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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Hounded by the Fundamental Attribution Error


In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error (also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect) describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain the behavior of others. It does not explain interpretations of one's own behavior—where situational factors are often taken into consideration. This discrepancy is called the actor–observer bias.

As a simple example, if Alice saw Bob trip over a rock and fall, Alice might consider Bob to be clumsy or careless (dispositional). If Alice later tripped over the same rock herself, she would be more likely to blame the placement of the rock (situational).

The term was coined by Lee Ross[1] some years after a now-classic experiment by Edward E. Jones and Victor Harris (1967).[2] Ross argued in a popular paper that the fundamental attribution error forms the conceptual bedrock for the field of social psychology. Wikipedia cited here:

This weekend called to mind again the fundamental attribution error. I am particularly susceptible to this error and wonder to what extent it is prevalent among others. In my home Saturday I bumped against a vase and it fell to the floor and broke. A friend of mine was in the house at the time. It amazed me the ease with which I was able to forgive myself for the incident—viewing it as an innocent accident. Yet I know without question if my friend had broken the vase, I would have smouldered and accused him reflexively under my breath of being clumsy and careless. I might have pitched a long narrative about what a valuable keepsake it was.

Sunday I was taking a young friend of mine home after church. He is at the age where he could drive my car, but I drove it today. In front of his house I turned the corner quickly with too wide a sweep and ran up against the curb right where a storm drain was situated. It seriously punctured the sidewall of my right front tire and the tire blew immediately. Once again I can only imagine the instant fury and long-lived anger that would have seized my soul if my young friend had been driving: “Young people are so reckless!” I could have said. On the other hand, I was remarkably fast in forgiving myself. In fact I don’t think I was mad at myself at all, not even for a moment. I did use a vernacular phrase I sometimes use when I don’t want to blame myself: “Shit happens.” In other words, I quickly excused both matters mentioned as innocent occurrences rather than attributing them to some nefarious character flaw as I would have with others.

It gets me to thinking that it is little wonder that mankind has such problems with war and other acts of malevolence. It is miraculously easy to forgive ourselves of any turpitude while layering it thickly upon others.

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