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In psychology, an attribution bias or attributional bias is a cognitive bias that affects the way we determine who or what was responsible for an event or action (attribution). It is a cognitive set that may interfere with social interaction.
These discrepancies are often caused by asymmetries in availability (frequently called "salience" in this context); namely, the frequency with which one considers possibilities is directly related to the availability of relevant examples that one can retrieve. Naturally, the examples readily available to an individual vary depending on the individual’s personal experiences. For instance, if one were to offer an opinion on the rate of divorce, one might use as a point of reference the divorces that have occurred among friends and acquaintances; yet this point of reference no doubt differs from another individual who has different acquaintances. As a result, our judgments of attribution are often distorted along those lines.
Effects of Attribution Bias
Through the making of causal attributions of behavior, individuals can gain a sense of cognitive control and create order for themselves in an otherwise chaotic environment. At its core, attributions involve inference-making and, thus, a departure from information that is directly supplied to the observer. Inferences naturally lead to a change in behavior as individuals act differently based on what they attribute to another actor and based on the expectations their attributions have led them to form. However, because humans are not perfect scientists, these attributions often have errors. The two most frequent errors associated with attribution bias is wrongly placed blame, particularly consequential in courtroom scenarios, and blinding observers to other possible causes of behavior, sometimes referred to as causal oversimplification.
Psychology owes much of the development of attribution theory to the work of Fritz Heider, an Austrian psychologist who, before coming to the United States in 1930, worked largely in fields associated with the Gestalt school of psychology. Gestalt psychology assumes a holistic approach to the study of the brain, suggesting that science should view the brain and the complexity of its interactions in its entirety and not reduce it to its different components. With such a mindset, Heider proposed that human motivation derives from two main drives: A desire to have control of their environment and an inherent need to form a coherent understanding of the chaotic world they inhabit. Heider suggested that, as a means of achieving these two needs, humans tend to act as their own scientists. Similar to the Personal Construct Theory of George Kelly, humans form hypotheses about their behavior and the behavior of those around them, and then set out to test their hypotheses with logic and science.
When testing hypotheses about behavior, individuals frequently assign attributes based on a perceived locus of causality. An internal attribution views the underlying cause of behavior as being within the person; for example, personality or ability determines behavior. Conversely, an external attribution assigns behaviors to a cause outside of the person, typically either to the actions of another or to the context of the individual. Internal attributions, because they most directly concern the personality and internal characteristics of an individual, are often termed dispositional attribution. Situational attributions refer to external attributions that take the context and individual situation into account when interpreting the motivations behind behavior.
Influence on Social Behaviors
The locus of causality plays a fundamental role when using attribution theory to understand group interactions within the realm of social psychology. The forming of groups and categorization of ingroups and outgroups, or dominant and subordinate groups, is a natural part of human life in society, based upon years of history, traditions, stereotypes, and attitudes. Intergroup bias tends to favor the ingroup, or the social group with which an individual primarily identifies. Interestingly in regards to intergroup bias, when talking about ingroups, positive behaviors are often described as an internal attribute while negative behaviors are assigned an external locus of causality. As would then be expected, when talking about outgroups, the positive behaviors are given an external attribution while the negative behaviors are assigned internal attribution, thus enhancing a positive perception of the ingroup and perpetuating that dominant role that its members hold over the members of the outgroup.
Culture influences the types of attributions that are commonly made by individuals. Cultures that tend towards individualism, often the Western-nations, place significantly more emphasis on the role of the individual and thus make dispositional attributions more frequently. Non-Western nations, which are generally more collectivist in nature, often take the situation or context into account and tend more towards situational attributions. Caution must be taken against over-generalizing, there are many exceptions within each culture.
Types of Attributional Biases
- Fundamental attribution error - A person demonstrates the fundamental attribution bias when they are more likely to credit another’s behavior for their internal characteristics, while often failing to properly consider situational factors.
- Actor-observer bias - Another widely studied attribution bias that affects interpersonal relations and the interpretation of the behavior of others is the actor-observer bias. People tend to attribute the cause of the behavior of others to their dispositional characteristics, and attribute their own actions to external situations. However, this bias can be altered when the actor wishes to believe they have control over their environment and the ability to exact changes in their world. These people, with a more internal locus of control, may be more likely to take responsibility for their actions rather than blaming situational factors. 
- Group-serving bias - Individuals that are brought together into groups to work toward a common goal can exhibit a group-serving bias when analyzing positive and negative events. Like self-serving bias, group members are inclined to cite characteristics of their co-members as the cause of success, and environmental factors as the cause of a failure. In examination of the events of opposing groups, these traits are reversed.
- Self-serving bias - The self-serving bias is the tendency to attribute one’s own internal characteristics as the cause of a success, while identifying external, uncontrollable matters as the reason for their failures. Concurrently, when perceiving others through a self-serving bias, a person is more likely to blame their personal characteristics as the source of an issue.
Additional Types of Biases
- Defensive attribution hypothesis
- Egocentric bias
- False consensus effect
- Hedonistic relevance
- Negativity effect
- Positivity effect
- Publication bias
- Trait ascription bias
There is much inconsistency in the claims made by scientists and researchers that attempt to prove or disprove attribution theories and the concept of attributional biases. The theory was formed as a comprehensive explanation of the way people interpret the basis of behaviors in human interactions. However, there have been studies that indicate cultural differences in the attribution biases between people of Eastern and Western societies. Also, some scientists believe that attributional biases are only exhibited in certain contexts of interaction where possible outcomes or expectations make the forming of attributions necessary. These criticisms of the attribution model reveal that the theory may not be a general, universal principle.
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