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What are attribution biases and when do they occur?

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What are attribution biases and when do they occur? Attribution theories such as Kelley's co variation model tended to suggest that laypeople act like psychologists, trying to produce rational explanations for other people's behaviour. In fact, everyday attributions do not always conform to such exacting scientific standards. These traditional accounts can therefore be taken as normative models which describe how people ought to explain behaviour given unlimited time and resources rather than how they actually do explain events under normal circumstances. When judgements deviate systematically from these standards, attribution is said to be biased. The correspondence bias "The correspondence bias ... is the tendency to conclude that a person has a disposition that corresponds to his or her behavior even when that behavior is attributable to the situation" (Gilbert, 1995, p. 105). When explaining actions, observers seem to believe that its causes are more likely to be found in the actor's personality or abilities than in the surrounding situational context and generally underestimate the power of external forces. The correspondence bias (otherwise known as the fundamental attribution error, Ross, 1977) was first noted when testing Jones and Davis's (1965) normative model of the attribution process: correspondent inference theory. According to this theory, observers should attribute another person's freely chosen behaviour to an underlying intention, and then to the personal disposition that produced that intention. This process is known as correspondent inference because dispositions and intentions are inferred in the actor that corresponds to the nature of the observed action (e.g., aggressive behaviour may be caused by aggressive intentions which arise from an aggressive personality). ...read more.


In other words, actors judged their own performance as more due to personal factors when they saw footage showing themselves speaking on the video afterwards, and observers came to emphasize situational factors more after they had seen the conversation from both points of view (i.e., facing one of the actors during the actual conversation and watching the other actor in the video replay). This suggests that judgements of causality depend on where attention is focused, and that attended objects (or people) tend to be seen as exerting a more powerful causal influence on events. Proposed explanations for the correspondence bias and actor-observer difference 1. Attention focus: Storms' study suggests that the differential tendency to attribute an actor's behaviour to internal factors depends on the direction of attention. Actors tend to be more salient (see below) to observers than the surrounding context, whereas the situation tends to be more salient to actors because attention is typically focused outward. This kind of explanation was already anticipated in Heider's (1958) original account of attribution: "It seems that behavior in particular has such salient properties it tends to engulf the total field rather than be confined to its proper position as a local stimulus whose interpretation requires additional data of a surrounding field -- the situation in social perception" (p. 54). 2. Differential availability of information: Jones and Nisbett (1972) suggested that one of the reasons why actors' attributions may differ from observers' is that actors tend to have access to more background information about their behaviour in other situations, making them better able to appreciate its variability. ...read more.


Whether participants privately believe that they are more responsible for positive than negative outcomes is harder to determine. The traditional explanation of self-serving biases is that people are selectively processing information in order to maintain their self-esteem. In contrast to this motivational account, Miller and Ross (1975) suggested two cognitive explanations of self-serving biases which do not depend on the assumption that people are driven in some way to arrive at distorted attributions of causality: 1. Expectations of success: People are typically more familiar with success than with failure, and hence come to expect their actions to result in positive rather than negative outcomes. Self-serving biases are a consequence of the tendency to interpret confirmations of expectation in terms of internal causes and disconfirmations of expectation in terms of external, interfering factors. 2. Co variation of success with personal effort: Because people usually try harder when they fail, a pattern of increasing success covaries more with personal effort than a pattern of constant failure. Thus, when performance improves this is seen as a consequence of trying harder but when performance remains poor it seems unresponsive to personal strivings. Ross (1977) summarized these two points as follows: "Success ... is likely to be anticipated and congruent with the actor's past experience, whereas failure may be unanticipated and unusual. Similarly, successful outcomes are intended and are the object of plans and actions by the actor, whereas failures are unintended events which occur in spite of the actor's plans and efforts". ...read more.

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