Why is everyone else so incompetent? Attribution Errors — Bias Wednesday

Why did that per­son just run that red light? They obvi­ous­ly don’t know how to dri­ve.’

We hear it all the time, the ten­den­cy to attribute mal­ice or incom­pe­tence to anoth­er indi­vid­ual or group, when if it was us doing the action it would be mere­ly an acci­dent: ‘I just didn’t see it.’ Welcome to the sec­ond edi­tion of Cognitive Bias Wednesday. While there are many rea­sons for this ten­den­cy, a lot of them stem from a suite of cog­ni­tive bias known as Attribution Errors, with the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) at their root. Simply put it is the ten­den­cy for peo­ple to empha­sise inter­nal deci­sions and char­ac­ter­is­tics for other’s neg­a­tive actions, while empha­sis­ing exter­nal fac­tors for their own neg­a­tive actions. FAE pops its head up in a wide vari­ety of sit­u­a­tions, and we prob­a­bly uncon­scious­ly express it every day, it is one of the most pow­er­ful deci­sion ratio­nal­i­sa­tion bias­es.


One clas­sic study of the FAE looked at drink­ing rates amongst ado­les­cent males, and took two obser­va­tions: first­ly, how much an indi­vid­ual drank, and sec­ond­ly whether they thought that their peers drank more, the same, or less than them. 1 While actu­al drink­ing rates across the group aver­aged sim­i­lar­ly, the attri­bu­tion of drink­ing rates amongst the peers was strong­ly exter­nal­ly inflat­ed. As seen in the title of the study ‘I drink … but not as much as oth­er guys.’ While not attribut­ing incom­pe­tence or mal­ice, the neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of drink­ing rates is exter­nal­ly mag­ni­fied and inter­nal­ly denied. This is despite the drink­ing rates remain­ing rel­a­tive­ly steady across the cohort. We have the ten­den­cy to attribute our own neg­a­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics exter­nal­ly, and attribute other’s neg­a­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics to their inter­nal space.

1325563668658_882818Furthermore this is only exac­er­bat­ed when it is brought into a social set­ting. While the nature of the FAE is pow­er­ful on an indi­vid­ual lev­el it is stronger again amongst groups. The expand­ed bias, cre­ative­ly named Group Attribution Error, sees the attrib­ut­es of the out-group as being defined by indi­vid­ual mem­bers of that group. We met this bias briefly in the post a cou­ple of weeks ago on Cyclists vs Motorists and Intergroup bias­es. This is fur­ther expand­ed again with Pettigrew’s, again cre­ative­ly named, Ultimate Attribution Error (one must won­der where to go after this). While FAE and GAE look at the ascrip­tion to exter­nal and out-groups pri­mar­i­ly and dis­card most inter­nal and in-group data, Ultimate Attribution Error seeks to not only explain the demon­i­sa­tion of out-group neg­a­tive actions, but explain the dis­missal of out-group pos­i­tive behav­iours. Interestingly many of the stud­ies that sup­port Pettigrew’s Ultimate Attribution Error look at reli­gio-cul­tur­al groups as their case stud­ies, such as the study by Taylor and Jaggi (1974), or lat­er stud­ies on FAE/UAE and sui­cide bomb­ing (Altran, 2003).

Excursus: One brief and curi­ous aside is that accord­ing to one study Protestants appear to be more inter­nal­ly focused, low­er rates of FAE/GAE, in com­par­i­son with Catholics who are gen­er­al­ly exter­nal­ly focused, with high­er rates of FAE/GAE. 2 The authors the­o­rise that this is due to an innate greater empha­sis on the soul with­in Protestantism. I will have to look more into their arti­cle, and per­haps post on it lat­er.

Excursuses aside, how do these attri­bu­tion errors affect day to day research and study? One of the ways I think they pow­er­ful­ly affect good aca­d­e­m­ic research and debat­ing is when it comes to the assign­ment of schol­ar­ly labels with­in acad­e­mia. I some­times have stu­dents come to me ask­ing if I can point them towards mate­r­i­al that is ‘more lib­er­al’ (in the the­o­log­i­cal sense). Now while I applaud stu­dents for want­i­ng to seek alter­na­tive views to their own, the lev­el of out-group attri­bu­tion of ‘lib­er­al­ism’ com­mon­ly leads to a flim­sy dis­agree­ment with the argu­ment at hand. Commonly it goes like ‘I dis­agree with this argu­ment because its a lib­er­al argu­ment, and there­fore…’ Conversely it works in the oppo­site fash­ion ‘I agree with this [flim­sy] argu­ment, because we are part of the same group.’ A sim­i­lar bias is found in sev­er­al recent arti­cles on the reli­gion and sci­ence inter­face. The argu­ment there com­mon­ly goes ‘Religion intro­duces bias, there­fore no con­fes­sion­al­ly reli­gious peo­ple can debate this top­ic.’ The attri­bu­tion of innate bias to an out-group, in the same fash­ion that incom­pe­tence is attrib­uted to an observed poor dri­ver, is at play here.

Being aware of our ten­den­cy to attribute neg­a­tive inter­nal char­ac­ter­is­tics to an out-group par­tic­i­pant should help us assess things bet­ter in two ways. Firstly it should help us to assess argu­ments and evi­dence on the grounds that they are pre­sent­ed, not on the group that they are pre­sent­ed from. In short play the game not the per­son or group. Stick to the argu­ment and evi­dence that is set forth and assess it on those grounds, whether you agree or dis­agree with the per­son or group who is pro­mul­gat­ing it. Secondly, it should help us see blind spots with­in our own research and work. If we are con­stant­ly assess­ing oth­ers based on the same qual­i­ties, then we are more like­ly to be crit­i­cal with our own research based on the argu­ments and evi­dence, rather than let­ting it float on in-group sup­port.

Attribution errors can be extreme­ly hard to over­come, but know­ing about them cer­tain­ly helps. Hope you have enjoyed this Cognitive Bias Wednesday, as usu­al weigh in below on the com­ments!


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  1. Segrist, Dan J., Kevin J. Corcoran, Mary Kay Jordan-Fleming, and Paul Rose. “Yeah, I Drink … but Not as Much as Other Guys: The Majority Fallacy among Male Adolescents.” North American Journal of Psychology 9, no. 2 (June 1, 2007): 307.
  2. Li, Yexin Jessica, Kathryn A. Johnson, Adam B. Cohen, Melissa J. Williams, Eric D. Knowles, and Zhansheng Chen. “Fundamental(ist) Attribution Error: Protestants Are Dispositionally Focused.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102, no. 2 (February 2012): 281–90. doi:10.1037/a0026294.