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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Fundamental attribution error

The fundamental attribution error

Ross (1977) defined the fundamental attribution error (FAE) as the tendency to underestimate the role of situational or external factors, and to overestimate the role of dispositional or internal factors, in assessing behaviour. The earliest demonstration of the FAE was an experiment by Jones and Harris (1967), in which American college students were presented with another student’s written essay that was either for or against the Castro government in Cuba. Half the participants were told that the essay writer had freely chosen whether to write a ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ Castro essay (choice condition), and the other half were told that the essay writer was told which position to take (no-choice condition). After reading the essay, participants were asked what the essay writer’s ‘true’ attitude was towards Castro’s Cuba. The participants tended to view the writer’s attitude as consistent with the views expressed in the essay, regardless of the choice/no-choice condition. While they didn’t totally disregard that the no-choice writers had been told what position to take, they viewed this as less important than their attitudinal disposition. In other words, they underestimated the impact of the no-choice condition. In another classic study, Ross, Amabile and Steinmetz (1977) randomly assigned pairs of participants in a quiz game to act as contestant and questioner. Questionerswere instructed to set ten difficult general knowledge questions of their own choosing. Despite the relative situational advantage of the questioners, both the contestants and observers of the quiz game rated the questioners as significantly more knowledgeable than the contestants. Heider put forward a largely cognitive explanation for theFAE. He suggested that behaviour has such salient propertiesthat it tends to dominate our perceptions. In other words, what we notice most in (a) behaviour and (b) communication is (c) the person who is central to both. People are dynamic actors – they move, talk and interact, and these features come to dominate our perceptual field. Supporting this cognitive explanation, Fiske and Taylor (1991, p. 67) argued that situational factors such as social context, roles and situational pressures are ‘relatively pallid and dull’ in comparison with the charisma of the dynamic actor. While this is a commonsense and intuitive explanation, we discuss later in this chapter how this bias is only pervasive in Western individualistic cultures. So the FAE turns out to be not so fundamental after all!

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