Fundamental attribution error
In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error, also known as the correspondence bias or attribution effect, is the claim that in contrast to interpretations of their own behavior, people place undue emphasis on internal characteristics of the agent (character or intention), rather than external factors, in explaining other people's behavior. The effect's existence has been challenged by one peer-reviewed article.
Origin of the term and example
The phrase was coined by Lee Ross some years after a classic experiment by Edward E. Jones and Victor Harris (1967). Ross argued in a popular paper that the fundamental attribution error forms the conceptual bedrock for the field of social psychology. Jones wrote that he found Ross' phrase "overly provocative and somewhat misleading", and also joked: "Furthermore, I'm angry that I didn't think of it first." Some psychologists, including Daniel Gilbert, have used the phrase "correspondence bias" for the fundamental attribution error. Other psychologists have argued that the fundamental attribution error and correspondence bias are related but independent phenomena, with the former being a common explanation for the latter.
As a simple example of the behavior attribution error theory seeks to explain, consider the situation where Alice, a driver, is about to pass through an intersection. Her light turns green and she begins to accelerate, but Bob drives through the red light, crossing in front of her. Consider too the situation where Alice makes the same mistake, driving through a red light. If the fundamental attribution error holds, she would consider Bob to be unskilled or reckless rather than influenced by situational causes (as would be the case were he rushing a patient to the hospital). By contrast, fundamental attribution error predicts that Alice will view her own behavior as the result of situational causes and not as a reflection of her internal characteristics. The validity of several theories depend on whether this pattern, in fact, occurs.
Classic demonstration study: Jones and Harris (1967)
Jones and Harris hypothesized, based on the correspondent inference theory, that people would attribute apparently freely-chosen behaviors to disposition, and apparently chance-directed behaviors to situation. The hypothesis was confounded by the fundamental attribution error.
Subjects read essays for and against Fidel Castro, and were asked to rate the pro-Castro attitudes of the writers. When the subjects believed that the writers freely chose positions for or against Castro, they naturally rated the people who spoke in favor of Castro as having a more positive attitude towards Castro. However, contradicting Jones and Harris' initial hypothesis, when the subjects were told that the writer's positions were determined by a coin toss, they still rated writers who spoke in favor of Castro as having, on average, a more positive attitude towards Castro than those who spoke against him. In other words, the subjects were unable to properly see the influence of the situational constraints placed upon the writers; they could not refrain from attributing sincere belief to the writers. Therefore, the experimental group provided more internal attributions towards the writer.
Tests of the error
The hypothesis that people tend to over-attribute behavior to traits, or at least do so for the behavior of others has been contested. For instance Epstein and Teraspulsky  tested whether subjects over- under- or correctly estimate the empirical correlation among behaviors (these behavioral consistencies are what traits describe). They found that estimates of correlations among behaviors correlated strongly with empirically observed correlations among these behaviors. Subjects were sensitive to even very small correlations, and their confidence in the association tracked how far they were discrepant (i.e., if they knew when they did not know), and was higher for the strongest relations. Subjects also showed awareness of the effect of aggregation over occasions and used reasonable strategies to arrive at decisions. Epstein concluded that “Far from being inveterate trait believers, as has been previously suggested, Ss' intuitions paralleled psychometric principles in several important respects when assessing relations between real-life behaviors.” 
While described as "robust, firmly established, and pervasive", meta-analysis of the 173 qualified studies of the actor-observer asymmetry available by 2005 established, surprisingly, an effect size of near zero. These analyses allowed a systematic review of where, if at all, the effect holds. These analyses showed that the asymmetry was found only when 1. the other person was portrayed as being very unusual, 2. when hypothetical (rather than real) events were explained, 3. when people were intimate (knew each other well), or 4. when researcher-degrees of freedom were high. It appeared that in these circumstances, two asymmetries were observed: negative events were asymmetrically attributed to traits in others, but the reverse held for positive events, supporting a self-serving bias rather than an actor–observer asymmetry.
Several theories predict the fundamental attribution error, and thus both compete to explain it, and can be falsified if it does not occur. Leading examples include:
- Just-world phenomenon. The belief that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get, the concept of which was first theorized by Melvin J. Lerner (1977). Attributing failures to dispositional causes rather than situational causes—which are unchangeable and uncontrollable—satisfies our need to believe that the world is fair and that we have control over our lives. We are motivated to see a just world because this reduces our perceived threats, gives us a sense of security, helps us find meaning in difficult and unsettling circumstances, and benefits us psychologically. Unfortunately, the just-world hypothesis also results in a tendency for people to blame and disparage victims of an accident or a tragedy, such as rape and domestic abuse, to reassure themselves of their insusceptibility to such events. People may even blame the victim's faults in a "past life" to pursue justification for their bad outcome.[page needed]
- Salience of the actor. We tend to attribute an observed effect to potential causes that capture our attention. When we observe other people, the person is the primary reference point while the situation is overlooked as if it is nothing but mere background. As such, attributions for others' behavior are more likely to focus on the person we see, not the situational forces acting upon that person that we may not be aware of. (When we observe ourselves, we are more aware of the forces acting upon us. Such a differential inward versus outward orientation accounts for the actor–observer bias.)
- Lack of effortful adjustment. Sometimes, even though we are aware that the person's behavior is constrained by situational factors, we still commit the fundamental attribution error. This is because we do not take into account behavioral and situational information simultaneously to characterize the dispositions of the actor. Initially, we use the observed behavior to characterize the person by automaticity. We need to make deliberate and conscious effort to adjust our inference by considering the situational constraints. Therefore, when situational information is not sufficiently taken into account for adjustment, the uncorrected dispositional inference creates the fundamental attribution error. This would also explain why people commit the fundamental attribution error to a greater degree when they're under cognitive load; i.e. when they have less motivation or energy for processing the situational information.
- Culture. It has been suggested cultural differences occur in attribution error: people from individualistic (Western) cultures are reportedly more prone to the error while people from collectivistic cultures are less prone. Based on cartoon-figure presentations to Japanese and American subjects, it has been suggested that collectivist subjects may be more influenced by information from context (for instance being influenced more by surrounding faces in judging facial expressions ). Alternatively, individualist subjects may favor processing of focal objects, rather than contexts. Others suggest Western individualism is associated with viewing both oneself and others as independent agents, therefore focussing more on individuals rather than contextual details.
Versus correspondence bias
The fundamental attribution error is commonly used interchangeably with "correspondence bias" (sometimes called "correspondence inference", although this phrase refers to a judgment which does not necessarily constitute a bias, which arises when the inference drawn is incorrect, e.g. dispositional inference when the actual cause is situational). However, there has been debate about whether the two terms should be distinguished from each other. Three main differences between these two judgmental processes have been argued:
- They seem to be elicited under different circumstances, as both correspondent dispositional inferences and situational inferences can be elicited spontaneously. Attributional processing, however, seems to only occur when the event is unexpected or conflicting with prior expectations. This notion is supported by a study conducted by Semin and Marsman (1994), which found that different types of verbs invited different inferences and attributions. Correspondence inferences were invited to a greater degree by interpretative action verbs (such as "to help") than state action or state verbs, thus suggesting that the two are produced under different circumstances.
- Correspondence inferences and causal attributions also differ in automaticity. Inferences can occur spontaneously if the behavior implies a situational or dispositional inference, while causal attributions occur much more slowly (e.g. Smith & Miller, 1983).
- It has also been suggested that correspondence inferences and causal attributions are elicited by different mechanisms. It is generally agreed that correspondence inferences are formed by going through several stages. Firstly, the person must interpret the behavior, and then, if there is enough information to do so, add situational information and revise their inference. They may then further adjust their inferences by taking into account dispositional information as well. Causal attributions however seem to be formed either by processing visual information using perceptual mechanisms, or by activating knowledge structures (e.g. schemas) or by systematic data analysis and processing. Hence, due to the difference in theoretical structures, correspondence inferences are more strongly related to behavioral interpretation than causal attributions.
Based on the preceding differences between causal attribution and correspondence inference, some researchers argue that the fundamental attribution error should be considered as the tendency to make dispositional rather than situational explanations for behavior, whereas the correspondence bias should be considered as the tendency to draw correspondent dispositional inferences from behavior. With such distinct definitions between the two, some cross-cultural studies also found that cultural differences of correspondence bias are not equivalent to those of fundamental attribution error. While the latter has been found to be more prevalent in individualistic cultures than collectivistic cultures, correspondence bias occurs across cultures, suggesting differences between the two phrases.
- Attribution (psychology)
- Base rate fallacy
- Cognitive miser
- Dispositional attribution
- Explanatory style
- Self-serving bias
- Malle, Bertram F. (2006). "The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis.". Psychological Bulletin. 132 (6): 895–919. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.895. PMID 17073526.
- Ross, L. (1977). "The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process". In Berkowitz, L. Advances in experimental social psychology. 10. New York: Academic Press. pp. 173–220. ISBN 0-12-015210-X.
- Jones, E. E.; Harris, V. A. (1967). "The attribution of attitudes". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 3 (1): 1–24. doi:10.1016/0022-1031(67)90034-0.
- Gilbert, D. T. (1998). "Speeding with Ned: A personal view of the correspondence bias" (PDF). In Darley, J. M.; Cooper, J. Attribution and social interaction: The legacy of E. E. Jones. Washington, DC: APA Press.
- Gawronski, Bertram (2004). "Theory-based bias correction in dispositional inference: The fundamental attribution error is dead, long live the correspondence bias" (PDF). European Review of Social Psychology. 15 (1): 183–217. doi:10.1080/10463280440000026.
- Epstein, Seymour; Teraspulsky, Laurie. "Perception of cross-situational consistency.". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 50 (6): 1152–1160. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1992.
- Lerner, M. J.; Miller, D. T. (1977). "Just-world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead". Psychological Bulletin. 85 (5): 1030–1051. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.85.5.1030.
- Burger, J. M. (1981). "Motivational biases in the attribution of responsibility for an accident: A meta-analysis of the defensive-attribution hypothesis". Psychological Bulletin. 90 (3): 496–512. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.90.3.496.
- Walster, E (1966). "Assignment of responsibility for an accident". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 3 (1): 73–79. doi:10.1037/h0022733. PMID 5902079.
- Gilbert, D. T.; Malone, P. S. (1995). "The correspondence bias" (PDF). Psychological Bulletin. 117 (1): 21–38. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.117.1.21. PMID 7870861.
- Abrams, D.; Viki, G. T.; Masser, B.; Bohner, G. (2003). "Perceptions of stranger and acquaintance rape: The role of benevolent and hostile sexism in victim blame and rape proclivity". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84 (1): 111–125. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52. PMID 12518974.
- Bell, S. T.; Kuriloff, P. J.; Lottes, I. (1994). "Understanding attributions of blame in stranger-rape and date-rape situations: An examinations of gender, race, identification, and students' social perceptions of rape victims". Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 24 (19): 1719–1734. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1994.tb01571.x.
- Summers, G.; Feldman, N. S. (1984). "Blaming the victim versus blaming the perpetrator: An attributional analysis of spouse abuse". Journal of Applied Social and Clinical Psychology. 2 (4): 339–347. doi:10.1521/jscp.19184.108.40.2069.
- Woogler, R. J. (1988). Other lives, other selves: A Jungian psychotherapist discovers past lives. New York, Bantam.
- Lassiter, F. D.; Geers, A. L.; Munhall, P. J.; Ploutz-Snyder, R. J.; Breitenbecher, D. L. (2002). "Illusory causation: Why it occurs". Psychological Science. 13 (4): 299–305. doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2002..x. PMID 12137131.
- Robinson, J.; McArthur, L. Z. (1982). "Impact of salient vocal qualities on causal attribution for a speaker's behavior". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 43 (2): 236–247. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.11.
- Smith, E. R.; Miller, F. D. (1979). "Salience and the cognitive appraisal in emotion". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 48 (4): 813–838. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1683. PMID 3886875.
- Storms, M. D. (1973). "Videotape and the attribution process: Reversing actors' and observers' points of view". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 27 (2): 165–175. doi:10.1037/h0034782. PMID 4723963.
- Gilbert, D. T. (2002). Inferential correction. In T. Gilovich, D. W. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment. Cambridge University Press.
- Carlston, D. E.; Skowronski, J. J. (1994). "Savings in the relearning of trait information as evidence for spontaneous inference generation". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 66 (5): 840–880. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1240.
- Moskowitz, G. B. (1993). "Individual differences in social categorization: The influence of personal need for structure on spontaneous trait inferences". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 65: 132–142. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199.
- Newman, L. S. (1993). "How individuals interpret behavior: Idiocentrism and spontaneous trait inference". Social Cognition. 11 (2): 243–269. doi:10.1521/soco.19188.8.131.52.
- Uleman, J. S. (1987). "Consciousness and control: The case of spontaneous trait inferences.". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 13 (3): 337–354. doi:10.1177/0146167287133004.
- Winter, L.; Uleman, J. S. (1984). "When are social judgements made? Evidence for the spontaneousness of trait inferences". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 47 (2): 237–252. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206. PMID 6481615.
- Gilbert, D. T. (1989). Thinking lightly about others: Automatic components of the social inference process. In J. S. Uleman & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), Unintended thought (pp. 189–211). New York, Guilford Press.
- Lagdridge, Darren; Trevor Butt (September 2004). "The fundamental attribution error: A phenomenological critique". British Journal of Social Psychology. 43 (3): 357–369. doi:10.1348/0144666042037962.
- Miller, J. G. (1984). "Culture and the development of everyday social explanation". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 46 (5): 961–978. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.111. PMID 6737211.
- Masuda, T.; Ellsworth, P. C.; Mesquita, B.; Leu, J.; Tanida, S.; van de Veerdonk, E. (2008). "Placing the face in context: Cultural differences in the perception of facial emotion" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 94 (3): 365–381. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1685. PMID 18284287.
- Masuda, T.; Nisbett, R. E. (2001). "Attending holistically vs. analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 81 (5): 922–934. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1242. PMID 11708567.
- Markus, H. R.; Kitayama, S. (1991). "Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation". Psychological Review. 98 (2): 224–253. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.98.2.224.
- Hamilton, D. L. (1988). Causal attributions viewed from an information-processing perspective. In D. Bar-Tal & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.) The social psychology of knowledge. (Pp. 369-385.) Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press.
- Semin, G. R.; Marsman, J. G. (1994). "Multiple inference-inviting properties" of interpersonal verbs: Event instigation, dispositional inference and implicit causality". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 67 (5): 836–849. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1996.
- Smith, E. R.; Miller, F. D. (1983). "Mediation among attributional inferences and comprehension processes: Initial findings and a general method". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 44 (3): 492–505. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.522.
- Krull, D. S.; Dill, J. C. (1996). "Thinking first and responding fast: Flexibility in social inference processes". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 22 (9): 949–959. doi:10.1177/0146167296229008.
- Anderson, C. A., Krull, D. S., & Weiner, B. (1996). Explanations: Processes and consequences. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 221-296). New York, Guilford.
- Hamilton, D. L. (1998). Dispositional and attributional inferences in person perception. In J. M. Darley & J. Cooper (Eds.), Attribution and social interaction (pp. 99-114). Washington, DC, American Psychological Association.
- Krull, Douglas S. (2001). "On partitioning the fundamental attribution error: Dispositionalism and the correspondence bias". In Moskowitz, Gordon B. Cognitive Social Psychology: The Princeton Symposium on the Legacy and Future of Social Cognition. Mahwah, New Jersey, USA: Psychology Press. pp. 211–227. ISBN 1135664250.
- Masuda, T., & Kitayama, S. (1996). Culture-specificity of correspondence bias: Dispositional inference in Japan. Paper presented at the 13th Congress of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
- Choi, I.; Nisbett, R. E. (1998). "Situational salience and cultural differences in the correspondence bias and actor-observer bias". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 24 (9): 949–960. doi:10.1177/0146167298249003.
- Krull, D. S.; Loy, M. H.; Lin, J.; Wang, C. F.; Chen, S.; Zhao, X. (1999). "The fundamental attribution error: Correspondence bias in individualist and collectivist cultures". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 25 (10): 1208–1219. doi:10.1177/0146167299258003.
- Heider, Fritz. (1958). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York, John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-36833-4.
- Gleitman, H., Fridlund, A., & Reisberg D. (1999). Psychology webBOOK: Psychology Fifth Edition / Basic Psychology Fifth Edition. W. W. Norton and Company. Accessed online 18 April 2006 .