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How do we explain other people’s behavior? In this lesson, we’ll learn about the types of attributions that we use to explain behavior, as well as two biases that are common when we’re looking at other people’s behaviors.

Attributions

Cindy and Rob work together. They see each other every day and generally get along well. But one morning, Rob is very short with Cindy and says something rude and impatient. Cindy thinks that he must be having a bad day. Jessie is new to the company, and when she first meets Rob, he’s pretty gruff. So, Jessie thinks to herself that Rob must be a pretty mean guy.Two people, the same situation, and yet Cindy and Jessie come up with completely different reasons for Rob’s behavior.

In psychology terms, Cindy and Jessie assigned different attributions to Rob. An attribution is the reason a person gives for why an event happened.When we look at other people’s behaviors, there are two main types of attributions: situational and dispositional. Situational attributions basically say that a person’s actions are due to the situation that they are in. Cindy makes a situational attribution for Rob’s bad mood; she believes that he’s having a bad day. The situation that he’s in is a bad day, and that’s the reason for his bad mood.Dispositional attributions, on the other hand, say that a person’s actions are due to their disposition, or personality.

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Jessie believes that Rob is acting rude because he’s a mean guy, so she’s making a dispositional attribution.

Correspondence Bias

One common mistake that people make when making attributions for other people’s behavior is called the correspondence bias, or the fundamental attribution error. This is the phenomenon that says that people make more dispositional attributions for others’ behaviors. In other words, when we see people act a certain way, we tend to assume their behavior is indicative of their personality, not due to the situation they are in.

For example, Johnny is standing in line when Joey cuts in front of him. Johnny yells at Joey and the men begin to argue. If asked, both Johnny and Joey are most likely to give a dispositional reason for the other person’s behavior. Johnny will say that Joey is rude and a perpetual line-cutter, and Joey will say that Johnny is a hotheaded guy. Neither will take into consideration situational reasons for the other person’s behavior – say, that Joey is in a hurry because his kid is sick or that Johnny just got yelled at by his boss.Knowing a person well helps avoid the correspondence bias.

Think back to the example of Rob’s behavior. Why did Jessie assume Rob was a mean person, while Cindy assumed that he was having a bad day? Because Cindy knew Rob and knew that his behavior was not normal for him, she looked around for a situational cue for his bad mood. Since Jessie didn’t know Rob well and had no other behavior to compare to, she assumed Rob was like that all the time and made a dispositional attribution.

Actor-Observer Difference

Let’s look back at the example of Johnny and Joey again.

If Joey cuts in front of Johnny and Johnny yells at Joey, they are both likely to say that the other person is rude. But, what about his own behavior? Will Johnny say that he is a rude person because he yelled at Joey?Odds are, each man will say that his behavior is situational, while the other person’s behavior is dispositional. This is called the actor-observer difference.

Most people make dispositional attributions to others and situational attributions to themselves.Johnny, for example, will most likely attribute Joey’s behavior to the way Joey is; he’ll say that Joey is a jerk and probably cuts in line often. However, when asked about his own behavior, Johnny will say that he only yelled because of the situation. That is, Joey’s behavior made Johnny yell.From the other perspective, though, Joey will likely think that Johnny yelled because he’s an angry person. And, Joey will probably also say that he cut in line because of something to do with the situation; his child was sick, for example.

The actor-observer difference, like the correspondence bias, is very common but is less likely to occur if you know the other person. For example, if Johnny and Joey were friends and knew that the other’s behavior was out-of-character, they would be more likely to attribute the other person’s behavior to the situation.

Lesson Summary

Attributions are reasons that we give for why people behave the way that they do. Situational attributions blame a person’s behavior on the situation, whereas dispositional attributions say a person acted a certain way because of their personality. Most people fall victim to the correspondence bias, or the tendency to blame other people’s behaviors on their dispositions instead of the situation. But, most people will blame their own behavior on the situation, which causes the actor-observer difference.

Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of this lesson, you’ll have the ability to:

  • Define attributions
  • Differentiate between situational and dispositional attributions
  • Describe what is meant by correspondence bias
  • Summarize the actor-observer difference
  • Understand how knowing a person well can help someone avoid using biases when looking at that person’s behavior

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