Even the most logical of us are influenced by attribution bias. Here are a few of the ways it can distort your thinking – even if you don’t realise it yourself!
But first, what exactly is attribution bias?
While we might all like to believe that we have a logical train of thought. However, the sad fact is that we are constantly under the influence of many cognitive biases. These will act in the background to distort our thinking, influence our beliefs, and sway the decisions and judgments we make each and every day.
In psychology, an attribution bias is a cognitive bias that refers to a process when people evaluate their own and/or other people’s behaviours. However, the very fact that they are simply “attributions” means that they do not always accurately reflect reality. Rather, the human brain acts as an objective perceiver. This means they are more open to errors, which lead to biased interpretations of the social world.
Attribution bias is present in everyday life and first became the subject of study in the 1950s and 60s. Psychologists such as Fritz Heider studied attribution theory, but his work was also followed up by others, including Harold Kelley and Ed Jones. Both of these psychologists expanded Heider’s work, identifying conditions where people are more or less likely to make different types of attributions.
For example, if you’re driving a car along the road and another driver cuts you up, we blame the driver of the other car. This is an attribution bias which prevents us from looking at other circumstances. What about the situation? Ask yourself instead, “Maybe they were in a rush and didn’t notice me“.
How does attribution bias explain our behaviour?
Since the early work, researchers have continued to examine how and why people exhibit attribution bias interpretations of social information. From this extended research, further types of attribution bias, which examine and affect emotions and behaviour, have come to light.
Heider noted that people tend to make distinctions between behaviours caused by personal disposition versus environmental or situational conditions. He also predicted that people are more likely to explain others’ behaviour in terms of dispositional factors (i.e. caused by a given person’s personality) while ignoring the surrounding situational demands.
Harold Kelley, a social psychologist, expanded on this. He proposed people have access to information from many observations, across different situations, and at many time points. Therefore, people can observe the way behaviour varies under these different conditions. He proposed three factors that influence the way we explain behaviour:
The extent to which other people behave in the same way. There is a high consensus when most people behave consistent with a given action/actor. A low consensus is when not many people behave in this way.
The extent to which a person usually behaves in a given way. There is high consistency when a person almost always behaves in a specific way. Low consistency is when a person almost never behaves like this.
The extent to which an actor’s behaviour in one situation is different from his/her behaviour in other situations. There is high distinctiveness when an actor does not behave this way in most situations. Low distinctiveness is when an actor usually behaves in a particular way in most situations.
Kelley proposed that people are more likely to make dispositional attributions when consensus is low (most other people don’t behave in the same way), consistency is high (a person behaves this way across most situations), and distinctiveness is low (a person’s behaviour is not unique to this situation).
Alternatively, situational attributions are more likely reached when consensus is high, consistency is low, and distinctiveness is high. His research helped to reveal the specific mechanisms underlying the process of making attributions.
Early researchers explained attribution biases as cognitively driven and a product of information processing errors. In the early 1980s, studies demonstrated that there may also be a motivational component to attribution biases, such that our own desires and emotions affect how we interpret social information.
Current research continues to explore the validity of both of these explanations by examining the function of specific types of attribution biases and their behavioural correlates through a variety of methods (e.g. research with children or using brain imaging techniques).
How does attribution bias distort our thinking?
Recent research on attribution biases has focused on identifying specific types of these biases and their effect on people’s behaviour. Additionally, some psychologists have taken an applied approach and demonstrated how these biases can be understood in real-world contexts (e.g. the workplace or school).
Researchers have also used the theoretical framework of attributions and attribution biases in order to modify the way people interpret social information. Studies have implemented attribution retraining to help, for example, students have more positive perceptions of their own academic abilities.
You might be able to tell attribution bias for yourself. However, others are much more subtle and can be difficult to spot. But, there’s a problem.
We have really short attention spans, so how can we evaluate every possible detail and event in forming our thoughts and opinions? So even those we are aware of, we might not be able to change anyway – or even know how to change them!