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Sunday, February 6, 2011

The ultimate attribution error

The ultimate attribution error
The self-serving bias also operates at the group level. So we tend to make attributions that protect the group to which we belong. This is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in what Pettigrew (1979) called the ultimate attribution error (UAE). By extending the fundamental attribution error to the group context, Pettigrew demonstrated how the nature of intergroup relations shapes the attributions that group members make for the same behaviour by those who are in-group and out-group members. So prejudicial attitudes and stereotypes of disliked out-groups lead to derogating attributions, whereas the need for positive enhancement and protection of the in-group leads to group-serving attributions. People are therefore more likely to make internal attributions for their group’s positive and socially desirable behaviour, and external attributions for the same positive behaviour displayed by out-groups. In contrast, negative or socially undesirable in-group behaviour is usually explained externally, whereas negative outgroup behaviour is more frequently explained internally.
This intergroup bias has been found in a number of contexts (Hewstone, 1990). Taylor and Jaggi (1974) found it among Hindus in southern India, who gave different attributions for exactly the same behaviour performed by Hindu and Muslim actors. Duncan (1976) found that white American college students categorized the same pushing behaviour as ‘violent’ if perpetrated by a black actor but as ‘just playing around’ when perpetrated by a white actor.
The most dramatic illustration of the UAE is an investigation by Hunter, Stringer and Watson (1991) of how real instances of violence are explained by Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Catholic students made predominantly external attributions for their own group’s violence but internal, dispositional attributions for Protestant violence. Similarly, Protestant students attributed their own group’s violence to external causes and Catholic violence to internal causes.There is also substantial evidence of the tendency to make more favourable attributions for male success and failure. Studies have found that both men and women are more likely to attribute male success to ability and female success to effort and luck, especially in tasks that are perceived to be ‘male’ (Deaux & Major, 1987; Swim & Sanna, 1996). The same bias is found for failure attributions – male failure is explained by lack of effort, whereas female failure is attributed to lack of ability. Bear in mind though that most of these studies were conducted in the seventies and eighties, and relatively few have been published more recently (Swim & Sanna, 1996). Given the social and attitudinal changes associated with women’s roles over this time, and the fact that the effects were relatively small, it is possible that these biases have now diminished in Western societies (Hill & Augoustinos, 1997).

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