Attribution bias refers to the tendency to overemphasize personal characteristics or internal factors when you explain the behavior of others while underemphasizing situational or external factors.
What is attribution bias?
Attribution bias is the cognitive tendency to explain or interpret someone’s behavior or actions based on internal or external factors.
Internal factors refer to:
- Personal traits or characteristics such as personality, skills, and abilities.
External factors refer to:
- Situational factors or circumstances, such as social norms, environment, or peer pressure.
Here is an example:
Imagine that your favorite football team loses a match. If you believe that the referee, the weather, or injuries are the reason why, you are making an external attribution.
On the other hand, if you blame it on the team’s skills or performance, you are making an internal attribution.
Examples of attribution bias
Attribution bias often leads to misunderstandings and conflicts due to incorrect assumptions about others’ motives and intentions.
For instance, if one partner is consistently late for dinner dates, the other partner may attribute it to a lack of respect or interest (internal factors), when it could really be due to traffic or work (external factors).
Attribution bias can also manifest in the workplace or occur in social issues.
For instance, people may attribute poverty to personal shortcomings or laziness instead of acknowledging the role of systemic issues such as lack of opportunities and equality.
Common attribution biases
There are several types of attribution biases. Learn about the most common ones below.
Self-serving bias is when someone manipulates a situation in their favor based on the outcome.
It occurs when people attribute their successes to internal factors, such as their own skills or effort, while attributing their failures to external factors, such as back luck or unfair circumstances.
For example, if a student gets an A on an exam, they may attribute it to their intelligence and hard work. But if they get a C, they may attribute it to the difficulty of the test or the teacher’s grading method.
Fundamental attribution error
Fundamental attribution error occurs when people overemphasize internal factors when they explain others’ behavior, while underemphasizing situational or external factors.
For example, suppose someone fails to complete a task. Others may assume it is due to a lack of effort or skill (internal factors) rather than heavy workload or technical difficulties (external factors).
Actor-observer bias occurs when someone attributes their own behavior to situational or external factors while attributing someone else’s behavior to disposition or internal factors.
When we are the ‘actors’, we tend to base our motives for action on situational/environmental causes. However, when we are ‘observers’, we tend to base their actions on what we perceive about their personalities.
For example, if you are running late for a meeting, you may attribute it to external factors such as traffic or unexpected circumstances. But if someone else arrives late to a meeting, you may assume the reason is the other person’s lack of planning or responsibility.
Negative attribution bias
Negative attribution bias is the tendency to make negative attributions about others’ behaviors or actions. This tendency can manifest as attributing someone’s behavior to their personal characteristics instead of their situation.
Like other types of bias, this bias can lead to stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination based on race, gender, or other personal characteristics.
For example, a negative attribution bias towards people with disabilities can lead to the assumption that they cannot perform specific tasks, thus limiting their opportunities and potential. This is closely related to ableism in the form of unconscious or conscious bias.
Attribution bias in the workplace
Attribution bias can have negative consequences in the workplace such as discrimination, racism, sexism, and the perpetuation of gender inequalities. Unfortunately, according to Indeed.com, attribution bias is often the main contributing factor to promotions or raises.
For example, decades of research show that female applicants are often evaluated less favorably than male applicants – even when their qualifications and experience are identical. Attribution bias (and gender bias) is possibly one of the reasons why, as women’s success is attributed to external factors rather than their internal qualities.
Another example is often seen with employees from different cultural backgrounds, who may be judged based on their ethnicity or religion rather than their skills and abilities.
Examples of attribution bias in the workplace:
- After someone is promoted, others attribute the person’s success solely to their personal characteristics (intelligence or hard work), without considering external factors (favorable market conditions).
- After an employee makes a mistake, others attribute it to the employee’s personal shortcomings (lack of competence or carelessness), without considering external factors (unclear instructions or high workload).
The best way to eliminate bias is to be aware of it to avoid making unfair judgements or decisions based on incomplete information.
For instance, in the workplace managers should objectively evaluate employees’ productivity when considering them for new opportunities instead of falling prey to bias.