Why do people act in certain ways? What does it tell about them – or not?
Traits, attitudes, intentions, mental states … are generally not observable with naked eyes. They can only be inferred from visible behaviours or outcomes. However in doing so, we systematically make attribution errors.
2 The Attribution Equation
(based on Kurt Lewin)
3 The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE)
(Lee Ross, 1977)
We readily make inferences about someone’s personality, ability and other dispositions based on their behaviour or deriving outcomes – when this is not warranted by facts.
We simply overlook and underestimate the power and impact of situations (S) in the attribution equation.
This is not to say, however, that behaviour and/or outcome can or should be entirely explained by situations. Nor, that situational influences are more powerful than dispositional influences.
It just points to the fact that our intuition gets the weighting of (P) and (S) wrong.
4 Examples from Research
Swift, S. A., Moore, D. A., Sharek, Z. S., & Gino, F. (2013)
In each case attribution errors lead to less accurate performance evaluations.
Outcomes are mistakenly attributed to a person’s disposition.
(Un)favourable situational and structural factors outside that person’s reach are not sufficiently accounted for.
5 How to avoid attribution errors?
Gilovich, T., & Eibach, R. (2001). The fundamental attribution error where it really counts. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 23-26.
Ross, L. (2018). From the fundamental attribution error to the truly fundamental attribution error and beyond: My research journey. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(6), 750-769.