Social Psychology (PSY403)
Introduce the basic concept of causal judgment and errors involved in this process
Understanding primary biases in attributions fundamental attribution error, actor-observer bias,
false consensus effect, self-serving attribution error, and ultimate attribution error
Discussing implication of attribution errors
Biases in Attribution
Kelley's model is idealized to explain causes of behaviour, but we really are naive scientists.
Although people follow these rules and deduce causality logically in some circumstances, a number of
attribution biases and `errors' often occur
Considerable research suggests that there are several prominent biases in the ways we make causal
The process of making causal attributions entails several "biases." First, attributers seem too ready to
assume that another person's traits correspond with his or her words and deeds. This "correspondence
bias" occurs because people overlook situational constraints, have unrealistic expectations for what
other people are willing and able to do, overemphasize the link between the person and his or her
behavior, and adjust their initial attributions inaccurately when they are "cognitively busy." The
fundamental attribution error is the correspondence bias.
A. The fundamental attribution error
Ichheiser (1940) maintained long time ago that "In everyday life interpreting individual behaviour in the
light of personal factors rather than in the light of situational factors must be considered the fundamental
source of misunderstanding personality in our time". More than 30 years later, Ross (1977) renamed this
tendency to make internal rather than external attributions for peoples' behaviour. He maintained that the
fundamental attribution error is the tendency to overestimate the impact of dispositional causes and
underestimate the impact of situational causes on other person's behaviour. Ross and his colleagues devised
a simulated TV quiz game in which students were randomly assigned to serve as either quizmaster or
contestants. The quizmasters would ask 10 challenging but fair questions from the contestants. The results
showed that observers and contestants both rated the quizmasters as more knowledgeable despite the
process of random
Fundamental attribution error and
selection for serving as
either contestant or
TV quiz game
quizmaster. Figure 1
Ross et al. (1977)
Explanations for the
may occur because
Social Psychology (PSY403)
We only later use situational information to discount it.
Predictability Need: It gives us greater confidence that we can accurately predict behaviour
The person being observed is the most perceptually salient aspect of the situation (i.e., moving,
talking, etc.) and so an internal (person) attribution becomes much more accessible.
Taylor and Fiske (1975) tested this hypothesis by varying the seats of 6 people who observed 2 actors
engaged in carefully arranged 5-minute conversation. Observers were seated so that faced actor A, B
or both. Then they were asked whom they thought had the most impact on the conversation.
Results: whichever actor they faced was perceived as the most important of the dyad.
The fundamental attribution error is more common in individualist cultures than collectivist (Miller,
1984) suggesting that social learning may also contribute to the explanation of the effect.
People in non-Western cultures are more likely to take situational and contextual information into
However, cultures do not create people with rigidly independent or collectivistic styles, situational
factors can trigger spontaneous self concepts
B. The actor-observer bias
People tend to attribute their own behaviour to external causes but that of others to internal
Actors overestimate the importance of the situation in explaining their own behaviours: actors look
at the situation, observers look at actors.
This bias suggests that observers overestimate the importance of an actor's dispositions for causing
the actor's behavior;
Access to different information: actors have more background about themselves
Actors overestimate the importance of the situation in explaining their own behaviors Perceptual:
actors look at the situation, observers look at actors
Storms's Stusy (1973)
2 participants as observers, 2 as `conversational' actors
Observers focus attention only on the actor they were facing
Observers emphasized dispositional factors when explaining actor's behaviour
Actors emphasized situational factors when explaining their own behaviour
Perceptual salience: Actors attention is away from them (external), observers attention is on actor
ν The actor-observer bias is reversed when participants shown videotapes of their opposite perspective
before making attributions
Actors saw own faces and made an internal attribution
C. False Consensus Effect
The attributers draw less dispositional inferences about their own behaviour than about another
person's behaviour, because their own behaviours is less visually salient and because they believe that
their own choices are more prevalent than they are, or at least more prevalent than they are viewed by
other people who choose differently. False consensus occurs because our own behaviours are relatively
easy to imagine, because we usually interact with "our own kind," and because it makes us feel good
Social Psychology (PSY403)
Why do we tend to see our own behaviour and opinions as typical?
We have a biased sample of similar others among our friends
Our own opinions are more accessible/ salient
We fail to realize that our choices reflect our construal and that others have different perceptions
We are motivated to see ourselves as normal & good.
D. The Self-Serving Attribution Bias (SSAB)
We are not coldly rational informational processors of information. When our performance results in
either success or failure, we tend to take credit for our successes but deny blame for our failures. Self-
serving biases include attributing our own (but not other people's) successes to internal-stable
factors and our own (but not other people's) failures to external-unstable factors, taking more
credit than is due for desirable outcomes, and unrealistic (but useful) optimism about our life
prospects. Where we will assign the locus of causality?: IQ, effort vs. unreasonable professor or luck?
According to Olson & Ross (1988), we make internal attributions for our successes (e.g., I'm
intelligent) and external attributions for failures (e.g., it was a particularly hard exam)
Explanations of the SSAB
Internally attributing success and externally attributing failure protects self-esteem
We expect to do well in most things, which make it logical to attribute failure to external sources
(Taylor & Riess, 1989).
E. The ultimate attribution error
We attribute our group's successes to internal factors and other group's successes to external factors
Accuracy of judgments -- Our judgments are both accurate and inaccurate.
· We tend to be accurate about external visible attributes.
· We are less accurate about inferred internal states (traits or feelings).
The process and biases of causal attribution have important consequences for deciding what
caused our own and other people's success and failure and for attributing responsibility or blame.
When making attributions for success and failure, people who attribute their own success to internal
causes and their own failure to external causes do more for their self-esteem than do people who make
the opposite attributions. People who attribute their own success to stable causes and their own
failure to unstable causes have more optimistic expectations for the future than do people who make
the opposite attributions. Also, people who attribute another person's suffering to uncontrollable
causes have more pity, less anger, and less urge to help than do people who attribute another person's
suffering to controllable causes.
Attributions of responsibility influence how people react to personal and social problems.
Dispositional attributions often elicit more punitive reactions than do situational attributions for
disaster victims, quarrelling spouses, drivers in automobile accidents, and for people with liver disease
and other health problems. Prospective jurors also make different attributions and award different
sentences for rape depending on characteristics of the victim. Finally, attributions for murder differ
depending on characteristics of the victim that the killer did not know and depending on the culture.
People from collectivist cultures are less biased toward dispositional attributions for murder than are
people from individualist cultures.
1. Franzoi, S. (2003). Social Psychology. Boston: McGraw-Hill. Chapter 4.
2. Lord, C.G. (1997). Social Psychology. Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Company. Chapter 4.
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