Overclaiming responsibility in fictitious countries: Unpacking the role of availability in support theory predictions of overclaiming


Prior research has demonstrated that Americans massively overestimate how much their home state has contributed to US history. Why does such collective overclaiming occur? We argue that although self-serving biases undoubtedly influence overclaiming, non-motivated factors, such as a failure to consider the contributions of other states, also play a large role in overclaiming effects. In the current studies, subjects read descriptions of territories within a fictitious country and evaluated how much a territory within that country contributed to its history. Experiment 1 showed that overclaiming of responsibility increased as more territories were added to the country. Experiments 2 and 3 showed that requiring subjects to explicitly consider all territories reduced estimations of responsibility. Experiment 4 showed that people provided higher ratings of responsibility when more details were provided about the territory. Finally, Experiment 5 showed that retrieval fluency did not affect overclaiming. We conclude that support theory – based on the availability of content – provides a strong explanation for why the collective overclaiming of responsibility occurs, with both theoretical and practical implications.

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  1. 1.

    We gathered these responses to help guide future research, but did not conduct any analyses with them.

  2. 2.

    We justified the use of one-tailed tests as follows. First, while using one-tailed tests increases the chance of finding an effect in a certain direction, it also prevents the possibility of finding significant effects in the opposite direction. Second, in light of preregistration, the use of one-tailed tests can be clearly shown to be a priori due to our theoretical predictions. We also ran all analyses with two-tailed tests and found that all but one significant finding (in E2B) remained significant.

  3. 3.

    The results did not change if we included all subjects.

  4. 4.

    When the ratings for Adivigan were analyzed with a two-tailed test, p = .084; note that the two-tailed non-parametric test was still statistically significant.

  5. 5.

    Our preregistration specified two levels of detail about Adivigan: content and minimal content. After collecting pilot data, we added an additional condition that was in between the other two. We renamed the previous content condition as “detailed content” and called this new condition the “content” condition.

  6. 6.

    An alternative interpretation is that subjects may use the representativeness heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman, 1973) and simply judge a longer description to indicate a more important territory. Although this would explain why the “minimal content” condition yielded the smallest claims of responsibility, it would fail to explain the difference between the “content” and “detailed content” conditions, which were the same length.

  7. 7.

    A second version of this experiment is reported in our SOM. Briefly, we also found a null effect, but did not report the study in the main manuscript because we excluded more data than expected.

  8. 8.

    An example of an unreasonable response would be leaving the response field blank, or reporting something completely unrelated to the task (e.g., writing “nice” as their entire response).


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We thank Magdalena Abel, Jeremy Yamashiro, and Kurt DeSoto for helpful comments on the manuscript. This research was supported by Carleton College and Furman University.

Open Practices Statement

Experiments 1, 3, 4, and 5 were preregistered on the Open Science Framework. The data and materials from all experiments are available (along with the preregistrations) at the link listed above.

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Correspondence to Adam L. Putnam.

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Full descriptions of the five territories in Experiments 2 and 3 are:

Rutroka is one of five territories in Oloram. It is located in the southern region of the country, and bounded by a river in the north. Rutroka’s geography consists of low mountains and prairies, and people have settled throughout this territory. The capital of Oloram is located in this territory, which makes government and tourism prominent. The economy also depends on agriculture and mining. Because it is located in the south, earthquakes are a concern for the inhabitants of Rutroka.

New Ceyer is one of five territories in Oloram. It is located in the eastern region of the country, which means there is often heavy rainfall. New Ceyer has a long coastline and flat, fertile land. Because of its geography, people live in a number of small towns throughout this territory. Industries in New Ceyer include fishing, food processing, and defense. Its rainfall and proximity to the coast make flooding a concern for the inhabitants of New Ceyer.

Brodiyan is one of five territories in Oloram and is located in the western region of the country. Brodiyan has a diverse geography, with numerous lakes, large forests, and valleys. People have settled in both large and small groups, often in the forested areas. Brodiyan’s economy is supported through manufacturing, petroleum, and transportation. Because it is located in the west, extreme temperatures are a concern for the inhabitants of Brodiyan. The current president of Oloram grew up in this territory.

Lanemi is one of five territories in Oloram. It is surrounded by small hills, and is located in the central region of the country. Lanemi has vast desertous regions in the southeast, so people tend to cluster in the western region of the territory where there are grasslands and a more temperate climate. This region is home to a newly erected statue memorializing those who fought in the Battle of 1897. There are many industries in Lanemi, the most prominent being natural gas, technology, and education. Because it is centrally located with a large dry region, droughts are a concern for the inhabitants of Lanemi.

Adivigan is one of five territories in Oloram. It is a coastal area in the northern region. Adivigan's population is split between several large cities and many rural communities. There are many industries, the most prominent being shipping, trade, and education. A popular tourist attraction is the Moadia forest, which is home to a variety of flowers, trees, and native wildlife.

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Ross, M.Q., Sterling-Maisel, O.A., Tracy, O. et al. Overclaiming responsibility in fictitious countries: Unpacking the role of availability in support theory predictions of overclaiming. Mem Cogn (2020). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-020-01059-9

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  • Judgment
  • Memory
  • Reasoning
  • Collective memory
  • Overclaiming
  • Support theory