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Attribution

How We Explain Behavior

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In social psychology, attribution is the process of inferring the causes of events or behaviors. In real life, attribution is something we all do every day, usually without any awareness of the underlying processes and biases that lead to our inferences. For example, over the course of a typical day you probably make numerous attributions about your own behavior as well as that of the people around you.

When you get a poor grade on a quiz, you might blame the teacher for not adequately explaining the material, completely dismissing the fact that you didn't study. When a classmate gets a great grade on the same quiz, you might attribute his good performance to luck, neglecting the fact that he has excellent study habits.

Why do we attribute certain things to internal characteristics while blaming external forces for others? Part of this has to do with the type of attribution we are likely to use in a particular situation. Attribution biases also play a major role. The attributions you make each and every day have an important influence on your feelings as well as how you think and relate to other people.

Types of Attribution

  • Interpersonal Attribution: When telling a story to a group of friends or acquaintances, you are likely to tell the story in a way that places you in the best possible light.

  • Predictive Attribution: We also tend to attribute things in ways that allow us to make future predictions. If your car was vandalized, you might attribute the crime to the fact that you parked in a particular parking garage. As a result, you will avoid that parking garage in the future in order to avoid further vandalism.

  • Explanatory Attribution: We us explanatory attributions to help us make sense of the world around us. Some people have an optimistic explanatory style, while others tend to be more pessimistic. People with an optimistic style attribute positive events to stable, internal and global causes and negative events to unstable, external and specific causes. Those with a pessimistic style attribute negative events to internal, stable and global causes and positive events to external, stable and specific causes.

Problems With Attribution

As we seek to explain the reasons and causes for behaviors, we are prone to falling victim to a number of cognitive biases and errors. Our perceptions of events are often distorted by our past experiences, our expectations and our own needs. A few of the most common types of errors in attribution include:

Self-Serving Bias

Think about the last time you received a good grade on a psychology exam. Chances are that you attributed your success to internal factors. "I did well because I am smart" or "I did well because I studied and was well-prepared" are two common explanations you might use to justify your test performance.

What happens when you receive a poor grade, though? Social psychologists have found that in this situation, you are more likely to attribute your failure to external forces. "I failed because the teacher included trick questions" or "The classroom was so hot that I couldn't concentrate" are examples of excuses a student might come up with to explain their poor performance. Notice that both of these explanations lay the blame on outside forces rather than accepting personal responsibility.

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the self-serving bias. So why are we more likely to attribute our success to our personal characteristics and blame outside variables for our failures? Researchers believe that blaming external factors for failures and disappointments helps protect self-esteem.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

When it comes to other people, we tend to attribute causes to internal factors such as personality characteristics and ignore or minimize external variables. This phenomenon tends to be very widespread, particularly among individualistic cultures. Psychologists refer to this tendency as the fundamental attribution error; even though situational variables are very likely present, we automatically attribute the cause to internal characteristics.

The fundamental attribution error explains why people often blame other people for things over which they usually have no control. The term blaming the victim is often used by social psychologists to describe a phenomenon in which people blame innocent victims of crimes for their misfortune.

In such cases, people may accuse the victim of failing to protect themselves from the event by behaving in a certain manner or not taking specific precautionary steps to avoid or prevent the event. Examples of this include accusing rape victims, domestic violence survivors and kidnap victims of behaving in a manner that somehow provoked their attackers. Researchers suggest that hindsight bias causes people to mistakenly believe that victims should have been able to predict future events and therefor take steps to avoid them.

The Actor-Observer Bias

Interestingly, when it comes to explaining our own behavior, we tend to have the opposite bias of the fundamental attribution error. When something happens, we are more likely to blame external forces than our personal characteristics. In psychology, this tendency is known as the actor-observer bias.

How can we explain this tendency? One possible reason is that we simply have more information about our own situation than we do about other peoples. When it comes to explaining your own actions, you have more information about yourself and the situational variables at play. When you're trying to explain another person's behavior, you are at a bit of a disadvantage; you only have the information that is readily observable.

Not surprisingly, people are less likely to fall victim to the actor-observer discrepancy with people that they now very well. Because you know more about the personality and behavior of people you're close too, you are better able to take their point of view and more likely to be aware of possible situational causes for their behaviors.

References:

Goldinger, S. D., Kleider, H.M, Azuma, T., & Beike, D.R. (2003). "Blaming the victim" under memory load. Psychological Science, 3, 53-61.

Jaspars, J., Fincham, F.D., & Hewstone, M. (1983). Attribution Theory and Research: Conceptual Developmental and Social Dimensions. Academic Press.

Jones, E.E. & Nisbett, R.E. (1971). The Actor and the Observer: Divergent Perceptions of the Causes of Behavior. New York: General Learning Press.

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