Psychology and Cognitive Sciences

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Discuss the different errors involved in attribution.

Attribution: explanation of causes of behavior.

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Attribution (in psychology) is a term which denotes how individuals explain behavior, their own and the behavior of others.  Attribution can be internal (causes are from within, personality or genetic predispositions) or external (causes are from without, environmental or situational factors).

Errors in attribution tend to be a result of problems in perspective.  Individuals often error in making attributions about their own behavior because they focus more on the external factors than the internal (and therefore behavioral) reactions.  On the other hand, when individuals error in making attributions about the behavior of others, most often, too much emphasis is placed on assumed internal factors, while external factors often remain unknown.  There are two prominent and defined errors in attribution.

The first is a fundamental attribution error.  It occurs when an observer emphasizes internal rather than external factors as the cause for a behavior.  An example of this error is when the observer wrongly labels a person "a jerk" rather than seeking an external factor which may be causing mean or aggressive behavior.

The second is a self-serving bias, which is the human tendency to equate personal success with internal factors ("I did that because I am smart and organized!") and failure with external factors ("Everyone else dropped the ball.  It was their fault I failed, not mine!")

Other errors and biases include:

The spotlight effect: a personal attribution error, where the observer is the participant and wrongly assumes that others notice and care about certain characteristics that likely are not being noticed, such as physical appearance.  The spotlight effect is directly related to low-self-esteem.

The actor/observer difference error: when the observer compares a behavior in himself to a similar behavior in an actor/participant.  However, instead of attributing similar causes to both sets of behaviors, the observer place believes the participant's behavior to be internally caused, but sees his own (same) behavior as caused by external factors.

A correspondence bias: the direct conclusion that people's behaviors match their personalities.  Like the example above, this is the tendency to label someone as "angry" or "violent" by nature, rather than seek any external reasons for anger or violent behavior.

A dispositional attribution: labeling entire groups of people with similar behavior as having the same cause of the behavior.  For example, teachers often divide their classes into two groups.  Those with the most positive behavioral characteristics might be said to be in the "favored" group, and those with negative behavioral characteristics are "unfavored."  Keep in mind here that it is not the teacher who "favors" or does not favor the kids in this error.  The error lies in assuming an entire group of "favored" children will all display the same positive characteristics, and a group of "unfavored" children will all display the same negative characteristics, as if it is a a level of acceptance which dictates behavior.

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