April 10, 2011 at 3:23 pm 1 comment

Humans (and indeed all animals) spend endless amounts of time perceiving and making judgments about their world and the behaviour of others. We cannot help it; our brain forms snap judgements every second we’re receiving sensory stimuli. We particularly form judgements of other people and their behaviour. This is useful, because is enables us to save cognitive resources, avoid potentially threatening situations, and form ideas as to why someone is doing what they’re doing. If we stopped and analysed the behaviour of everyone in great detail, we would be completely overwhelmed. We simply don’t have the time or resources to look at someone who has fallen over and ponder: “Okay, well she looks about 60 so maybe she fell because of a bad hip? It could also be because of the ice, or maybe her shoes don’t have enough grip. I can therefore conclude that she is not a clumsy person, but it is because of her age”. Add this to the hoards of people we encounter for brief seconds in everyday life, and we would struggle to cope. We need quick judgements over accurate ones to navigate effectively through daily life.
There are a number of social perception models which explain the various ways in which we form these quick judgements. This post will look at perhaps one of the more “important” concepts – attribution.

So, what is attribution?

Attribution describes the tendency for humans to attribute causal explanations to our own behaviour and that of others (Hogg and Vaughan, 2008). Essentially, when we perceive the behaviour of someone, we automatically assign a reason or cause to their behaviour. This allows us to form a general idea of a person as a whole, which in turn can help us predict their future behaviour (McArthur, 1972). For example, if someone is limping down the street whilst wearing strange clothes and muttering to themselves wildly, we will probably cross the street for our safety – their behaviour is odd and unfavourable.

There are numerous attribution theories (Heider, 1958; Weiner, 1979), but I will focus on explaining the main two theories. The first, and perhaps one of the most used is that of Jones and Davies (1965). They proposed the correspondent inference theory, which explains correspondence as reflecting how much someone’s behaviour is perceived to be as a result of their personality rather than situational causes. If we look at an example, it will be easier to explain:

If we consider the picture to the above, you can see two men asleep on a bench. For the sake of this example, let’s assume they’re both on holiday and had a heavy night out the night before.

There are many correspondent inferences we could make about these gentlemen. A highly correspondent inference would be: “Look at them! What a couple of alcoholic wasters!” A low correspondent inference would be: “They’re on holiday – everyone gets wasted on holiday!” or “maybe someone drugged their drinks?”

In the highly correspondent example, we are attributing their behaviour to a stable, underlying personality trait – or disposition. In the low correspondent example, we are attributing their behaviour to a situational factor/a context.

So how do we judge correspondence?

We look at the behaviour of the “average” person. What would the average person do in this situation? If the behaviour of the person is far from average, we tend to make more correspondent inferences. So, on the average holiday you’d expect people would not fall asleep on a park bench because of being so drunk. Therefore, the subject’s behaviour is far from average, and a correspondent inference is made – we attribute the behaviour to their personality. This also applies to out-of-role behaviour.

Research from Jones, Davis & Gergen (1961) highlights the effect of this out-of-role behaviour. They asked participants to look at job applications for submariners or astronauts. They suggested the ‘ideal’ submariner is social and outgoing as they will be working in a team with other members. The ‘ideal’ astronaut is socially independent and works well alone as they’ll be in space with only a small team and will spend much time alone. The applications for the jobs were either in role (a social submariner or independent astronaut) or out of role (a sociable person applying for the astronaut job, or a quiet, independent person applying for the submariner job). Results showed that participants were more confident at attributing behaviour with out of role applications: “If they’re showing this strong, out of role behaviour, they MUST be a really independent/social person!”. When behaviour was in role, they were only moderately confident: “Well, submariners are MEANT to be like this, so I can’t tell much more about them…?”

That is the basic concept for the correspondent inference theory. Now for the second theory:

Kelley’s co-variation model (1967).

Kelley also suggested that we attribute behaviour to either internal (personality/dispositional) or external (situational) causes. However, it was suggested this is on the basis of three different pieces of information:

  • Consensus: what other people also in the situation are doing. For example, other audience members at a cinema.
  • Consistency: Whether the person acts in a similar manner when the situation occurs again.
  • Distinctiveness: Whether the person acts the same way in other situations.

To summarise when certain attributions are made in an easy-to-read manner – here’s a table I made:
I apologise, but it won’t fit with the layout of the blog. Just click the table and it will make it full size.

The table shows examples of the three information types and whether they require high or low amounts of it. For example, someone who behaves with high consistency will have their behaviour attributed to personality. There really isn’t much more to add about Kelley’s theory – the table summarises all the main points! So, I will now mention one final thing:

The fundamental attribution error (or correspondence bias).

We like to think that this is how things work in real life. Unfortunately, humans are flawed in many ways, and this is also the case with attribution. Research continually shows that we prefer, subconsciously of course, to attribute behaviour to personality even when it due to situational factors (Heider, 1958; Ross, 1977; Gilbert and Malone, 1995).
Jones and Harris (1967) found that participants reading essays from students believed the writer’s attitudes in the essay to be true, regardless of whether they were told which side to argue. The essays were either “pro” or “against” Che Guevara; some students were told to write for or against and some were given the choice. However, participants still rated the writer as having the same views as the essay – even if they were told to write from that point of view! Despite the clear situational cause and social context for their behaviour, this was disregarded by participants, which lead to underlying personality traits being attributed. Jones, Worchel, Goethals and Grumet (1971) further developed this, changing the number of essays students wrote for or against a subject. Similar to the findings of Jones and Harris, it was found that students writing four essays for an argument and none against were deemed to have pro-subject views regardless of whether or not they were told which side to argue.
Why do we do this? It has been suggested that humans require a certain level of control to feel mentally stable, and attributing behaviour to stable personality traits brings more feelings of control than unstable social contexts (Heider, 1958). Research supports this; when participants feel a lack of control over predicting behaviour, more dispositional attributions are made (Berscheid, Graziano, Monson, & Dermer, 1979). It has also been suggested that behaviour is more noticeable than the background situation: when someone slips over, we notice the actual fall more than whether the pavement is wet or uneven.
So to conclude, we attribute people’s behaviour to either internal (dispositional) or external (situational) causes. This allows us to form ideas about a person’s nature, and predict their future behaviour. This means we can avoid threatening situations and save cognitive effort and resources. Although we like to think things run smoothly, they often don’t – and we attribute situational behaviour to personality regardless of contradictory evidence. This theory ties in with other social perception theories (such as the actor-observer effect or positive/negative asymmetry) which I may discuss in future posts.
Thanks for reading,
Here are the main references. If you require any of the others, let me know and I will provide them. It should be very easy to find the articles from their citation though – just use a search engine.

Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.

Hogg, M. A. & Vaughan, G. M. (2008).  Social psychology. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Jones, E. E., & Davis, K. E. (1965). From acts to dispositions: The attribution process in person perception. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. II, pp. 219-266). New York: Academic Press.

Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3(1), 1-24.

Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Hogg, M. A. & Vaughan, G. M. (2008).  Social psychology. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Ross, L. (1977) The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Volume 10, pp. 173-240), Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Weiner, B. (1979). A theory of motivation for some classroom experiences. Journal of Educational Psychology, 71, 3-25.


Entry filed under: Social. Tags: .

How to write a brilliant psychology essay. Real Studies: Asch (1951-1956) Conformity Experiments.

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. psychundergrad  |  April 19, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    your posts are really helping me with my revision! You explain things really well, thanks!


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