Teaching About Attribution Theory Using Howard Dean’s “Scream Speech”
(Links Updated 5/25/10)



Alan Reifman and Darcy A. Reich

Texas Tech University


Erika Koch
McDaniel College,
Westminster, MD
(now at St. Francis Xavier University)


Jessica L. Lakin

Drew University,
Madison, NJ


Nora A. Murphy

University of Florida

(now at Loyola Marymount University)


Roxane Cohen Silver

University of California, Irvine




Presented at the 113th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, August 2005.  Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Alan Reifman, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, College of Human Sciences, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX  79409-1162.  E-mail: alan.reifman@ttu.edu .



 Teaching About Attribution Theory Using Howard Dean’s “Scream Speech”


            Attributions are explanations we give for the causes of people’s behavior.  If someone acts nervously in a social setting, we might attribute it to the individual’s anxious personality (i.e., a dispositional attribution) or to something in the situation that could provoke anxiety, such as the person being new to the group and not knowing any of the other people (i.e., a situational attribution).  Attributions play an important role in how we relate to other people; accordingly, attribution theory has been one of the most prominent topics in social psychology for over 40 years.  The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) has been defined as “the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior” (Wikipedia, 2004).  However, visual perspective has been shown to alter attributions (Storms, 1973).  The more a perceiver focuses in on the actor, the more likely a dispositional attribution is to occur, whereas if the perceiver can see the broader context in which the behavior occurs, a situational attribution is more likely.


            In teaching about these attribution theory concepts, we took advantage of a naturalistic occurrence that held the promise of giving students a powerful experience of having their own attributions affected by visual perspective.  Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean’s animated speech to his supporters after finishing third in the 2004 Iowa caucuses will probably go down as one of the most memorable in recent American political history.  A traditional straight-on, close-up camera view of Dean speaking was used in most media coverage of the event and widely disseminated via the Internet; another feature of this video clip was the diminished crowd noise due to Dean’s use of a noise-canceling microphone.  Another view, encompassing the entire room and volume of the audience’s cheering, was videotaped by a member of the crowd and also posted on the web.  The former would seem likely to promote dispositional attributions for Dean’s speech (e.g., “he’s an angry candidate”), whereas the latter seemed more likely to promote situational attributions (e.g., “the crowd fired him up”).  As detailed below, we implemented demonstrations at multiple college campuses, where students saw the different versions of Dean’s speech and provided their reactions.




The first author posted a message on the Society for Personality and Social Psychology electronic discussion list, describing his idea for a teaching demonstration with the Howard Dean video clips and inviting colleagues to join in.  The demonstration was implemented in various ways.  Some instructors used actual experimental designs with random assignment of students to video conditions and data collection.  Others simply played the two videos to promote classroom discussion (with no data collection).  In the interest of space, details of each implementation are provided in the Results section.  The straight-on, close-up video can be accessed here, whereas the audience perspective video can be accessed here.  The two video clips, with some supplementary content, have also been included in Myers’s (2004) instructor CD to accompany his textbook.




Experimental Study I

At one participating university, students in a social psychology class (n = 29) were divided randomly into two groups to view either the close-up (CU) or audience-perspective (AP) versions of Dean’s speech (each group was excused while the other group’s version was playing).  Each group completed a post-video questionnaire including dispositional and situational attribution items, nine trait ratings of Dean, and two items on students’ emotional reactions to the speech (calm-excited and unpleasant-pleasant).  The significant findings were that the AP group made stronger situational attributions than did the CU group (p < .05), the CU group made stronger dispositional attributions than did the AP group (p = .06), and the CU group more strongly ascribed the traits “maniacal” (p = .05) and “zealous” (p = .05) to Dean.  Both videos were then replayed for the entire class, so each group could see the alternative version.  Lastly, to tap students’ learning, we asked them to write a “final reflection” on concepts of attribution the videos may have illustrated.  Two raters agreed completely that 86% of students’ responses included relevant terminology; further, 60% of students’ responses showed evidence of grasping key concepts (averaged across the two raters, who showed 76% agreement).


Experimental Study II

A similar experimental design was used at a second college (n = 22).  After watching one of two views, students rated Dean on a series of 10 positive and 10 negative adjectives, mostly taken from the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988; Watson & Tellegen, 1985).  PANAS adjectives that did not seem relevant to rating the candidate were replaced with others (e.g., unpresidential), some gleaned from popular media reports.  Indices of positive and of negative terms were created.   Students rated Dean significantly more negatively after seeing the CU view than the AP view (p < .05), but did not rate him significantly less positively after seeing the CU view.  The instructor used the demonstration for two separate learning purposes:  the activity itself was done in a social psychology class, with a research methods class having the opportunity to analyze the data.  In the latter class, students discussed sources of error variance, such as previous exposure to the Dean speech.


Experimental Study III

            At a third institution, students in a social psychology course (n = 69) were divided randomly to view one of the two versions of the video.  After viewing their respective version of the video, students responded to two questions:  “How appropriate do you think Howard Dean’s behavior was given the situation?” and “How much do you think Howard Dean’s behavior (shown in the video) is representative of his overall personal character?”  Students also completed positive and negative emotion subscales based on PANAS items, indicating the extent to which they felt that Howard Dean expressed these feelings.  There was a significant effect for the first question, where students in the AP condition rated Dean’s behavior as more appropriate for the situation than those in the CU condition (p < .05).  Students’ responses did not differ on the positive or negative affect scales or on the second question regarding Dean’s personal character.


            Both conditions then watched both video clips together and the purpose of the exercise was explained. For pedagogical purposes, at the end of class, all students answered the following question:  “How effective was this exercise in demonstrating attribution effects?” (from 1 = very slightly or not at all effective to 5 = extremely effective).  The mean was 4.07, suggesting that students found the exercise to be substantially effective in demonstrating attribution effects (there were no differences between video groups on this rating).


Discussion-Only Implementations

            In the remaining instances, the video clips were played and used to spur discussion, but there were no data collections.  These instructors reported useful ideas that came out of these discussions.  One had students generate real-life examples of when they found themselves getting swept up in a situation, which subsequently caused them to behave differently than they might have normally behaved. This same instructor subsequently had one student who spontaneously mentioned the Dean video example later in the semester when the class talked about deindividuation.  Another instructor called the activity “one of my most effective demonstrations all quarter.”




            Based on our empirical results, students’ written comments and contributions to class discussions, and instructors’ impressions, it appears that the activity succeeded in conveying key concepts of attribution research in a lively manner.  Our experience appears consistent with empirical findings by Lakin and Wichman (2005) that using real-world phenomena to teach social psychological concepts can have pedagogical benefits.  In this regard, the widespread availability of video clips via the Internet can enhance instructors’ classroom presentations, provided the rooms have sufficient technological capability.  Lastly, the availability of “online communities” such as the discussion list through which this activity was publicized allows instructors to exchange teaching-related ideas with great efficiency.  



Lakin, J. L., & Wichman, A. L. (2005). Applying social psychological concepts outside the classroom.  Teaching of Psychology, 32, 110-113.


Myers, D. G. (2004). Social Sense [CD]. As packaged with Social psychology (8th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.


Storms, M. D. (1973). Videotape and the attribution process: Reversing actors’ and observers’ points of view. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 165-175.


Watson, D., Clark, L. A., & Tellegen, A. (1988). Development and validation of brief measures of Positive and Negative Affect: The PANAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 1063-1070.


Watson, D., & Tellegen, A. (1985). Toward a consensual structure of mood.  Psychological Bulletin, 98, 219-235.              


Wikipedia. (2004).  [Definition of Fundamental Attribution Error].  Downloaded October 27, 2004 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error.