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  • Cited by 6
  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: June 2012

20 - Norm Theory: Comparing Reality to Its Alternatives



Reasoning flows not only forward, from anticipation and hypothesis to confirmation or revision, but also backward, from the experience to what it reminds us of or makes us think about. This chapter is largely dedicated to the power of backward thinking. Its aim is not to deny the existence of anticipation and expectation, but to encourage the consideration of alternative accounts for some of the observations that are routinely explained in terms of forward processing.

This chapter is concerned with category norms that represent knowledge of concepts and with stimulus norms that govern comparative judgments and designate experiences as surprising. In the tradition of adaptation level theory (Appley, 1971; Helson, 1964), the concept of norm is applied to events that range in complexity from single visual displays to social interactions.

The central idea of the present treatment is that norms are computed after the event rather than in advance. We sketch a supplement to the generally accepted idea that events in the stream of experience are interpreted and evaluated by consulting precomputed schemas and frames of reference. The view developed here is that each stimulus selectively recruits its own alternatives (Garner, 1962, 1970) and is interpreted in a rich context of remembered and constructed representations of what it could have been, might have been, or should have been. Thus, each event brings its own frame of reference into being.