When attributing the behaviour of others, according to the actor-observer theory, the attribution is always based on a guess. This guess however can be influenced by a number of factors causing the attribution to be wrongfully placed. There are 4 main theories of attributional errors, which are: fundamental attribution error, self-serving bias, illusory correlation, and the self-fulfilling hypothesis. This article will focus on fundamental attribution error and the self-serving bias.
Although it is logical to acknowledge that both situational and dispositional factors play a role in the attribution of behaviour, many people tend to ignore situational elements and only focus on one’s disposition. In other words, if a person is seen to be yelling, we conclude that they have an angry personality and ignore other situational factors that might’ve had implications towards this behaviour. This is called the fundamental attribution error.
The study conducted by Jones and Harris in 1967, supports the theory of the fundamental attribution error. They enlisted university students and asked for them to read and evaluate essays written by fellow students about Fidel Castro’s ruling in Cuba. The essays were written in the form of either supporting Castro’s ruling or critiquing his ruling. The students writing the essay were split into 2 groups: Choice-condition group where the students were free to choose whether they supported or opposed to Castro’s rule. Or the no-choice-condition whereby the students were randomly assigned either pro- or anti- Castro. The participants were then tasked to attribute the essays in both condition either to situational factors (random assignment) or dispositional (reflective of their own opinion). The researchers found that the participants attributed the essays from the choice-condition to dispositional factors. They also found that participants attributed the essays in the no-choice-condition to dispositional factors, despite having known that they were randomly assigned and had no choice in the decision.
Another error in attribution is the self-serving bias. The self-serving bias illustrates that we explain our own successes due to dispositional factors and blame failures on situational factors. Eg. if one did not perform as well during a race, they would say that it is due to them not having breakfast, the floor being slippery or any other external factor but not because they are not as good as they had thought. This is demonstrated in the study of Johnson et al. in 1964. In this study, the participants, consisting of psychology students were asked to teach children how to multiply numbers by 10 and 20. They taught the children using a one-way intercom system. After the students had been taught, they did a set of worksheets on their own for participants to asses their learning progress. The worksheets were marked externally and in such a way that the children were split randomly in 2 groups and in group 1, the questions were all marked correct, regardless of if they were and in group 2, the questions were either marked wrong for the multiplication of 10 then correct for that of 20, or completely wrong on both the multiplications. The researchers found that when the participants evaluated the marks of the children, they attributed the improvement due to the participant’s own teaching ability but they attributed the children’s failure due to the children’s lack of ability.