What the ‘fundamental attribution error’ misses about blame

By | May 7, 2023

Laura Niemi, Jesse Graham, and John M Doris write:

Classic research says we overlook situational factors in explaining people’s misdeeds. But the reality is more complex.

The new principal of a school on the verge of closure has vowed to turn things around. Half a year in, however, the outlook is bleak. If students do not meet national performance baselines on their upcoming standardised tests, it will be the last straw for the struggling school. The principal knows that his teachers and students lack adequate resources to prepare for the tests. In a panic, he illicitly pays a testing representative to receive test questions in advance and distributes them to teachers and students, concealing their source. Eventually, his deed is discovered. Sad and angry students, parents and administrators ask: why did he do it? Is it simply that he’s a dishonest person? Or did the circumstances compel him to do it?

A classic idea in social psychology is that, in seeking to explain someone’s behaviour, people tend to inflate the importance of dispositions and neglect the importance of situations. The idea dates to the beginning of the field, appearing in the work of Kurt Lewin (1930), Fritz Heider (1944) and Gustav Ichheiser (1949). In his 1977 paper, Lee Ross coined a term for it: the ‘fundamental attribution error’. Today, it is surely one of the best-known phenomenon names in the social sciences. In many experiments, participants have been found to attribute behaviour to the personal dispositions of individuals operating under sometimes ludicrously prominent situational constraints. Some of the most striking evidence comes from the various ‘no choice’ paradigms, where participants attribute an opinion to someone whom they know to have been ordered to express that opinion.

What does it matter if we explain behaviour as sourced in the person versus the situation? Well, the difference can be both morally and legally consequential. Because character attributions are judgments of a person’s internal tendencies, they can be a powerful means of moral condemnation (eg, ‘That driver who cut me off is a complete asshole’). By contrast, situational attributions can help exculpate or excuse a transgressor (eg, ‘That driver was probably under a lot of pressure’). Since our attributions reflect our understanding of what caused a behaviour, they inform how it should be dealt with, now and in the future. For example, a convicted criminal might explain to a parole board that he has completely changed since the time of his offence; this emphasises the role of the person as the cause of the crime. Alternatively, he might explain that he will have a completely different set of circumstances than he previously did, emphasising the contribution of the situation in bringing about a crime. Which will give the parole board more confidence that the individual will not reoffend? When people tend to attribute wrongdoing more to the person, arguments about complete personal change may be more persuasive.

Importantly, however, the research to date indicates that the fundamental attribution error does not affect all people, all of the time. Among the most notable findings in the attribution literature are those concerning cultural variation: East Asian participants have been found to interpret behaviour more in terms of situations and less in terms of personal dispositions than is typical for Westerners. Similar differences have been found with Latine participants. This research demonstrates that the tendency to attribute behaviours to internal rather than external factors is not universal. [Continue reading…]