Friday, April 1, 2016

A is for Attribution

We are constantly examining our world, and looking for factors that explain an event or someone's behavior - that is, looking for the cause. This helps us maintain some semblance of control over our surroundings. Even if we can't actively change them, by examining cause, we can at least predict what can happen.

In more common language, you could think of attribution as ascribing "blame," especially when looking for the cause of someone's behavior. There are a variety of applications of this concept. For instance, the fundamental attribution error - one of the most well-known social psychological concepts - is a cognitive bias that deals with attributions of our own behaviors (and other people we consider part of our in-group) versus the behavior of others (the out-group).

If we see someone else, especially someone very dissimilar from ourselves (the out-group), do something mean or hurtful, we are more likely to attribute that behavior to personality: That is person is mean and hurtful. On the other hand, if we do something mean or hurtful, we are more likely to attribute that behavior to the situation: I was having a bad day. The reverse is true for positive behaviors. The behavior of the other is attributed to the situation: That person must be having a good day; while our own behavior is attributed to personality: I'm just a nice person. This tendency explains why, even after observing others engaging in positive behavior, we can still hold prejudicial views toward certain groups, because we explain away the good behaviors and over-emphasize the bad behaviors.

Source: XKCD
Attribution theory also plays an important role in jury decision-making research. Jurors will often examine the behaviors of the different parties involved in the case, and try to distribute blame among those parties. Obviously, in some cases, this approach is more justified than others. For instance, it makes perfect sense to examine cause/blame in many civil cases when examining suits and countersuits. However, jurors also show this tendency in criminal cases, determining whether the victim of a crime may be partially to blame for the event. This is one explanation for why people are interested in the victim's behavior in sexual assault cases.

These are just a few examples of the ways we attribute behaviors and events, but attribution is something we all engage in multiple times a day. Sometimes our attributions are accurate, other times they can be horribly biased.


  1. That was a very interesting, thought provoking read. I have to admit I do hate the victim blaming that goes on in the sexual assault cases you speak of.

    It makes it hard for victims to report the rape, as they know they will be blamed for it in the end. This kind of thinking is deeply seeped into society and our collective way of thinking.

    The effort that many make to change that collective is going to pay off in the end, I am certain of it.

    Have a wonderful A to Z,
    Sylvia van Bruggen

    1. Thanks, Sylvia! I'll be blogging more about victim blaming later this month, since it's a really important social psychological concept (and something I care a lot about, especially when it comes to victims of sexual assault). I've always told my students if they want to see victim blaming in real life, read the comments section on news articles.

  2. Hi, that was really interesting, and totally belied your blog title. I will definitely be back to see what else you write about. Have a great A to Z
    martine @ silencing the bell

    1. Thanks, Martine! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on future posts as well!