From Acts to Dispositions: Inferring the Causes of Behavior
- People constantly search for the causes of events, and their attributions affect their behavior. We all have different explanatory styles, which tend to be stable over time. Some people have a pessimistic style, attributing good outcomes to external, unstable, and local causes and bad outcomes to internal, stable, and global causes. This style is associated with poor health, poor performance, and depression.
The Processes of Causal Attribution
- We all use the covariation principle to make attributions. When we know that a person engages in a given behavior across many situations and that other people tend not to engage in the behavior, we are likely to attribute the behavior to the person. When we know that the person engages in the behavior only in a particular situation and that most people in that situation also engage in the behavior, we tend to attribute the behavior to the situation.
- Counterfactual thoughts can powerfully affect attribution. People often perform mental simulations, adding or subtracting elements about the person or the situation and using these simulations to guide their attributions. Joy or pain in response to an event is amplified when it is easy to see how things might have turned out differently.
- Our ability to imagine what others would likely do in a given situation allows people to make use of the discounting and augmentation principles. If situational constraints could plausibly have caused an observed behavior, we discount the role of the person’s dispositions. If strong forces were present that would typically inhibit the behavior, we assume that the actor’s dispositions were particularly powerful.
Errors and Biases in Attribution
- People’s attributions are not always fully rational. We sometimes attribute events to causes that flatter us beyond what the evidence calls for—exhibiting the self-serving attributional bias.
- The fundamental attribution error is the tendency to attribute behavior to real or imagined dispositions of the person and to neglect influential aspects of the situation confronting the person. Even when it ought to be obvious that the situation is a powerful influence on behavior, we often attribute behavior to presumed traits, abilities, and motivations.
- One of the reasons we make such erroneous attributions is due to the just world hypothesis. We like to think that people get what they deserve and that bad outcomes are brought about by bad or incompetent people.
- Another reason for the fundamental attribution error is that people and their behavior tend to be more salient than situations.
- A final reason for the fundamental attribution error is that attribution appears to be a two-step process. We typically characterize people immediately and automatically in terms consistent with their behavior, and only later do we adjust this initial characterization to take account of the impact of prevailing situational forces.
- There are actor-observer differences in attributions. In general, actors tend to attribute their behavior much more to situations than do observers, partly because actors can usually see the situations they confront better than observers can.
Culture and Causal Attribution
- There are marked cultural differences in susceptibility to the fundamental attribution error. Interdependent -peoples are less likely to make the error than independent peoples, in part because their tendency to pay attention to context encourages them to look to the situation confronting the actor.
- When bicultural people are primed to think about one culture or the other, they make causal attributions consistent with the culture that is primed.
- Lower-class individuals, like people from interdependent cultures, tend to make more situational attributions compared with middle-class and upper-class individuals.
Beyond the Internal/External Dimension
- Much of the time, people are concerned with more than whether to attribute behavior to the situation versus the person. We are interested in discerning the intentions and reasons that underlie a person’s behavior.