Fundamental Attribution Error

“The general tendency to over-estimate the importance of person/dispositional factors relative to situational/environmental factors as causes of behaviour”

(Ross 1977)

Why would we do this?

  • makes others’ behaviour seem more predictable
  • enhances our sense of control over our environment.
  • Best viewed as an attributional bias rather than an attribution error
  • May be more common in adults from Western societies
  • may be most pronounced when constrained to attribute behaviour to a single cause.

FAE and Just World Hypothesis

Lerner (1965) “I am a just person living in a just world, a world where people get what they deserve.” When bad things happen to a person it must because they are a bad person, i.e. they brought it on themselves; this way of thinking it more likely that we will attribute events to aspects of a person’s personality/disposition than the situation.

Be a thinker! See my Smart board slide about Karen, Sharon and the missing money.

Believing that you live in a just world again enhances sense of personal control; that simply by being good you can ensure that good things happen to you.

Studies on the FAE

In 2 or 3s you will read about one of the studies listed below, you must draw a picture/diagram to illustrate what happened so that you can explain it the others. You are allowed no more than 10 words on the picture as labels – choose carefully; the rest you will have to explain orally.

  • Jones and Harris (1967) – In Sabini, p191
  • Choi and Nisbett (1998) – in Eysenck, p418
  • Fein et al (1990) – in Eysenck, p418 and Sabini, p194
  • Ross et al (1977) – in Sabini, p 192

Base-rate data and diagnostic data

Kahneman and Tversky (1972):

  • Pps told that 30 engineers and 70 lawyers had been given personality tests and that brief summaries had been written about them based on their test results.
  • They were told that all the summaries had been placed into a box and therefore the chances of pulling out a summary that was about a lawyer 7 to 3 or 70%.
  • Descriptions were pulled out and the Pps had to say whether they thought they were hearing a description of a lawyer or an engineer
  • Sometimes they would hear a description that sounded a lot like a stereotypical engineer thus the Pps were faced with conflicting information; the description is like an engineer but the chances are statistically that it is a lawyer
  • Findings: Pps tended to ignore their statistical knowledge (base rate information) and focus solely on the diagnostic information (the summary description) and this happened regardless of the ratio of engineers to lawyers!

There is a parallel here with the Jones and Harris study where even when the Pps knew that the chances of a student essay writer being Anti-Castro were far higher than pro-Castro, if they read a pro-Castro essay they were more likely to make a dispositional attribution and ignore background data about political views on campus.

Training people to take account of base-rate data

It does seem to be possible to reduce FAE and make people more likely to make logical attributions which take full account of all available information…

Manis et al (1980) exploited the idea that people seem more compelled to pay attention to information provided about individuals than groups; they made people guess the political persuasion of students in a yearbook based on their photos and fed back to them each time about whether they were correct or not. Photo-by-photo Pps built up knowledge about which party the majority of students supported and towards the end their guesses tended to reflect more about the statistical norms than evidence from the photos alone.

Zukier and Pepitone (1984) replicated the engineer and lawyer task and told one group to make judgement like a scientist would and the other to make judgement like a clinical psychologist would. The first group seemed to make better use of base rate information than the second; so it seems we do use statistical knowledge effectively were prompted to do so but that this does not necessarily come readily, at least to Western participants.

Is FAE apparent in all cultures?

FAE may be specific to individualist cultures (predominantly western) (Fiske, 1998). This was noted in your investigation of the study by Choi and Nisbett, above. Behaviour more likely to be attributed to situational factors in collectivist cultures; they don’t expect people to be consistent in their actions; different behaviours are required for differing situations. When murders are reported in western newspapers they tend to focus on dispositional causes while Chinese papers report same crimes but appeal to situational causes (Morris and Peng 1994). All cultures may search for invariant dispositions but they may be derived from individual actors in some cultures and collective actors in other cultures.

fae and just world.notebook (if this won’t open use drive)

A smartbook presentation on FAE and SSB FAE.notebook (may need to open on drive)