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Biases in Attribution

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Biases in Attribution
546
Chapter 14
Social Psychology
classmate’s behavior, predict what will happen if this person asks to borrow something
in the future, and decide how to control the situation should it arise again. Similarly,
whether a person attributes a partner’s nagging to temporary stress or to loss of affection can influence whether that person will work on the relationship or end it.
People usually attribute behavior in a particular situation to either internal causes
(characteristics of the person) or external causes (characteristics of the situation). For
example, if you thought your classmate’s failure to return your notes was due mainly
to lack of consideration or laziness, you would be making an internal attribution. If you
thought that the oversight was due mainly to preoccupation with a family crisis, you
would be making an external attribution. Similarly, if you failed an exam, you could
explain it by concluding that you’re not very smart (internal attribution) or that your
work schedule left you too little time to study (external attribution). The attribution
that you make, in turn, might determine how much you study for the next exam or
even whether you decide to stay in school.
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Attribution Error
Biases in Attribution
Most people are usually logical in their attempts to explain behavior (Trope, Cohen, &
Alfieri, 1991). However, they are also prone to attributional biases, or errors, that can
distort their view of behavior (Gilbert, 1998).
The Fundamental Attribution Error North American psychologists have paid
special attention to the fundamental attribution error, a tendency to overattribute
the behavior of others to internal factors (Moskowitz, 2005). Imagine that you hear a
student give an incorrect answer in class. You will probably attribute this behavior to
an internal cause and infer that the person is not very smart. In doing so, however, you
might be ignoring possible external factors (such as lack of study time).
A related attributional bias is called the ultimate attribution error. Through this error,
the positive actions of people from a different ethnic or social group are attributed to
external causes, such as easy opportunities, whereas their negative actions are attributed to internal causes, such as dishonesty (Pettigrew, 1979). The ultimate attribution
error also causes people to see good deeds done by those in their own group as due to
kindness or other internal factors and bad deeds as stemming from external causes,
such as unemployment. In this way, the ultimate attribution error helps to create and
maintain people’s negative views of other groups and positive views of their own group
(Fiske, 1998).
These attributional biases may not be universal (Miyamoto & Kitayama, 2002). For
example, research suggests that the fundamental attribution error and the ultimate
attribution error are less likely to appear among people in collectivist cultures such as
India, China, Japan, and Korea compared with people in the individualist cultures of
North America and Europe (Lehman, Chiu, & Schaller, 2004). And even within individualist cultures, some people hold a stronger individualist orientation than others. So
some people in these cultures are more likely than others to make attribution errors
(Miller, 2001; Vandello & Cohen, 1999).
Other Attributional Biases The tendency to make internal attributions is much
fundamental attribution error A bias
toward attributing the behavior of others to internal factors.
actor-observer bias The tendency to
attribute other people’s behavior to internal causes while attributing one’s
own behavior to external causes.
less pronounced when people explain their own behavior. In fact, people tend to show
an actor-observer bias: that is, we often attribute other people’s behavior to internal
causes but attribute our own behavior to external factors, especially when our behavior is inappropriate or inadequate (Baumeister, 1998). For example, when Australian
students were asked why they sometimes drive too fast, they focused on circumstances,
such as being late, but saw other people’s dangerous driving as a sign of aggressiveness
or immaturity (Harré, Brandt, & Houkamau, 2004). Similarly, when you are driving
too slowly, the reason is that you are looking for an address, not that you are a big loser
like that jerk who crawled along in front of you yesterday.
The actor-observer bias occurs mainly because people have different kinds of information about their own behavior and the behavior of others. When you are in some
Social Perception
547
Attributional biases are more common in some
cultures than others. In one study, students in an individualist culture were
more likely than those in a collectivist
culture to explain acts of helping as
being due to internal causes such as
kindness or enjoyment of helping
(Miller & Bersoff, 1994).
WHY ARE THEY HELPING?
self-serving bias The tendency to attribute one’s successes to internal characteristics while blaming one’s failures
on external causes.
situation—giving a speech, perhaps—the information most available to you is likely to
be external and situational, such as the temperature of the room and the size of the
audience. You also have a lot of information about other external factors, such as the
amount of time you had to prepare your talk or the upsetting conversation that
occurred this morning. If your speech is disorganized and boring, you can easily attribute it to one or all of these external causes. But when you observe someone else, the
most obvious information in the situation is that person. You do not know what happened to the person last night or this morning, so you are likely to attribute the quality of the performance to stable, internal characteristics (Moskowitz, 2005).
Of course, people do not always attribute their own behavior to external forces. In
fact, whether they do so often depends on whether the outcome is positive or negative.
In one study, when people were asked what they saw as the cause of their good and
bad experiences when shopping online, they tended to take personal credit for positive
outcomes but to blame the computer for the negative ones (Moon, 2003). In other
words, these people showed a self-serving bias, the tendency to take personal credit
for success but to blame external causes for failure. This bias has been found in almost
all cultures, but as with the fundamental attribution error, it is usually more pronounced among people from individualistic Western cultures than among those from
collectivist Eastern cultures (Mezulis et al., 2004).
The self-serving bias occurs, in part, because people are motivated to maintain their
self-esteem—and ignoring negative information about themselves is one way to do so.
If you just failed an exam, it is painful to admit that the exam was fair. Like the other
attributional biases we have discussed, self-serving bias helps people think about their
failures and shortcomings in ways that protect their self-esteem (Dunning et al., 2003;
Gilbert et al., 2004; Tesser, 2001). These self-protective cognitive biases can help us temporarily escape from unpleasant thoughts and feelings, but they may also create a distorted view of reality that can lead to other problems. One such problem is unrealistic
optimism, the tendency to believe that good things (such as financial success or having
a gifted child) are likely to happen to you but that bad things (e.g., accidents or illness)
are not (Lin & Raghubir, 2005). Unrealistic optimism tends to persist even when there
is strong evidence against it, and it can lead to potentially harmful behaviors. For example, people who are unrealistically optimistic about their health may not bother to exercise and may ignore information about how to prevent heart disease (Radcliffe & Klein,
2002). (“In Review: Some Biases in Social Perception” summarizes the common cognitive biases discussed here.)
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