The Politics of Causes: Motivated Reasoning and Attributions About Shooting Tragedies

19 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2009

Date Written: September 1, 2009


Individuals develop causal stories about the world around them that explain events, behaviors, and conditions. These stories may attribute causes to controllable components, such as individual choice, or uncontrollable components, such as broader forces in the environment. Here we employ motivated reasoning to understand causal attributions the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting tragedy. We argue that causal attributions stem from individual reasoning that is primarily motivated by existing dispositions and accuracy motives. Both motivations are present for attributions about the Virginia Tech shootings and we seek to understand their significance and whether dispositional motives condition accuracy drives. We are able to test several hypotheses using individual level survey data from a national survey to explain attributions about the 2007 shootings. Our findings suggest a substantial partisan divide on the causes of the tragedy and considerable differences between the least and most educated respondents. However, our analysis also reveal that education have virtually no influence on the attributions made by Republicans, but heightens the differences among Democrats. We discuss these findings for the public’s understanding of the tragedy and more broadly for attribution research.

Suggested Citation

Joslyn, Mark R. and Haider-Markel, Donald P., The Politics of Causes: Motivated Reasoning and Attributions About Shooting Tragedies (September 1, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Mark R. Joslyn

University of Kansas ( email )

Donald P. Haider-Markel (Contact Author)

University of Kansas ( email )

1541 Lilac Lane
Department of Political Science
Lawrence, KS 66045
United States
765-864-9034 (Phone)
765-864-5700 (Fax)

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