Attribution Error

Jan 15, 2010

In my Cognitive Biases piece last week, I briefly introduced three common errors in thinking. In today’s post I am going to expand upon Attribution Error.  Before I explain this cognitive bias, let’s look at some situations where such erroneous thinking occurs.

 

Where I work, at a preschool for children with substantial developmental delays, many of the children display persistently difficult behaviors.  I occasionally hear from less seasoned staff comments suggesting that they believe that a child’s “bad” behaviors are the result of inadequate parenting.  Parents are also sometimes admonished for sending their sick child to school or for sending in an inadequate lunch.

 

Attribution Error occurs when we negatively judge the unfortunate actions of others as a reflection of internal attributes (such as personality traits, abilities, ethics, etc.) rather than as a result of external situational factors.  In other words, we often underestimate the situational circumstances that cause a person to behave as they do and overestimate the impact of their personal attributes. This error in thinking is so ubiquitous and so easy to make that it is commonly referred to as Fundamental Attribution Error.

 

What is even more interesting is that when we think about our mistakes we tend to overestimate the external situational factors that lead to our behavior and undervalue our internal attributes.  In a nutshell, others’ mistakes are a result of their personal weaknesses, but our mistakes are due to other factors unrelated to our personal weaknesses.  Stepping back and really looking at it, it becomes evident that this is not quite equitable.

 

We have to ask ourselves – do we really have the whole picture?  Do we really understand that person’s life circumstances? Are we really aware of the resources available to them?  For example, in the situation noted above, is the parent able to afford a sick day? Does she get paid sick days? Did unforeseen bills make it impossible to purchase all the makings of a fully balanced lunch?

 

Perhaps, before judging, we could step back, think, and apply the same criteria we use to evaluate ourselves.  This is difficult because we rarely fully grasp the intimate and circumstantial details of another person’s life.  This is why we are most likely to make this error regarding people we don’t know well.  If we accept that we lack a complete understanding of the entire picture, it is best not to fill in the blanks with speculation about the person.  I am certain you would appreciate this from others when your conduct is on the line?  I know I do.

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15 Responses so far | Have Your Say!

  1. Kevin Eagan
    January 20th, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    Ger – Nice website! Reagarding the FAE, it is SO ubiquituous that, even when I know it is lurking, I sometimes still can’t resist it. It must be tied in with our “supersense” (pattern-seeing behavior?) so that we could, in the past, make quick survival decisions.

    What would happen if the FAE was mastered by every human? The end of politics, wars…?

  2. Gerald Guild
    January 20th, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    Thanks Kevin! I concur with the notion that there seems to be an evolutionary advantage to FAE given its pervasiveness. As to what society would be like were it not so common, I believe there would certainly be less prejudice and much more compassion. As a result, I believe, there would be a subsequent decrease in conflict, anger and personal violence. I wonder if there would be a broader decline in conflict and the use of violence to resolve disputes among communities, religions, and states. I’m uncertain, although it is fun to speculate. But perhaps we would not be around to speculate, if indeed it was crucial to survival. The future, were we to overcome this error in thinking, is even more exciting to ponder.

  3. Leora V.
    January 25th, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    Your blog is fascinating and provides great insights.

    I’m not sure if this is related, but I think it’s interesting that people, including myself, sometimes set a higher bar for others than they do for themselves. Is there a term in psychology circles for this, or is it just standard, run-of-the-mill hypocrisy at work?

  4. Kevin Eagan
    January 26th, 2010 at 9:35 am #

    Ger and Leora – Wikipedia (yes wikipedia!) had a nice list of cognitive biases. I thought this might be closest to the one Leora described:

    Illusory superiority — overestimating one’s desirable qualities, and underestimating undesirable qualities, relative to other people. Also known as Superiority bias (also known as “Lake Wobegon effect”, “better-than-average effect”, “superiority bias”, or Dunning-Kruger effect).

  5. Gerald Guild
    January 26th, 2010 at 10:22 am #

    Thanks Leora, both for the kind words and the great question. There is no quick answer and I am not aware of any one delineated bias that fully explains this tendency. Attribution Theory may cover this in part but I’m thinking that there may be other factors at play in this: because, you are talking about expectations rather than explanation of behavior. I believe it is important to understand the context of such expectations. For example, it is legitimate to expect more from say a nano-scientist or a physicist with regard to explaining the piezoelectric effect than from a psychologist. So we give away expert power in such situations. That seems quite adaptive. In a similar fashion we may give away referent power to someone we admire and thus we may expect more from them. Likewise adaptive. The Halo Effect and/or the Superiority Bias (as noted by Kevin) may play a role as well. The Halo Effect is a subjective bias whereas one over-generalizes their own positive regard for a person to other capabilities which may or may not be justified. Culture may be an issue too. In collectivist cultures we commonly see the Self Effacing Bias where one will blame their failures on internal attributes and downplay their successes by attributing them to external factors. This is essentially the opposite of the bias that most “Americans” exhibit – the Self Serving Bias. It has been noted that people (in the United States) with depression have a tendency to invert the Self Serving Bias. Issues of self efficacy and/or insecurity can depress one’s personal expectations and thus elevate the expectations one has of others. Then there are down and dirty issues of hypocrisy (as you questioned) and just unrealistic expectations. I have a saying about expectations – it goes like this: “Misery exists in the discrepancy between expectations and reality.” It’s complicated!

  6. Leora V.
    January 26th, 2010 at 1:29 pm #

    Thank you Gerry and Kevin for the responses. This is all so much food for thought. It makes me realize that if we learn more about how we think — and why — it may be easier to alter our behavior to become happier, less depressed etc.

    I’m really looking forward to future posts so I can better understand the behaviors of others as well as my own. It’s also great to learn the names of these behaviors — superiority bias, halo effect etc. — so I can throw them around in conversation and impress my friends (i’m sure there’s a term for this behavior as well, perhaps ‘faux expert power’).

  7. MaryBeth Lynn
    February 4th, 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    Isn’t it what we do when we’re driving and the person driving faster than us is a maniac, and the one driving slower is an “old lady driver”?

  8. Gerald Guild
    February 5th, 2010 at 8:36 am #

    Yes Mary Beth, in part it is. The automatic attribution of the offender’s driving behavior to his or her internal characteristics is tending toward Fundamental Attribution Error. Our response to such driving behavior tends to be exacerbated by our own personal stress (e.g., running late, adverse driving circumstances), our own frustration associated with the impediment of our goal directed behavior, the degree to which one is inclined toward a sense of entitlement, and the ease one has in slipping into emotional over rational thought. Our responses to such drivers are thus more complicated than just attribution error – but it does indeed play a role.

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