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Group-Serving Biases

1 February, 2016 - 16:25

A self-serving pattern of attribution can also spill over into our attributions about the groups that we belong to. The group-serving bias, sometimes referred to as the ultimate attribution error, describes a tendency to make internal attributions about our ingroups’ successes, and external attributions about their setbacks, and to make the opposite pattern of attributions about our outgroups (Taylor & Doria, 1981). When members of our favorite sports team make illegal challenges on the field, or rink, or court, we often attribute it to their being provoked. What about when it is someone from the opposition? Their illegal conduct regularly leads us to make an internal attribution about their moral character! On a more serious note, when individuals are in a violent confrontation, the same actions on both sides are typically attributed to different causes, depending on who is making the attribution, so that reaching a common understanding can become impossible (Pinker, 2011).

Returning to the case study at the start of this chapter, could the group-serving bias be at least part of the reason for the different attributions made by the Chinese and American participants about the mass killing? How might this bias have played out in this situation? Remember that the perpetrator, Gang Lu, was Chinese. Might the American participants’ tendency to make internal attributions have reflected their desire to blame him solely, as an outgroup member, whereas the Chinese participants’ more external attributions might have related to their wish to try to mitigate some of what their fellow ingroup member had done, by invoking the social conditions that preceded the crime?

Morris and Peng (1994) sought to test out this possibility by exploring cross-cultural reactions to another, parallel tragedy, that occurred just two weeks after Gang Lu’s crimes. Thomas Mcllvane, an Irish American postal worker who had recently lost his job, unsuccessfully appealed the decision with his union. He had in the meantime failed to find a new full-time job. On November 14, he entered the Royal Oak, Michigan, post office and shot his supervisor, the person who handled his appeal, several fellow workers and bystanders, and then himself. In all, like Gang Lu, Thomas McIllvane killed himself and five other people that day. If the group-serving bias could explain much of the cross-cultural differences in attributions, then, in this case, when the perpetrator was American, the Chinese should have been more likely to make internal, blaming attributions against an outgroup member, and the Americans to make more external, mitigating ones about their ingroup member. This is not what was found. Although the Americans did make more situational attributions about McIlvane than they did about Lu, the Chinese participants were equally likely to use situational explanations for both sets of killings. As Morris and Peng (1994) point out, this finding indicated that whereas the American participants tended to show the group-serving bias, the Chinese participants did not. This has been replicated in other studies indicating a lower likelihood of this bias in people from collectivistic versus individualistic cultures (Heine & Lehman, 1997).

At first glance, this might seem like a counterintuitive finding. If people from collectivist cultures tend to see themselves and others as more embedded in their ingroups, then wouldn’t they be more likely to make group-serving attributions? A key explanation as to why they are less likely relates back to the discussion in Chapter 3 of cultural differences in self-enhancement. Like the self-serving bias, group-serving attributions can have a self-enhancing function, leading people to feel better about themselves by generating favorable explanations about their ingroups’ behaviors. Therefore, as self-enhancement is less of a priority for people in collectivistic cultures, we would indeed expect them to show less group-serving bias.

There are other, related biases that people also use to favor their ingroups over their outgroups. —The group attribution error describes a tendency to make attributional generalizations about entire outgroups based on a very small number of observations of individual members. This error tends to takes one of two distinct, but related forms. The first was illustrated in an experiment by Hamill, Wilson, and Nisbett (1980), college students were shown vignettes about someone from one of two outgroups, welfare recipients and prison guards. They were then asked to make inferences about members of these two groups as a whole, after being provided with varying information about how typical the person they read about was of each group. A key finding was that even when they were told the person was not typical of the group, they still made generalizations about group members that were based on the characteristics of the individual they had read about. This bias may thus cause us to see a person from a particular outgroup behave in an undesirable way and then come to attribute these tendencies to most or all members of their group. This is one of the many ways that inaccurate stereotypes can be created, a topic we will explore in more depth in Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination.

The second form of group attribution bias closely relates to the fundamental attribution error, in that individuals come to attribute groups’ behaviors and attitudes to each of the individuals within those groups, irrespective of the level of disagreement in the group or how the decisions were made. In a series of experiments, Allison & Messick (1985) investigated people’s attributions about group members as a function of the decisions that the groups reached in various social contexts. In their first experiment, participants assumed that members of a community making decisions about water conservation laws held attitudes reflecting the group decision, regardless of how it was reached. In two follow-up experiments, subjects attributed a greater similarity between outgroup decisions and attitudes than between ingroup decisions and attitudes. A further experiment showed that participants based their attributions of jury members’ attitudes more on their final group decision than on their individual views. This bias can present us with numerous challenges in the real world. Let’s say, for example, that a political party passes a policy that goes against our deep-seated beliefs about an important social issue, like abortion or same-sex marriage. This type of group attribution bias would then make it all too easy for us to caricature all members of and voters for that party as opposed to us, when in fact there may be a considerable range of opinions among them. This false assumption may then cause us to shut down meaningful dialogue about the issue and fail to recognize the potential for finding common ground or for building important allegiances.