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IB Psychology

Paper 1
Sociocultural level of analysis
2016-01-13

Attribution errors
(6)
Learning outcome:
Discuss two errors in attributions
(for example, fundamental attribution error, illusory correlation,
self-serving bias).
Course Companion: 103-106
Past exam questions:
SAQ: Outline two errors in attribution May 11 TZ1
ERQ: Discuss two errors in attribution. May 14 TZ1

Markscheme: The command term outline requires candidates to give a brief account or summary of two errors in
attribution. Candidates can choose from a large number of attribution errors including fundamental attribution error or
correspondence bias, just-world hypothesis, illusory correlation, self-serving bias, in-group bias or the halo effect.
Where candidates have outlined more than two examples of errors in attribution, credit should be given only to the first
two responses. Where candidates have outlined one example of an error in attribution, apply the markbands up to a
maximum of [4 marks].

SUMMARY
ATTRIBUTION ERRORS are errors/mistakes that people tend to make in a systematic
way when explaining causes of their own or other peoples behavior.

The self-serving bias (SSB) is an error in attribution we make when we take


credit for our successes, attributing them to dispositional factors, and deny responsibility for our
failures, attributing them so situational factors.
Lau and Russel (1980) used a content analysis of articles and showed that American football
players and coaches were more likely to attribute success to dispositional/internal factors (being
in good shape, having put in hard work, natural talent of the team) than situational factors (such as,
the other team was not prepared/played poorly).
Arkin and Maruyama (1979) used a questionnaire asking students questions about the causes
of their success or failure on exams. They found that successful students made more internal (and
stable) attributions than did students that had failed. This study shows there is a difference
between those who are successful and those who are not.
Kashima and Triandis (1986) showed that there are cultural differences. They showed slides from
unfamiliar countries to American and Japanese students and asked them to remember details
(memory test). When the students were asked to explain their performance (=to attrIbute causes
to their performance on the memory test, where performance is the behavior they were
asked to explain), the Americans explained their own success with internal factors, such as ability,
and failure with external factors. So the Americans showed the SSB, but the Japanese tended to
explain their failure with dispositional factors, such as lack of ability. This is called the modesty
bias. The modesty bias is a cultural variation of the SSB. A possible explanation for the modesty
bias in collectivist cultures could be a cultural norm in Chinese societies to maintain harmonious
personal relationships. A person who takes the blame for failures could expect to be better liked.
(+) The theory is supported by several studies and it can explain why some people (mostly from
individualist cultures) explain their failures as being caused by situational factors. (-) However, The
theory is culturally biased. It cannot explain why some cultures (China, Japan) show the modesty
bias.

The fundamental attribution error (FAE) is an error in attribution


made when we overestimate the role of dispositional factors in an individuals behavior and
under-estimate the situational factors. We have a tendency to do that when explaining other
peoples behaviors and not our own, because the situational factors are not salient (visible, known)
to us, so we draw the conclusion that it must be disposition.
Suedfeld (2003) showed that Holocaust survivors made more situational attributions when
explaining the possible factors in survival during the Holocaust than age-matched Jews who had
not personally experienced the Nazi persecution (control group). The survivors were there and
know what happened, but the control group/non-survivors made the FAE and overestimated the
dispositional factors (psychological strength, etc.)

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO LEARN?

You need to be able to


- define and explain what attribution errors are
- explain two errors (biases) in attribution
- explain why we make these mistakes (in case the command term is explain or examine or even
discuss)
- outline studies to support the attribution errors (I would suggest that you learn two studies to support one
of them and one study to support the other). An SAQ could ask you about one or two studies of one error,
and an ERQ could ask you to, for example, evaluate one, which means you need to know one very well.
- Make sure you can evaluate the errors and studies used to support them (This means you should know
something about cultural or gender differences as well)

TERMINOLOGY
ATTRIBUTION ERRORS are errors/mistakes that people tend to make in a
systematic way when explaining causes of their own or other peoples behavior.
ATTRIBUTION THEORY is a theory dealing with how people interpret and explain the
causes of their own and other peoples behaviors
ATTRIBUTIONS are the interpretations we make about the causes of behavior . We
try to explain things that happen to ourselves and to other people.
TYPES OF ATTRIBUTIONS:
1. situational (which means that we think that the behavior is caused by external factors)
or
2. dispositional/internal (which means that we think that the person/internal factors
somehow causes the behavior) (see handout 5)

The self-serving bias (SSB) is an error in attribution we make when we take credit
for our successes, attributing them to dispositional factors, and deny responsibility for our
failures, attributing them so situational factors.

The fundamental attribution error (FAE) is an error in attribution made when we


overestimate the role of dispositional factors in an individuals behavior and underestimate the situational factors. We have a tendency to do that when explaining other
peoples behaviors and not our own, because the situational factors are not salient (visible,
known) to us, so we draw the conclusion that it must be disposition.

1. The self-serving bias SSB = an error in attribution we make when


we take credit for our successes, attributing them to dispositional factors, and
deny responsibility from our failures, attributing them so situational factors.
We have a tendency to take credit for success by explaining it with disposition. If I succeed
on a test, these could be my dispositional attributions/explanations that explain the cause.
We have a tendency to deny responsibility from failures attributing them to situational
factors.
Dispositional factors
Im smart
I have/havent studied for the test

Situational factors
The test was simple/difficult
Soft marking by the teacher
The teacher is good/bad

One study to support the self-serving bias


Lau and Russel (1980)
Method: content analysis (This is a type of observation where researchers look at qualitative data, which
means the words uttered by the participants. In this case they analyzed newspaper articles. They coded the
statements made by the participants that described the match.)
Aim: to investigate the self-serving bias, that is, whether American football players and coaches would
attribute personal success (wins) to dispositional factors and failure (losses) to situational factors.
Participants: American football coaches and players
Procedure: The researchers analyzed 107 articles in 33 major American football and baseball events
reported in eight daily newspapers during the autumn of 1977
- First the articles were divided into the ones writing about wins or losses.
- They were then coded for attribution content (explanations for the wins and losses). The players and
coaches explanations for the wins and losses were divided into external/situational (when the player/coach
said something about the other team or the circumstances under which the game took place) or internal/
dispositional (if the player/coach said something about his own team).
Example of attribution from the articles: The Yankees are a great team! (This is an external attribution made
by the losing Dodgers manager.)
Results: Players and coaches tended to credit their success (wins) to internal factors (being in good shape,
having put in hard work, natural talent of the team) and their failures to external/situational factors (injuries,
whether, fouls committed by the other team).
Conclusion: People tend to attribute their own failures to situational factors, and attribute their success to
dispositional factors/personality. This study produced strong evidence for the self-serving bias.
Evaluation:
(+) The study provides strong support of the self-serving bias.
(+) The self-serving bias has been investigated and supported in many other studies (for example
Arkyn and Maruyama below).
(-) The study has high ecological validity since actual remarks (attributions) made by American football
coaches and players following real matches in which their team had been successful or unsuccessful were
examined. Since ecological validity is high, we can expect the SSB in real-life situations to a greater extent.
(-) Since content analysis was used, it is debatable how the statements found in the articles should be best
coded. Coding is subjective and one could expect that different researchers would interpret different
statements differently and therefore code them differently. This lowers the validity of the study.
(-) Sample bias (only Americans, only athletes)
Also see cultural considerations/similarities and differences.

Explanations for the SSB: (possible explanation for why we tend to make this
attribution error when attributing causes to behavior):
- We need to protect our self-esteem, which is enhanced if success is explained in terms
of internal factors. If we explain failure with situation, our self-esteem is protected.
- The SSB may occur because we are motivated to appear in a favorable light to other
people (showing evidence of the principle of the socio-cultural level that people have a
need to belong). We want to appear seem smart and able.
- People typically intend and expect to succeed at a task (although there are occasions
on which they expect to fail). Consequently, intended and expected outcomes tend to be
attributed to internal factors whilst unintended and unexpected outcomes tend to be
attributed externally.

Another study to support the self-serving bias


Arkin and Maruyama, (1979)
Aim: This study was designed to investigate whether students explain success with reference to internal
factors/dispositional while explaining failure with external/situational factors.
Method: Questionnaire (see questions below)
Participants: 116 psychology students participated in this study.
Procedure: Over the term students had taken four exams. Prior to the final exam a questionnaire was
administered. They were asked to indicate whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied with their performance
over the term. In case they were satisfied with own performance they were considered successful, and in
case they were dissatisfied they were considered to have failed.
They were also asked to indicate on a 5-step scale to what degree each of four different factors had
influenced their performance on the exams. In case they believed a factor to be very unimportant they were
to use the 1, and if they believed a factor to be very important the response was to be 5. The factors were
ability (dispositional), good luck (situational), preparation (dispositional), and easy tests (situational).
Questionnaire:
1. Are you satisfied with your performance over the term?
Yes
No
2. To what extent did the following factors influence your performance? A 1 means that the factor was not
important at all and a 5 means that it was very important.
YOUR ABILITY
1
2
3
4
5
GOOD LUCK
1
2
3
4
5
PREPARATION
1
2
3
4
5
EASY TESTS
1
2
3
4
5
Based on their responses the researchers calculated a score for internal-external attribution by subtracting
responses on good luck and easy test from ability and preparation.
Results: As expected the researchers found that successful students made more internal/dispositional
attributions than did students that had failed.

Culture bias in the SSB:

Culture seems to influence our attribution style. We learn it through socialization. Asians
do not make this error to the same extent. In a collectivist culture, people tend not to take
credit for their own success. This is called the modesty bias. Some argue that the SSB is
primarily linked to individualist cultures but others believe it can be found in both
individualistic and collectivistic cultures.

Kashima and Triandis (1986) showed slides from unfamiliar countries to American
and Japanese students and asked them to remember details (memory test). When the
students were asked to explain their performance (=to attribute causes to their
performance on the memory test, where performance is the behavior they were
asked to explain), the Americans explained their own success with internal factors, such
as ability, and failure with external factors. So the Americans showed the SSB, but the
Japanese tended to explain their failure with dispositional factors, such as lack of
ability. This is called the modesty bias. The modesty bias is a cultural variation of the
SSB.

Explanation for the SSB:


- It could be a way to uphold self-esteem. When we take credit for our successes, this
behavior provides self-enhancement. We feel good about ourselves. Situational
attributions of unsuccessful behavior provide self-protection. If it wasnt my fault, if I
blame the failure on external factors, then I dont have to feel bad about myself.
- Cognitive factors since people usually expect to succeed based on their own abilities,
unexpected/unintended failure is perceived as due to external factors.
- Cultural factors - a possible explanation for the modesty bias in collectivist cultures could
be a cultural norm in Chinese societies to maintain harmonious personal relationships. A
person who takes the blame for failures could expect to be better liked.
People who are depressed also dont seem to show the SSB. They tend to blame
themselves for their failures.
Strengths of the SSB
Limitations of the SSB
- The theory is supported by several
- The theory is culturally biased. It cannot
studies (Use the ones above)
explain why some cultures (China,
- The theory can explain why some people Japan) show the modesty bias.
(mostly from individualist cultures) explain - The theory cannot explain why people
their failures as being caused by
who are depressed dont show the SSB.
situational factors.

2. The fundamental attribution error (FAE) is an error in


attribution made when we overestimate the role of dispositional factors in an
individuals behavior and under-estimate the situational factors.

Study to support the FAE


Suedfeld (2003) showed that Holocaust survivors made more situational attributions
when explaining the possible factors in survival during the Holocaust than age-matched
Jews who had not personally experienced the Nazi persecution (control group). The
survivors were there and know what happened, but the control group/non-survivors
made the FAE and overestimated the dispositional factors (psychological strength,
etc.)
Method: questionnaires
Participants: Holocaust survivors and control group (age-matched Jews who had not
personally experienced the Nazi persecution). So there was a group that had experienced
the holocaust (and knew the causes for their survival) and one that had not.
Aim: to investigate to what extent people tend to make the FAE in explaining the causes
why some Jews survived the holocaust
Procedure: The two groups were asked for their views on possible factors in survival
during the Holocaust.
Possible questionnaire:
What do you think were the main factors that contributed to the survival of many Jew during the Holocaust?
Rate the importance of the factors. 1 means not important at all, and 5 means very important
Luck
1
2
3
Psychological strength of the survivor
1
2
3
Help from others
1
2
3
The determination of the survivors
1
2
3

(Luck is an external/situational factor, psychological strength is a dispositional, help from others is situational, determination of the
survivor is dispositional, etc.)

Results:
- 91% of the survivors made situational attributions (e.g. luck and help from others)
compared to 51 % in the control group.
- Only 34 % of the survivors made dispositional attributions (e.g. psychological strengths
and determination) compared to 71 % in the control group.
Conclusion: This indicates that personal experiences during the Holocaust influenced
survivors attributions because they had witnessed that it was actually often luck or help
from others that determined who survived and who didnt. The survivors had a clear
picture of the power of the situation during the Holocaust. They had the information. The
non-survivors, on the other hand, did not have all the information and tended to
make the fundamental attribution error and overestimate the role of dispositional
factors for survival. THis is why we make the FAE. We dont have enough information
about situational factors, and therefore think the behavior (survival in this case) has to be
caused by dispositional factors.

Explanation for the FAE:


- Salience (synlighet): We tend to think of ourselves as adaptable, flexible and not as
a type of person, so we think that our behavior must be the result of the situation
we are in. But we dont have enough information about others; so we believe the
behavior must be the result of their dispositional factors.
- Scientists agree that it is not inevitable to make this error (When we have time to
reflect on our judgments and when we are highly motivated to be careful, and when we
have enough information, the error is reduced. This means that this is a so-called
cognitive shortcut. We tend to make this error because our mind wants to be economical.
Suedfeld, 2003 showed that people who have more information (the survivors
themselves) tend not to make the error.
- Placing blame on the individual (and therefore making dispositional attributions) is
common practice in western culture/individualist cultures. People in western culture
are held responsible for their actions. People are more likely to say that a murderer is evil
than to refer to environmental factors as explanations.
- In Western societies it could be because of the ideology that people get what they
deserve (Gilbert, 1995)
- It makes life more predictable if peoples behavior is mainly caused by their personality.
This gives the impression that people are understandable and easy to deal with.

Cultural considerations in the FAE:


- Culture seems to determine attribution style since the way we attribute causes to
behavior is learned through socialization (from other members of the culture)
- In individualistic cultures the emphasis on the individual as the primary cause of action
leads to dispositional attributions. The individual is seen as the main cause of success and
failure.

Norenzayan et al. (2002) tested whether information given to Korean and American
participants would influence their attributions. When participants only received
information about individuals, both groups made dispositional attributions. When
situational information was also provided, the Koreans tended make more
situational attributions and include this information in their explanations much more than
the Americans did. This indicates that there may be universal features in the FAE but
that available information influences attribution, which makes it different in different
cultures.

Another study on cultural differences in the FFE:


Morris, M and Peng
Background: Fundamental attribution error is the common mistake people make in believing that other
peoples behavior is more due to personal than to situational factors. This has been established as a strong
effect in many Western countries, but has received weaker support in more collectivistic Asian countries.
Ultimate attribution error is the tendency to attribute behavior even more to personal causes, when the
person behaving is in an outgroup (not in the same group as the person making the attribution).
Aim: Investigate cultural differences in attribution in a realistic situation.

Method: Graduate physics students at Michigan State University were mailed questionnaires asking for
their opinions on one of two murder cases. Half the students were Chinese citizens, and half were native US
citizens.
The murder cases were selected so that the murderer in one case was Chinese, Mr Lu, and in the other an
Irish-American, Mr. MacIlvane. Apart from this ethnic difference, the cases were selected to be very similar:
both murders occurred in the USA, both followed unsuccessful appeals to keep a job and both included
coming into the office, shooting the person in charge of appeals and fellow co-workers, and, finally, both
ended in suicide.
The students were given a short description of the murder. The questionnaire then included questions about
to what extent (on a 7-point Likert scale) 28 different personal and situational factors contributed to the
murder. These factors were taken from newspaper reports about the murders. Examples of personal factors
included Lu was mentally imbalanced and If MacIlvane couldnt get his way, he didnt care about anything
else. Examples of situational factors included The daily violence in the Detroit area set an example for him
and the advisor failed in his duties to respond to Lus growing frustration.
11 Chinese and 14 American students responded about the Lu murder. 11 Chinese and 19 American
students responded about the MacIlvane murder.

Lu
MacIlvane

American participants
Personal
Situational
3.70
2.42
3.23
2.86

Chinese participants
Personal
Situational
2.32
2.86
3.22
3.38

Results: The results indicate that, as hypothesized, American participants attribute behavior to personal
factors to a larger extent than do Chinese participants. Furthermore, the ultimate attribution error occurs for
American participants but for Chinese participants.

Strengths of the FAE


- The theory has promoted understanding
of common errors in explanation of what
happens in the world.
- The theory has been supported by many
research studies (use the ones above)
- It seems universal (see Norenzayan et
al. 2002) but the available information
influences the FEA.

Limitations of the FAE


- The theory is culturally biased with too
much focus on individualism.
- Much research on the theory has been
conducted in laboratories and with a
student sample (problems with
generalization of findings)
- It ignores attributions made by the actor
about their own behavior (see Suedfeld)

Sample answer
Sociocultural level of analysis
(6) Attribution errors

ERQ: Discuss two errors in attributions


(for example, fundamental attribution error, illusory correlation, self-serving
bias).
Discuss = Offer a considered and balanced review that includes a range of arguments, factors or hypotheses. Opinions or conclusions
should be presented clearly and supported by appropriate evidence.
You could be asked to evaluate one or two errors, and probably even to evaluate one study relevant to an attribution error, so be
prepared for any type of question.

Two errors in attributions are the self-serving bias and the fundamental attribution error.
Attributions are the interpretations we make about the causes of our own and other peoples behaviors and the
interpretations can be either situational (which means that we attribute the behavior performed by someone to the
environment) or dispositional (which means that we attribute the behavior to the personality of the person performing
the behavior). Errors in attributions are the errors or mistakes that people tend to make in a systematic way when
explaining causes of behavior.
One error in attribution is the self-serving bias, which can be illustrated through Lau and Russel (1980). The study
shows how we tend to take credit for our wins and blame our failures on others.
The self-serving bias is an error in attribution we make when we take credit for our successes, attributing them to
dispositional factors, and deny responsibility from our failures, attributing them so situational factors. (We have a
tendency to take credit for success by explaining it with disposition (Im smart/Ive studied instead of simple test/soft
marking) and deny responsibility for failure by making situational attributions (We tend to blame the situation: The
teacher is bad/The test was too difficult rather than I didnt study enough/Im not smart enough.)
Lau and Russel (1980) conducted a content analysis of 107 articles from 8 daily newspapers during the autumn of
1977. The articles were about the wins and losses of different football teams and contained attributions, i.e. explanations
for the wins and losses after football games, made by American coaches and players. The explanations were external
(when the participant said something about the other team or the circumstances under which the game took place) or
internal (if the player or coach said something about his own team).
Results showed that they tended to credit their wins to internal/dispositional factors (being in good shape, having put in
hard work, natural talent of the team) and their failures to external/situational factors (injuries, weather, fouls committed
by the other team).
The conclusion drawn form this was that people tend to attribute their own failures to situational factors, and attribute
their success to dispositional factors/personality. In this case the coaches and players tended to blame their failures on
the circumstances under which the game took place and taking credit for their wins This study produced strong evidence
for the self-serving bias.
One strength of this study is that it provides strong evidence for the fundamental attribution error. One limitation of this
study is that the sample was culture biased, since only Americans engaged in sports were used. Another problem could
be the use of self-report data. We dont know whether people always say what they actually believe is true. On the other
hand, there are other studies that support this attribution error. Another strength of this study is high ecological validity,
since actual remarks from coaches and players following real matches were analyzed. This improves the generalizability
of the results. On the other hand, content analysis was used as a method, and analyzing qualitative data could pose
problems since it is debatable how the statements should be best coded, since the decisions are subjective, which in
turn would make the results less credible. This could be improved by using two rater, to improve inter-rater reliability.
The possible explanation of why we tend to make this attribution error is that we need to protect our self-esteem. Selfesteem is improved if we are responsible for our own success. If we explain failure with situation, our self-esteem is
protected. It may also show that people are motivated to appear in a favorable light to other people (showing the
principle of the socio-cultural level that people have a need to belong). Also, since people expect to succeed based on
their own abilities, unexpected/unintended failure is perceived as due to external factors. This means that if we try hard
and still fail, it is reasonable to draw the conclusion that something outside/the situation is responsible for our failure.
There are exceptions. We are more likely to rely on self-serving attributions when we fail in a domain in which we cannot
improve. Also, studies show that our emotional state is a factor. Depressed people often rely on an attributional style that
attributes success to external, and failure to internal, causes.
Culture affects the self-serving bias. Kashima and Triandis (1986) showed that there are cultural differences. They
showed slides from unfamiliar countries to American and Japanese students and asked them to remember details
(memory test). When the students were asked to explain their performance (=to attrIbute causes to their performance on
the memory test, where performance is the behavior they were asked to explain), the Americans explained their own
success with internal factors, such as ability, and failure with external factors. So the Americans showed the SSB, but the

Japanese tended to explain their failure with dispositional factors, such as lack of ability. This is called the modesty bias.
The modesty bias is a cultural variation of the SSB. A possible explanation for the modesty bias in collectivist cultures
could be a cultural norm in Chinese societies to maintain harmonious personal relationships. A person who takes the
blame for failures could expect to be better liked.
Another error in attribution is the fundamental attribution error. This is an error in attribution made when we
overestimate the role of dispositional factors in an individuals behavior and underestimate the situational factors. This
means that when someone does something, we tend to think that the reason they behaved that way has to do with their
personality and not pressure to behave that way from the situation they are in. We have a tendency to do that when
explaining other peoples behaviors and not our own, because the situational factors are not salient (visible, known) to
us, so we draw the conclusion that it must be disposition.
Suedfeld (2003) showed that Holocaust survivors made more situational attributions when explaining the possible factors
in survival during the Holocaust than age-matched Jews who had not personally experienced the Nazi persecution
(control group). 91% of the survivors made situational attributions (e.g. luck and help from others) compared to 51 % in
the control group. Only 34 % of the survivors made dispositional attributions (e.g. psychological strengths and
determination) compared to 71 % in the control group.
This indicates that personal experiences during the Holocaust influenced survivors attributions because they had
witnessed that it was actually often luck or help from others that determined who survived and who didnt. The survivors
had a clear picture of the power of the situation during the Holocaust. They had the information. The non-survivors, on
the other hand, did not have all the information and tended to make the fundamental attribution error and overestimate
the role of dispositional factors for survival. THis is why we make the FAE. We dont have enough information about
situational factors, and therefore think the behavior (survival in this case) has to be caused by dispositional factors.
Some researchers claim that we make this error because we tend to think of ourselves as adaptable, flexible and everchanging human begins. We dont like to think of ourselves as a type of person. However, when we look at others, we
dont have enough information about them to make a balanced decision, so we attribute behavior to disposition. We
are often not aware of the details of their situations. We also tend to think that we would have acted differently under
different circumstances.
Cross-cultural research shows that placing the blame on the individual is common practice in western culture. People are
held responsible for their actions, which is why there could be cultural differences.
Culture seems to determine attribution style since the way we attribute causes to behavior is learned through
socialization (from other members of the culture). In individualistic cultures the emphasis on the individual as the primary
cause of action leads to dispositional attributions. The individual is seen as the main cause of success and failure.
Norenzayan et al. (2002) tested whether information given to Korean and American participants would influence their
attributions. When participants only received information about individuals, both groups made dispositional attributions.
When situational information was also provided, the Koreans tended make more situational attributions and include this
information in their explanations much more than the Americans did. This indicates that there may be universal features
in the FAE but that available information influences attribution, which makes it different in different cultures.
This error has been demonstrated in many studies, but there is also evidence that shows it is far from inevitable.
Researchers claim that there are two steps involved. We make the error because we draw an inference that the behavior
is caused by disposition, based on largely automatic and often unconscious processing of information. The second step
is based on more controlled nod conscious processing. We enquire into whether or not situational factors may have had
an influence. But we dont always get to the second step because of cognitive overload (not enough cognitive resources)
or because we believe that for the behavior under consideration the initial automatic step alone can result in the right
explanation.
In conclusion, the self-serving bias and the fundamental attribution error have consistently been demonstrated in
research It seems that the errors tend to be made when we dont make an effort to analyze the situation and because we
want to protect our self-esteem. They tend to be influenced by factors such as culture and mood.
Word count: 1600 (There is enough information on the first to write and answer to a question asking you to discuss ONE
error in attribution. THis information needs to be shorter if you are writing about two.)