Attribution Errors

Errors and Biases in Attributing the Causes of Behaviors

While the process of making causal attributions is interesting in and of itself, psychologists are also interested in how accurate those attributions are. Research has long shown that we are not always accurate when attributing the causes of behavior. Moreover, people tend to make the same kinds of errors or are biased to make a certain type of attribution. In this entry, we will examine four types of errors and biases.

Fundamental Attribution Error

The fundamental attribution error Opens in new window (Ross, 1977) is the tendency for observers to attribute other people’s behavior to dispositional or internal causes and to downplay situational or external causes.

  • Internal causes are those that stem from the internal characteristics of the person. These would include their attitudes, abilities, or personality traits.
  • External causes are those that stem from the situation or the environment. People are biased toward making internal rather than external attributions.

For example, someone you just met is rude to you at a party. According to the fundamental attribution error, you are more likely to attribute their rudeness to an internal characteristic than to an external one. Thus, you are more likely to attribute their behavior to their being an unpleasant person than you are to attribute it to their just having a bad day.

Actor-Observer Bias

The actor-observer bias Opens in new window is the tendency to make fundamental attribution error Opens in new window more often when trying to explain others’ behavior than when explaining our own. When we’re the actor, we have a lesser tendency to look to internal causes for the behavior than when we observe the same behavior in another person.

For example, you and another person are walking along a stretch of sidewalk on your way to class. You both trip and drop your books. You will attribute the cause of the other person’s tripping to their clumsiness (internal), while attributing your tripping to a tiny crack in the sidewalk (external).

But why do we tend to look away from internal causes for own behavior? First, we have more information about ourselves than we have of others. We know how our behavior varies over situations, so we look more toward external causes. Second, we have a tendency to attribute odd or unexpected behavior to internal causes. Because our own behavior is rarely surprising to us, we look more toward external causes.

Motivational Biases

The motivational biases occur when something motivates us internally to make a particular attribution. We can distort the attributions we make about our behavior in order to protect our ego, enhance our self-esteem, or look good to others.

The self-serving biasOpens in new window is the tendency to attribute our successes to internal causes and our failures to external causes. For example, if you pass an exam, you will probably attribute your success to your intelligence rather than to the exam being easy. Whereas, if you fail the exam, you will probably look for an external reason for your performance. Thus, your roommate kept you up too late, or the exam was unfair.

We will do almost anything to protect ourselves from attributing the cause of our failure to our potential lack of intelligence, which is damaging to our self-esteem.

In some cases, we can take this a step further by creating self-handicapping strategies. Here, we create new potential external causes for our behavior in case we fail. We try to protect ourselves from unflattering internal attributions by creating external causes for our failure.

For example, you do not think you will do well on an exam. Instead of having to take responsibility for the cause that may lead to a “less intelligent” or “lazy” causal attribution, you stay out all night before the exam. Thus, when you fail, you can attribute its cause to having been out all night.

What happens when we self-handicap and we do not fail? We tend to make a stronger internal attribution than we would have if we had not self-handicapped at all. Instead of attributing the cause of our success to “I’m intelligent,” we tend to strengthen that attribution to “I’m the smartest person in the history of the class.”

Ultimate Attribution Error

The ultimate attribution error Opens in new window (Pettigrew, 1979) is the phenomenon that self-serving biases extend to in-groups. When making attributions for positive in-groups, internal attributions are made; yet, external attributions are made to explain positive out-group behaviors.

Similarly, to explain negative in-group behaviors, external attributions are made; yet, internal attributions are made to explain negative out-group behaviors.

Therefore, the same behavior is likely to be explained differently based on whether or not the person performing the behavior is considered to be an in-group or out-group member by the perceiver. These explanations affect people’s expectations about future in-groups and out-group behavior.

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