Let me ask you a question. Here’s a scenario. You see a group of your friends huddled together and laughing. Suddenly, they see you and they stop. What would be your immediate reaction? Would you think they were laughing at your expense? Perhaps you imagined they were spreading malicious rumours about you. Maybe they were sharing some salacious gossip and didn’t want you to be part of their group. What would you do? Go and confront them in an aggressive manner? If this is how you would react, you may have succumbed to hostile attribution bias.

What Is Hostile Attribution Bias?

Hostile attribution bias is an inclination to interpret any experience, behaviour or action as threatening or aggressive. That means any action, however innocent or ambiguous, is deemed hostile. In particular, hostile to you personally.

To make matters worse, the person interpreting this behaviour will often react in an aggressive way. When this happens, the other person will often have no idea what is going on. This is because the other person’s reaction is so inappropriate to the situation.

What Causes Hostile Attribution Bias?

Learning a Benign Attribution Bias

Studies show that this bias occurs very early in a child’s life. Typically, children learn a benign attribution bias. For example, a child accidentally pushes over another child at playgroup. The injured child understands it was an accident and assigns a benign attribution style to the experience.

However, not all children learn this style. Some believe such incidences are a personal attack on the self. This happens in abused children or those who lack secure attachments. In other words, if you come from a secure background, you are more likely to feel secure and stable in yourself.

Schemas and Hostile Attribution Bias

Whenever we process information about the world around us, we use schemas. We are bombarded with information every second. As a result, our brains need to have a kind of mental shortcut to help us navigate through life. Schemas are just that. They are concepts that allow us to organise and group objects, people and events quickly.

For example, if something is flying above us in the sky and we hear the sound of flapping, we put this into the schema of birds. We retrieve schemas automatically. However, schemas can also hinder our thinking.

Sometimes a set of beliefs become so entrenched we can’t see any other information that opposes it. In actual fact, if we strongly believe our schema, we’ll even ignore conflicting evidence.

Aggressive Schemas

Studies show that those who exhibit hostile attribution bias behaviour have more aggression in their schemas than non-aggressive people. In addition, they have more stored memories of hostile situations.

Therefore, you could say that they expect to see violence and aggression. This is because their early schemas formed with violence and aggression as an integral part of their childhood. Now they are predisposed to aggression. As a result, their schemas will feature aggression triggers.

For example, say a child grows up watching their father shouting at other drivers while he is behind the wheel of a car. This child will build early schemas of cars, travelling and aggression. It is perfectly possible that as an adult, this grown-up person will succumb to hostile attribution bias when driving. They will be involved in frequent instances of road rage.

This bias occurs sequentially. Therefore, the person is already primed, so they will have triggers to set them off. Then they will react in a hostile manner.

How It Distorts Your Perception

It is important to recognise that hostile attribution bias is, in fact, a form of distorted thinking.

“Expectations of intentional wrongdoing could influence judgment and lead to biased attributions for hostility.” Alex Matthews & Fran Norris

You are primed for this bias. You are expecting it to pop up all the time. It’s kind of like when you keep seeing the same number everywhere. As soon as you are aware of it, you will start seeing it. It’s the same with this bias. Likewise, it is easily triggered.

Examples of hostile attribution bias are everywhere in society. From road rage to domestic abuse to aggressive parenting. Consider the rise of coercive control in relationships. One partner is primed to look for ambiguous signs of cheating and reacts in an aggressive way. Or, a parent might get into the habit of always seeing their child in a certain light and ignoring the progress they are making.

How to Deal with Hostile Attribution Bias

It is helpful to understand that there are two types of aggression at play with this kind of bias:

  • Affective Aggression
  • Instrumental Aggression

Affective Aggression – Think of affective aggression as our emotional response to a provocation where we feel as if we need to retaliate.

Instrumental Aggression – This is a predatory action to achieve a goal and is more proactive. It is not a response.

Hostile attribution bias is typically a response to a perceived slight or action. Subsequently, the way to deal with it is to understand the following:

  • You can be primed to have this bias
  • It occurs in set stages
  • Certain situations trigger the bias
  • Recognising these situations can help us identify our triggers
  • Learning calming techniques once we find ourselves in a triggering situation is useful

Final thoughts

If you have always had a problem with reacting inappropriately in certain situations, you might have hostile attribution bias. The good thing is that knowing what causes you to react the way you do can only help in the long run.


  1. sk.sagepub.com
  2. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  3. www.academia.edu

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. De

    love your article Janey. Thanks for this input.

  2. Hannah

    Very interesting.

  3. Philip William O'Neill

    I don’t find this true. For example, you use driving aggression being potentially passed onto children, that I disagree with, my parents were extremely calm drivers and when I was behind a wheel I was aggressive of other drivers, it certainly wasn’t a learned behaviour through driving. But more- I didn’t like people who were mis using the ‘rules’ . It 100% was not a learned behaviour.

  4. Neko

    I get what it is, and why it happens, but what I can’t swem to find anywhere is advice for someone living (surviving) with a person with hostile attribution bias. I’m preparing for divorce, but the process of getting up enough money for it is slow, and the dysfunctional jerk won’t get out of my house. Right now, I just avoid him as much as possible, but every moment he’s in the house is nothing but yelling and fussing about how everything is unfair to him or out to use him, and how everything is “always 10 million times harder for him than everyone else”. it’s getting harder by the minute to bite my tongue and not tell him that 75% of what ends up being harder for him is harder because he makes it that way.

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