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 realize 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 which is a process where people evaluate their own and/or other people’s behaviors. 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 off, 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 late and didn’t notice me“.

How does attribution bias explain our behavior?

Since research in past times, people have analyzed continually the reasons for society turning to attribution bias interpretations of information in social situations. From this extended research, further forms of attribution bias, which examine and affect emotions and behavior, have come to light.

Heider noticed how people tend to differentiate between behaviors caused by individual disposition as opposed to conditions of a particular situation or the environment. Heider predicted that there’s a better chance that people will explain others’ behavior as far as factors of disposition without noticing demands created by the environment.

Explanations of Influential behavior

Harold Kelley, a social psychologist, expanded on this. He proposed that individuals can access information from a number of things they witness. This is true about many different situations in various time frames.

Therefore, people can observe the way behavior varies under these different conditions. He offered us 3 ways we can explain behavior through factors of influence.

1. Consensus

Consensus looks at how some people have similar behaviors.  When individuals have consistent behavior to actors or actions, this is a high consensus. When people act differently, for the most part, this is considered a low consensus.

2. Consistency:

With consistency, a behavior is gauged by how in or out of character a person may be acting at the given moment. If someone is acting in a way that they always do, this is considered high consistency. If they are acting “out of character” this is low consistency.

3. Distinctiveness:

Distinctiveness pertains to how much a behavioral trait has changed from one situation to the next. If the individual doesn’t act in a way in most situations but feels inclined to show a distinct behavior, this is considered high distinctiveness. If they are acting exactly like any other time, this is low distinctiveness.

How these behaviors work

During the event of making attributions, you can learn how a person operates within consistency, distinctiveness, and consensus. For instance, when consensus is low, a person will be more prone to use dispositional attributions. This is also true when consistency is high and distinctiveness is low. This was something noticed by Kelly.

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.

A theory discovered earlier on shows that biases of attribution could come from errors in processing. In essence, they could be cognitively driven. Attribution biases could also have a component of motivation. This was discovered as late as the 1980s. Could it be that information derived from social situations could be a product of our basic emotions and desires?

Through many different methods of study, we continue to understand the truth of attribution biases. We look at how these methods showcase the functions of various types of attribution biases.

How does attribution bias distort our thinking?

When understanding how the real world works, psychologists use the applied approach with biases. Looking at specific forms of biases reveals the real effects that these things have on human behavior.

To make modifications on how people see social situations, researches examine attributions and biases with theory. This helps students identify their own abilities in the academic arena. 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 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!


  1. https://opentextbc.ca
  2. https://www.verywellmind.com

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