingness to implicate the driver in the disabled couples deaths.

    Individual differences in racism. In order to circumvent the reactiv