Lecture notes on the Fundamental attribution error
· I want to start off the class today with a small exercise. Please complete this independently, and then we will discuss what you all come up with. You have around a minute. (some students get scenario 1, some get scenario 2)
o Scenario 1: Think of a time that you were driving on the highway and you cut someone off. What reasons came to mind for why you did this?
o Scenario 2: Think of a time that you were driving on the highway and someone cut you off. What reasons came to mind for why this person did that?
o Give around 30 seconds for people to read the scenarios and write explanations
· Okay, so who wants to share? What are the first reasons that popped into your head for the behavior?
· Give students the chance to share what they wrote. Have them also say what their scenario is. Depending on the class size, take a quick survey of the dispositional vs. situational by scenario.
· Last class: talked about ways of perceiving ourselves, as you may already have guessed, today we’re going to start talking about ways of perceiving others. So, what trends, if any, did you all notice between the scenarios about someone else vs. the scenarios about oneself?
· What we have here (or what I expected here) is an example of the fundamental attribution error.
· I just want to backtrack very quickly, and mention a little bit about attributions more generally. What are attributions?
· Give some time to answer
· Right, attributions are basically explanations. How we explain why others (or ourselves) do what they do.
· In looking at some of the explanations you all came up with, we can see two main types, (refer back to trends we came up with earlier)
· Even though things might not be quite as black and white as this, most of the explanations can be kind of grouped as being either external to the person, situational, and temporary whereas others are more internal, person-based/dispositional, and consistent.
· We can also see from our earlier examples that we tend to attribute our own behavior to situational reasons, and attribute the behavior of others to dispositional reasons, meaning the “kind of people they are.” Both of these trends are particularly true for negative behaviors.
· So the fundamental attribution error is the tendency for observers to underestimate situational or external influences and overestimate dispositional or internal influences upon the behavior of others.
o Usually external/situationalà temporary, maybe uncontrollable
o Usually internal/dispositionalà stable, maybe more controllable
· These attributions tend to happen at a lower level of consciousness, that is, we aren’t necessarily aware we are making them
· Ex: When I was in college, I worked as a waitress at Friendly’s in the Natick Mall. When dealing with a difficult customer, I would often assume they were rude, miserable people. Discounted the fact that they’d been in a crowded mall all day, often with their young children.
· The FAE happens every day, and in all kinds of situations. It can often have huge consequences. It has been seen to happen even when the situational factors are emphasized and made explicit (can see examples of this in your textbook).
· Clearly, attributing something to dispositional reasons rather than situational can lead to animosity, hostility, etc. It can affect political and social opinions (ex: someone who thinks that homeless people are lazy or stupid vs. have fallen victim to hard times might have different opinions about social services). Also has an effect in the legal system.
· As an example, let’s think about a court case, involving, for example, a violent assault
o Prosecutor: is likely to emphasize what? Dispositional reasons for defendant behavior: that the defendant is aggressive, violent, etc.
o Defense: likely to emphasize what? Situational reasons: such as self-defense, childhood victimization that led to morality problems, etc.
o People’s take on the reasons can greatly affect the verdict and sentencing
· So why do people commit the FAE?
o Differing perspectives
§ Actor/observer bias and perceptual bias
§ As an observer, your focused on the person’s behavior, no insight into their situation
§ As an actor, you are aware of the situation more than yourself, you have access to the situation
§ We see ourselves in all kinds of situations, so we see ourselves as more variable than other people
o Cultural upbringing
§ Research suggests that individualistic cultures are more likely to commit the FAE, because we have a bias to see things in our own terms. We also see identity as more consistent over time, so we expect people to be acting based on internal/dispositional reasons. Need for consistency. Desire to believe in just world.
§ Collectivist cultures expect behavior changes based on situation more, so they are better at taking situational attributions into account (however, FAE happens in all cultures)
§ In all cultures, kids generally go to internal attributes.
o Perspectives also change over time: with temporal distance, we see the situation and context more, and give a heavier weight to the situation than we did originally (ex. of presidential elections, Nazis, etc.)
· Resistance to this
o does this mean we are excusing bad behavior of others, and saying that people are not responsible for their own actions? NO! attributions/explanations are NOT excuses
o Are dispositional explanations always an “error?” No, probably not. People do have personalities. However, more often than not, there is at least some situational reasons.
§ Some people think it should be FAB: fundamental attribution bias, since it is not always an error
· Combating the FAE
o Even with these criticisms, we still know that the FAE happens, and it can badly affect interactions, so how do we try stop doing it?
1. Train yourself to be aware of the FAE when it’s happening (something you’ll be doing in an upcoming assignment)
2. Seek out additional information
o Relevant when this is a decision you’re making about someone who is actually in your life (family, friend, partner, etc.) What kind of information might be important?
1. Does this person always ask this way in this situation or context? (Consistency)
2. Does this person act this way in other situations or contexts? (Distinctiveness)
3. Do other people act this way in this situation or context? (Consensus)
o Have someone share an example of a time when the FAE could be committed, real or imagined, and go through the 3 types of questions that could be asked to try to avoid it.
o Again, we often do take these things into account without realizing it. That’s a reason why we might commit the FAE less when thinking someone close to us vs. a stranger. With someone in our live, we have access to them in other situations. However, we do still commit the FAE in regards to the people in our lives. You can probably think of some examples.
· We’re going to take a quick break, and then talk a bit about how this manifests itself between groups.
EXAMPLES: Big Brother behavior and attributions, how I feel about people who play villains in movies, waitressing at Friendly’s