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Explaining why someone else succeeds or fails may reflect one’s point of view, says a psychology major who traveled all the way to Japan for her research.

Tana Zerr ’02 (Hamburg, Pa.) is conducting a senior thesis on attribution theory, which explores the assumptions people make about why others behave the way they do.

“For example,” Zerr explains, “you may know that your best friend just failed a physics exam. You could attribute her failure to not being intelligent when it comes to physics, or perhaps that she failed to study. Or, on the other hand, you could say that the exam was exceptionally hard or the teacher was unfair.”

The first two are considered dispositional attributions because they attribute the student’s failure to her disposition or character, says Zerr. The latter is a situational attribution because the student’s failure is seen as being caused by the situation, i.e. something beyond her control.

As part of her research, Zerr traveled to Japan, where she administered an experiment in Japanese to 150 Japanese students. She repeated it with 150 more students in the United States. Her adviser in the project, John S. Shaw, assistant professor of psychology, says the results mirrored cultural differences, with the Japanese attributing successes and failures more to disposition, and Americans to the situation.

In addition, Zerr looked at whether people explain the behavior of relatives differently from those to whom they are not related. She found that people were more likely to attribute a relative’s success to hard work than to luck.

“My thesis focuses on having participants make attributions for siblings, best friends and strangers, to see if they systematically differ in any way,” she says.

A student of the Japanese language, Zerr says she has always been fascinated by the differences between the Japanese and American cultures. When she sat down to explore topics for the thesis with Shaw, he gave her a social psychology book that made her realize she could combine her interests in Japan and psychology.

“I guess the reason this is so intriguing to me is because Americans have a tendency to think the way they do everything is 100 percent correct,” she says. “At the same time, there are cultures out there that think completely differently.”

Shaw says the project is working out well and he is confident that Zerr’s research will be published in an academic journal.

“Tana is easily the best student I’ve ever worked with at Lafayette. She’s an outstanding student,” says Shaw. “She has done this project entirely on her own. She conducted all of her contacts in Japan. That’s pretty amazing for a student.”

Zerr is a Bible study leader for Lafayette Christian Fellowship, a leader in Lafayette Environmental Awareness and Protection, a team leader in Alternative School Break, a psychology lab assistant and a Japanese teaching assistant.

Categorized in: Academic News