Last Updated 28 Jan 2021

Errors of Attribution

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With reference to research discuss two errors in attributions. (22 marks) The Attribution Theory is a concept of social psychology that makes reference to how individuals feel the need to provide ‘cause to the events around us’. Fritz Heider first proposed the theory ‘The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958), which was later developed by others such as Harold Kelley and Bernard Weiner. The developed definition of this theory refers to the role of our minds in relation to our social behaviour.

There are two main categories within this particular theory, Situational factors, which refer to how one’s environment and external circumstances can influence an individual, whilst Dispositional factors refer to our personality and our traits, factors that are to do with us as people. The Self- Serving Bias focuses on the way in which we as individuals tend to associate successes with our internal ability and characteristics and equating failures to external factors.

The reason that this is seen as a common human tendency is because people acknowledge success as a way of positively influencing their self-esteem levels. This bias can affect our opportunities to learn from our mistakes and improve- by refusing to accept responsibility for our failures, our skill levels remain unchanged. Although this bias can be recognized in people throughout modern day society, Lewinsohn et al (1980) proposed that the bias will have the complete opposite effect on people who have a low self esteem or see themselves in a negative light.

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All successes are seen as luck rather than ability, whilst failures are seen as dispositional factors, generally seeing stupidity as the sole factor for their mistakes. Ironically, Lewinsohn suggests that depressed individuals will see themselves more realistically, making more practical attributions about their personality than a ‘normal’ person will. A study that was carried out by Johnson (1964), demonstrated a Self Serving Bias through teaching. Participants (psychology students) taught two children how to multiply numbers by 10 and 20. The study was done in two phases through a one-way intercom.

The first phase was to teach them how to multiply by 10, the second, by 20. After each phase, the participants were able to access the worksheets that the children used and were told to evaluate the children’s progress. The worksheets had been constructed in such a way that pupil A gave the correct answers in both worksheets, and depending on the circumstance, pupil B either did badly in both worksheets, or did badly for the first and improved in the second. The participants were therefore asked to assess their teaching abilities based on the pupils’ results.

What Johnson found was that in the situation where pupil B improved, the participant saw this improvement as an indication of their abilities as teachers. When pupil B did not improve, the participants blamed the failure on the pupil’s lack of ability. Wolosin, Sherman and Till (1973) is another classic example of a study examining the self-serving bias. Participants in this study partook in a decision-making activity, in which they chose geographical locations where they believed they were most likely to meet a friend. In the first phase, the participant was performing the task whilst co-operating with another individual.

The second phase consisted of the participant competing against the individual. After these two experiments were completed, the participants were given feedback. In the co-operative phase, the participant assumed more responsibility when they received positive comments, in contrast with the participants who received negative or neutral feedback. This again reiterates the point that individuals will exhibit self-biased attributions, whilst in circumstances of failure; they will provide situational factors for their lack of success.

Although there is evidence to support this error of attribution, there are also contradictions to the theory. Zuckerman (1979) argued that this bias depends on our desire to maintain our self-esteem. He reasons that it we attribute our successes to dispositional factors it improves our self-esteem, whilst if we deny responsibility to failure, we are protecting our self-esteem, therefore suggesting that it all depends on the individual. Cross-cultural examination also shows that the bias is consistent.

Heine (1999) and Kashima & Triandis (1986) used studies to support the theory. They found that in collectivistic cultures such as Japan, members are far less likely to attribute success to dispositional factors compared to individualistic cultures such as the US or the UK. Kashima & Triandis found that when Japanese and American participants were asked to remember slides from unfamiliar countries, Americans tended to attribute success towards their ability, whilst the Japanese attributed failure to lack of ability.

This study therefore shows that there is definitely a link between maintenance of self-esteem and self-serving bias, in individualistic cultures. Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) refers to the tendency for individuals to view behaviour as a significant factor. Therefore, we tend to overestimate dispositional factors and underestimate situational factors when attempting to explain behaviour in a member of society.

The reason for this attribution error, is because generally, we focus more on the individual in the specific situation, which leads to us making judgments and decisions relating to their personality- internal attributions, simply because we do not have enough information on their character to make a balanced assessment. Lee Ross first introduced this term in 1977 defining it as ‘The tendency to underestimate the importance of situational determinants and overestimate the degree to which actions and outcomes reflect the actor’s dispositions. Napolitan and Goethals (1979) examined the theory by asking student participants to talk individually to a woman told to behave either aloof and critical or friendly and warm. The first batch of participants were told that she was acting spontaneously, whilst the other half was told that she was instructed to behave in a certain way towards them. Interestingly, the knowledge of her instructions versus spontaneity had no effect on the participants, all of whom attributed her behaviour to internal dispositional factors rather than situational. Another classic demonstration of the study was by Jones and Harris (1967).

They hypothesized that people would attribute apparently free-chosen behaviour to disposition and instructed behaviour to situational factors. This was investigated by asking participants to read a series of Fidel Castro essays, some of which were pro and others were anti Fidel Castro. After reading these essays, the subjects were asked to rate the attitudes of the writers. When the subjects believed that the writers had chosen freely on their position on Castro, the participants naturally assumed that the essays reflected the genuine attitude towards Castro.

However, even when the subjects were told that the writers had no choice, they still believed that the essays reflected their actual views on Castro. This supports the error of attribution because despite the fact that the participants knew that the writers were heavily constrained by the situation, the subjects still chose to attribute their views to dispositional factors. Cultural variance may affect the Fundamental Attribution Error, as members from individualistic culture have a higher tendency to commit this error compared to members from a collectivistic ulture that are less prone to it. Miller (1984) supports this argument as he found that children from western cultures make dispositional attributions whilst children from India make situational attributions, particularly when explaining the actions of someone who has done wrong. Moghaddam (1998) also stated that the FAE was due to 'pervasive individualism' of modern western culture. Reference: http://education. calumet. purdue. edu/vockell/edPsybook/Edpsy5/edpsy5_attribution. htm http://changingminds. org/explanations/theories/attribution_theory. tm http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Attribution_(psychology) http://changingminds. org/explanations/theories/fundamental_attribution_error. htm http://changingminds. org/explanations/theories/self-serving_bias. htm http://ibpsychologynotes. files. wordpress. com/2011/02/04-discuss-two-errors-in-attributions. pdf http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error http://ion. uwinnipeg. ca/~clark/teach/1000-050/Ch18-social. pdf http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Self-serving_bias http://www. psychwiki. com/wiki/Self-serving_bias

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