Attributing Blame in Tragedy: Understanding Attitudes About the Causes of Three Mass Shootings

32 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 29 Aug 2011

Date Written: 2011


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 systematic forces in the environment. Here we employ motivated reasoning and attribution theory to understand causal attributions the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, and the 2011 Tucson, Arizona shootings. 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 these mass 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 several national surveys to explain attributions about the shootings. Our findings suggest a substantial partisan divide on the causes of the tragedies and considerable differences between the least and most educated respondents. However, our analyses also reveal that while education has virtually no influence on the attributions made by Republicans, it heightens the differences among Democrats. We discuss these findings for the public’s understanding of these tragedies and more broadly for attribution research.

Keywords: attribution, motivated reasoning, tragedy, shooting, attitudes

Suggested Citation

Haider-Markel, Donald P. and Joslyn, Mark R., Attributing Blame in Tragedy: Understanding Attitudes About the Causes of Three Mass Shootings (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

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)

Mark R. Joslyn

University of Kansas ( email )

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