Ultimate attribution error
The "ultimate attribution error" is a group level attribution error that offers an explanation for how one person views different causes of negative and positive behavior in ingroup and outgroup members.
The ultimate attribution error arises as a way to explain an outgroup’s negative behaviour as flaws in their personality, and to explain an outgroup's positive behaviour as a result of chance or circumstance. It is also the belief that positive acts performed by ingroup members are as a result of their personality, whereas if an ingroup member behaves negatively (this is believed to be rare), it is a result of situational factors.
Pettigrew's ultimate attribution error differs from the fundamental attribution error. While similar, the ultimate attribution error describes how prejudiced individuals rationalize their intergroup perceptions. The fundamental attribution error describes an overemphasis of internal explanations for behaviors in others, without taking into account the external factors that may influence behavior.
The ultimate attribution error was first established by Thomas F. Pettigrew, in his 1979 publication, The Ultimate Attribution Error: Extending Allport’s Cognitive Analysis of Prejudice. As the title suggests, the ultimate attribution error is a theoretical extension of Gordon Allport's work in attribution theory.
The ultimate attribution error is a systematic patterning of intergroup misattributions shaped in part by one’s prejudices. Prejudiced individuals are more likely to attribute dispositional, internal, (possibly genetically determined), causes to an outgroup member’s negative behaviors. These same prejudiced individuals are more likely to attribute (a) "exceptional case", (b) fluke or special advantage, (c) highly motivated, or (d) situational context causes for their positive behaviors. Through these explanations, a prejudiced individual may disassociate a positive behavior from an outgroup individual and their group. In comparison, one is more likely to attribute negative ingroup behavior to external causes and positive ingroup behaviors to dispositional causes.
In general, anyone may commit the ultimate attribution error, however, it is most likely to happen to individuals who possess negative prejudices and stereotypes toward an outgroup. This attribution is considered a root of prejudice as people who commit this attribution will usually see members of other races, religions, cultures, or even social class an as dispositionally inferior or flawed. While people from their own racial, cultural, or religious ingroup, upon committing the same negative behaviors, are good people who are dealing with specific situations the best they can. This reduces the acceptance of outgroup members as any positive behavior are downplayed while negative behaviors are highlighted.
Explaining away positive behavior of outgroup members
The attribution of outgroup member’s positive behavior is classically categorized into four categories created at the intersection of perceived degree of controllability of act (low, high), and perceived locus of control of act (internal, external). Please refer to image for visual representation of the four categories.
- The Exceptional Case
The exceptional case explanation is created at the intersection of low controllability of act and internal locus of control. Using this mode of reasoning, an individual excludes this particular outgroup member from their group. That is, they individuate the outgroup member, and disassociate this particular outgroup member from that group.
This view allows for the maintenance of prejudiced beliefs through categorizing that exceptional case as “good” unlike all the other “bad” members of their group.
- Luck and Special Advantage
The luck or special advantage explanation is created at the intersection of low-perceived controllability of act and external locus of control. This reasoning suggest that the outgroup member’s positive behavior is not rooted in their skill, ability, or hard work. Rather, their positive outcome is beyond their immediate control and therefore of little significance. Special advantage extends this by suggesting that the their group affiliation offers some advantage and therefore the positive outcome is of little significance.
- Highly Motivated
The highly motivated explanation is created at the intersection of high-perceived controllability of act and internal locus of control. Similar to the exceptional case, the highly motivated explanation individuates the outgroup member and dissociates them from their group. The outgroup member’s positive behavior is rooted in their drive to be seen as anti-stereotypic, an external force. Thus, they are not seen as intrinsically exceptional, but externally motivated, and, without this motivation, they would not be able to achieve success. That is, an outgroup member’s positive behavior is evidence of their response to external pressures of their interaction with ingroup other. Therefore, without an external source of motivation, the outgroup member is just like any other low achieving, negative behavior outgroup member.
Similar to the exceptional case, this explanation allows for the maintenance of prejudiced beliefs. That is, the highly motivated outgroup member is seen as hard working, so there must be something wrong with the rest of them.
The situational explanation is created at the intersection of high-perceived controllability of act and external control of the act. An outgroup member’s positive outcome is not rooted in their effort or ability, but a result of external situational factors that are, at least in some part, influenced by others. Therefore their positive behavior is not their own, and is of little consequence.
The ultimate attribution error is evidenced in a number of studies:
• Taylor and Jaggi (1974) found results supporting the ultimate attribution error in the causal attributions between religious ingroup and outgroup members.
In a 2x2 between-group design Hindi or Muslim participants were asked to make casual attributions for undesirable acts performed by Hindis or Muslim. Hindis attributed external causes to undesirable acts committed by fellow Hindis, but an internal cause for undesirable acts committed by Muslims. Conversely, Muslims attributed external causes to undesirable acts committed by fellow Muslims, but an internal cause for undesirable acts committed by Hindis. While Pettigrew and many other to follow would focus on race, this study offered clear insight that similar mechanisms are play in religious groups.
• Prior to Pettigrew’s formalization of the ultimate attribution error, Birt Duncan found that White participants viewed Black individuals as more violent that White individuals in an “ambiguous shove” situation, where a Black or White person accidentally shoves a White person.
In a 2x2 between-group design, White participants viewed a Black or White individual (Harm-doer) ambiguously shoving a Black or White individual (victim) . In general, when a Black harm-doers shoved another person, Black or White, their behavior was attributed their high dispositional levels of violence (internal) than White harm-doers. In general, when a White harm-doer shoved another person, Black or White, their behavior was attributed to external constraints. The results suggest that these White students possess a lower threshold for labeling a behavior violent when the harm-doer is Black (outgroup) than when the harm-doer is White (ingroup).
• Morris and Peng (1994) find support for Pettigrew’s ultimate attribution error in a comparison of casual attributions made by ingroup and outgroup members about a murder carried out by an ingroup or outgroup assailant.
In a 2x2 between-group design, American or Chinese participants learned about a recent murder committed by an American or Chinese individual. They received the media coverage for the murder and were asked to weight the dispositional and situational explanations for the cause of the number. As the ultimate attribution error predicts, American participants were biased toward dispositional explanations for the Chinese murder suspect, and biased toward situational explanations for the American murder suspect. In addition, the Chinese participants were attributed dispositional causes for the American murder suspect and situational causes for the Chinese murder suspect.
Together, these three studies establish the foundation and support the general prediction of the ultimate attribution error, negative behaviors by outgroup members are more likely to be attributed to internal causes than negative behaviors of ingroup members. Many other studies have been published using the ultimate attribution error as a theoretical foundation.
• Supporting this general statement, a meta-analysis of 19 ultimate attribution error studies was published in 1990. His meta-analysis offers limited support for Pettigrew’s ultimate attribution error. Specifically, he finds support for three aspects of the ultimate attribution error:
- more internal attribution for positive acts, and less internal attribution for negative acts, by ingroup than outgroup members;
- more attribution of outgroup member’s failure to lack of ability, and more explaining away of outgroup members' success;
- a preference for ingroup serving versus outgroup-serving attributions for group differences.
- Pettigrew, T. F (1979). "The ultimate attribution error: Extending Allport's cognitive analysis of prejudice". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 5 (4): 461–476.
- Hewstone, M (1989). Causal attribution: From cognitive processes to collective beliefs. Basil: Blackwell.
- Taylor, D. M; Jaggi (1974). "Ethnocentrism and Causal attribution in a South Indian Context". Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 5: 162–171.
- Duncan, B. L (1976). "Differential social perception and attribution if intergroup violence: Testing the lower limits of stereotyping of Blacks". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34 (4): 75–93. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1680.
- Morris, M.W; Peng (1994). "Culture and cause: American and Chinese attributions for social and physical events". Journal of Personality and Social psychology 67 (6): 949.
- Hewstone, M (1990). "The 'ultimate attribution error'? A review of the literature on intergroup causal attribution". European Journal of Social Psychology 20: 311–335.