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The Fundamental Attribution Error

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

One way that our attributions may be biased is that we are often too quick to attribute the behavior of other people to something personal about them rather than to something about their situation. This is a classic example of the general human tendency of underestimating how important the social situation really is in determining behavior. This bias occurs in two ways. First, we are too likely to make strong personal attributions to account for the behavior that we observe others engaging in. That is, we are more likely to say “Cejay left a big tip, so he must be generous” than “Cejay left a big tip, but perhaps that was because he was trying to impress his friends.” Second, we also tend to make more personal attributions about the behavior of others (we tend to say, “Cejay is a generous person”) than we do for ourselves (we tend to say, “I am generous in some situations but not in others”).

When we tend to overestimate the role of person factors and overlook the impact of situations, we are making a mistake that social psychologists have termed the fundamental attribution error. This error is very closely related to another attributional tendency, the correspondence bias, which occurs when we attribute behaviors to people’s internal characteristics, even in heavily constrained situations. In one demonstration of the fundamental attribution error, Linda Skitka and her colleagues (Skitka, Mullen, Griffin, Hutchinson, & Chamberlin, 2002) had participants read a brief story about a professor who had selected two student volunteers to come up in front of a class to participate in a trivia game. The students were described as having been randomly assigned to the role of either quizmaster or contestant by drawing straws. The quizmaster was asked to generate five questions from his idiosyncratic knowledge, with the stipulation that he knew the correct answer to all five questions.

Joe (the quizmaster) subsequently posed his questions to the other student (Stan, the contestant). For example, Joe asked, “What cowboy movie actor’s sidekick is Smiley Burnette?” Stan looked puzzled and finally replied, “I really don’t know. The only movie cowboy that pops to mind for me is John Wayne.” Joe asked four additional questions, and Stan was described as answering only one of the five questions correctly. After reading the story, the students were asked to indicate their impression of both Stan’s and Joe’s intelligence.

If you think about the setup here, you’ll notice that the professor has created a situation that can have a big influence on the outcomes. Joe, the quizmaster, has a huge advantage because he got to choose the questions. As a result, the questions are hard for the contestant to answer. But did the participants realize that the situation was the cause of the outcomes? They did not. Rather, the students rated Joe as significantly more intelligent than Stan. You can imagine that Joe just seemed to be really smart to the students; after all, he knew all the answers, whereas Stan knew only one of the five. But of course this is a mistake. The difference was not at all due to person factors but completely to the situation: Joe got to use his own personal store of esoteric knowledge to create the most difficult questions he could think of. The observers committed the fundamental attribution error and did not sufficiently take the quizmaster’s situational advantage into account.

As we have explored in many places in this book, the culture that we live in has a significant impact on the way we think about and perceive our social worlds. Thus, it is not surprising that people in different cultures would tend to think about people at least somewhat differently. One difference is between people from many Western cultures (e.g., the United States, Canada, Australia) and people from many Asian cultures (e.g., Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, India). For instance, as we reviewed in Social Cognition in our discussion of research about the self-concept, people from Western cultures tend to be primarily oriented toward individualism. This leads to them having an independent self-concept where they view themselves, and others, as autonomous beings who are somewhat separate from their social groups and environments. In contrast, people in many East Asian cultures take a more interdependent view of themselves and others, one that emphasizes not so much the individual but rather the relationship between individuals and the other people and things that surround them. In relation to our current discussion of attribution, an outcome of these differences is that, on average, people from individualistic cultures tend to focus their attributions more on the individual person, whereas, people from collectivistic cultures tend to focus more on the situation (Ji, Peng, & Nisbett, 2000; Lewis, Goto, & Kong, 2008; Maddux & Yuki, 2006).

In one study demonstrating this difference, Miller (1984) asked children and adults in both India (a collectivistic culture) and the United States (an individualist culture) to indicate the causes of negative actions by other people. Although the younger children (ages 8 and 11) did not differ, the older children (age 15) and the adults did—Americans made more personal attributions, whereas Indians made more situational attributions for the same behavior.

Masuda and Nisbett (2001) asked American and Japanese students to describe what they saw in images like the one shown in Figure 5.9. They found that while both groups talked about the most salient objects (the fish, which were brightly colored and swimming around), the Japanese students also tended to talk and remember more about the images in the background (they remembered the frog and the plants as well as the fish).

Figure 5.9 Cultural Differences in Perception 

Michael Morris and his colleagues (Hong, Morris, Chiu, & Benet-Martínez, 2000) investigated the role of culture on person perception in a different way, by focusing on people who are bicultural (i.e., who have knowledge about two different cultures). In their research, they used high school students living in Hong Kong. Although traditional Chinese values are emphasized in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong was a British-administered territory for more than a century, the students there are also somewhat acculturated with Western social beliefs and values.

Morris and his colleagues first randomly assigned the students to one of three priming conditions. Participants in the American culture priming condition saw pictures of American icons (such as the U.S. Capitol building and the American flag) and then wrote 10 sentences about American culture. Participants in the Chinese culture priming condition saw eight Chinese icons (such as a Chinese dragon and the Great Wall of China) and then wrote 10 sentences about Chinese culture. Finally, participants in the control condition saw pictures of natural landscapes and wrote 10 sentences about the landscapes.

Then participants in all conditions read a story about an overweight boy who was advised by a physician not to eat food with high sugar content. One day, he and his friends went to a buffet dinner where a delicious-looking cake was offered. Despite its high sugar content, he ate it. After reading the story, the participants were asked to indicate the extent to which the boy’s weight problem was caused by his personality (personal attribution) or by the situation (situational attribution). The students who had been primed with symbols about American culture gave relatively less weight to situational (rather than personal) factors in comparison with students who had been primed with symbols of Chinese culture.

Returning to the case study at the start of this chapter, the very different explanations given in the English and Chinese language newspapers about the killings perpetrated by Gang Lu at the University of Iowa reflect these differing cultural tendencies toward internal versus external attributions. A focus on internal explanations led to an analysis of the crime primarily in terms of the individual characteristics of the perpetrator in the American newspaper, whereas there were more external attributions in the Chinese newspaper, focusing on the social conditions that led up to the tragedy. Morris and Peng (1994), in addition to their analyses of the news reports, extended their research by asking Chinese and American graduate students to weight the importance of the potential causes outlined in the newspaper coverage. In line with predictions, the Chinese participants rated the social conditions as more important causes of the murders than the Americans, particularly stressing the role of corrupting influences and disruptive social changes. In contrast, the Americans rated internal characteristics of the perpetrator as more critical issues, particularly chronic psychological problems. Morris and Peng also found that, when asked to imagine factors that could have prevented the killings, the Chinese students focused more on the social conditions that could have been changed, whereas the Americans identified more changes in terms of the internal traits of the perpetrator.

Given these consistent differences in the weight put on internal versus external attributions, it should come as no surprise that people in collectivistic cultures tend to show the fundamental attribution error and correspondence bias less often than those from individualistic cultures, particularly when the situational causes of behavior are made salient (Choi, Nisbett, & Norenzayan, 1999). Being more aware of these cross-cultural differences in attribution has been argued to be a critical issue facing us all on a global level, particularly in the future in a world where increased power and resource equality between Western and Eastern cultures seems likely (Nisbett, 2003). Human history is littered with tragic examples of the fatal consequences of cross-cultural misunderstandings, which can be fueled by a failure to understand these differing approaches to attribution. Maybe as the two worldviews increasingly interact on a world stage, a fusion of their two stances on attribution may become more possible, where sufficient weight is given to both the internal and external forces that drive human behavior (Nisbett, 2003).