Class 16: Attributions

Prof. Jessica Collett, University of Notre Dame. "Introduction to Social Psychology" lecture notes - Attributions

Class Notes

How do you determine the cause of someone's behavior?  

Dispositional attribution -
when we attribute a behavior to the internal state of the person who performed it
Situational attribution -
when we attribute a behavior to factors in the person's environment.


You are in your car.  Someone in front of you swerves into your lane.  

The Subtraction Rule

Another process that occurred in that example is the subtraction rule.  The Subtraction Rule is when making attributions about personal disposition, the observer considers (i.e. "subtracts") the perceived impact of situational forces from the personal disposition implied by the behavior itself. We start with the dispositional attribution and factor in the situation to come up with an overall attribution.  In the previous example, we begin with the idea that the driver is a careless jerk, but then factor in the situation of the child running into the road, concluding that the driver was doing what he needed to protect the child.  

The subtraction rule can also increase the dispositional attribution.  Imagine that there is a court case in which a judge in the United States gave the death penalty for a crime that had never before been given the death penalty.  The dispositional attribution that the judge supports the death penalty is furthered by the situation in which he gave the death penalty for a crime that never before had been punished by using the death penalty.

Fundamental Attribution Error

We have a tendency to overestimate the importance of personal (dispositional) factors and to underestimate the situation influence as causes of behavior.  We are more likely to assume that the driver is a jerk, and not think "I wonder what situation could be causing him to cause me discomfort..."  The "Fundamental" Attribution Error isn't actually fundamental. Research tends to show that in more collectivist cultures, situational attributions are considered first while individual actions are factored in later. 


There are biases that can lead observers to misunderstand events and make incorrect judgments.

Focus of attention bias -
We tend to overestimate the causal impact of whomever or whatever we focus our attention on. Example: The first people to get kicked off of Survivor and other reality TV shows are often the loud, obnoxious ones.  They bring attention to themselves, and when things go wrong they tend to get blamed.
Actor-observer bias -
Observers tend to attribute actors' behavior to the actors' internal characteristics, whereas actors see their own behavior as due more to characteristics than of the external situation. The two explanations given for why this bias occurs is are that people have different visual perspectives and different access to information.  As an actor, I am visually looking out at the situation, whereas others may be looking directly at me.  Relatedly, as the actor, I know the internal intentions and views that are behind my actions, that the observer lacks.
Self-Serving bias -
People tend to take credit for acts that yield positive outcomes, whereas they deflect blame for bad outcomes and attribute them to external causes.  The explanation for this bias is that people often attempt to maintain the opinion they have of themselves.  If someone didn't do well on an exam but considers herself a good student, she has motivation to protect her self-esteem by deflecting blame.   


People make attributions all the time.  Think of an example from the last week in which you made an attribution about another person's behavior.  What did the other person do?  Examine the situation using dispositional and situational attributions, the subtraction rule, and the fundamental attribution error.

Works Cited

Michener, H. Andrew, John D. DeLamater, and Daniel J. Myers.  2004. Social Psychology. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.

Citation: Collett, J. (2009, January 14). Class 16: Attributions. Retrieved April 18, 2014, from Notre Dame OpenCourseWare Web site:
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