Attribution Error: Our Inability to Know

October 17, 2012

The following is a letter from a friend who partly inspired my “Behind the Bundle Theory”. She wrote it after something she learned in Social Psychology.

Dear Verne,

In light of your recent inquiries into the inability of someone to truly know why another person acts the way they do, I am sharing with you some relevant information on Attribution theories in the realm of Social Psychology. An attribution is an explanation for behavior, either our own behavior or the behavior of others. Fritz Heider, the father of attribution theory, argued that the reason we instinctually try to figure out others is to predict and control our environment. Heider distinguished the two types of attributions: (1) Internal attribution; the inference that a person is behaving in a certain way because of something about that person, such as attitude, character, or personality. (2) External attribution; the inference that a person is behaving in a certain way because of something about the situation he or she is in, assuming that most people would respond the same way in that situation. In telling you about the theories that explain when and why we make these certain types of attributions, I hope to aid your understanding of why it is we can never really know a person and their reasons for their actions through a more social cognitive lens.

An important theory to mention is the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is the tendency to infer that people’s behavior is due to their disposition (i.e., we tend to attribute someone’s actions to their personality rather that the situation). In 1967 researchers Jones & Harris conducted a study that perfectly exemplified this tendency. They had participants come in and read an essay supposedly written by another student. The essays they read were either pro- or anti- Fidel Castro, and they were told the writer had either chosen his side or did not have a choice and was assigned that position on Castro. They were then asked what was the writer’s true opinion on Castro. The results showed that despite being told the writer had no choice in their position for the assignment, the participants still tended to attribute the position of the essay to the writers’ personal opinion. This study showed our dominating tendency to make internal attributions for others behavior.
One reason for this error is called perceptual salience (the seeming importance of information that a person is focused on over the information that is outside their awareness). This plays an important role in making an attribution error because when we are trying to figure out the reason for someone’s words or action we are focusing on them alone and the information on the situational causes of their behavior is unavailable to us or difficult to interpret accurately. Without understand context, a person’s actions as responses to that context are inexplicable.

Taking the Fundamental Attribution Error into account, Gilbert’s Two-Step Process of Attribution attempts to explain the process in which we try to analyze the reasons behind the behavior of others. This theory states that after observing someone’s behavior, we first make an automatic internal attribution for their behavior. This assumption that their actions is due to their personal disposition is quick and spontaneous. Our analysis will end on this step unless we are able and motivated to consciously take into account the effect of the situation on their behavior. This more thoughtful attribution combines both internal and external causes and provides a more accurate explanation, but rarely happens unless we are purposely inclined to do so.

By keeping these theories in mind, you may be able to better understand our inability to truly know others from the inside and perhaps you may be more forgiving on this inability as it is a normal cognitive process that we all undergo. Further, by keeping fundamental attribution error and the two-step process in mind, you may find it easier or be more accurate in your analysis of others behavior and thus get closer to achieving your concept of really knowing someone important to you.

Warm Regards,



11 Responses to “Attribution Error: Our Inability to Know”

  1. 12kilroy Says:

    Some things you just know. Some minds you can just read. Perception of intent is guesswork, yes – but not without data. The question is whether or not internal vs external attribution is a valid dichotomy. I think a part of how you weight this depends on how much you believe in and value a contiguous internal self.

    (Some people negate that entirely, some always default to that. I’m biased in the second way – because I value the self, and because I am far more interested in the self than the context, I do tend to oversee internal motivations.

    I think one of the greatest shocks and revelations to me was this: we are so much the same that I can’t evaluate you – and we are so different that I can’t evaluate you. At once familiar and alien. Maybe this sets an absolute limit to knowing someone else.

    • Granted. But while we each have working models for understanding many people based on a kind of default, conditioned, or automatic mindset, there is a wealth of interpretations and feelings hidden behind the vague means we use of communicating–verbal, facial, or bodily expressions which cover concepts we take for granted to all understand in the same way while forgetting how broad and pliable they often are. When it comes to possible reasons for a person’s actions, they could be simple and universal or tinged with a host of drives and dispositions.

      The internal/external dichotomy is plausible as a psychological It is probably natural when making regular quick judgements to attribute someone’s actions to their intentions without considering context, or to attribute them to context under the assumption that no one would have done differently.

      In what sense are we so much the same, and in what sense alien?

      • 12kilroy Says:

        We differ in point of view. Experience. Accident of life. Time. Feeling. Setting. Background. And none of our groups, categories, or ways of relating overcome this difference.

        I mean – I could have an idea of your background. (I don’t, of course, but if I did.) I could know a great deal about you – about your life – various experiences, race, religion, age, geography, what you read, what you say. Some of these things even come across in a blog. What I can’t know is what that experience was like for you. There is a sense of universality – but the truth is, you and I could have the exact same experience and it mean completely different – even perhaps opposite things to us. Things that shape us, and perhaps determine why we do or think some of what we do.

        I say this because I’ve been sometimes appalled / shocked at things said and done by people whit very similar backgrounds to my own – people I’ve known for most of my life. Even to hear them recount events we both experienced – they way they remember them and the way I do – the discrepancy is alarming.

        • 12kilroy Says:

          On the other hand – I have seldom encountered in anyone – even people vastly different from myself – things for which I lack the potential. Whether good or bad. I could as easily think or do or feel that thing as I do this thing.

          There are exceptions, of course. But as a general rule, there is very little that does not strike me as familiar – that I don’t see with recognition of a corresponding part of myself. I can map features from the landscape of strangers’ beliefs, attitudes, actions, onto my own landscape.

          Also, there is an equality – we are equal in type – in kind. What you feel and experience is as important / significant / real to you as what I feel and experience is to me. It is the same – though isolated.

          • Naturally I think there’s a limit to what features one can map from a stranger, but I agree. It’s how we’re able to empathize and therefore communicate.

            The isolation is important since I think what essentially distinguishes you from me, despite us both being conscious agents with similarly structured bodies and brains, is not qualitative differences but our being separate entities. The criteria for what makes you you is not personality or some other enduring trait but the fact that you are -this- person.

        • Agreed. I think there are degrees of singularity between people in their experience, point of view, personality, and overall being-in-the-world, but necessarily each person and her life is different from others. Humans are dynamic beings, taking in data of experience and integrating and responding to it, not passively and deterministically, but with creative agency.

          And I know the discrepancy you speak of. Along the same lines, it’s incredible how many ways a thing can be experienced even when any number of people experience it the same in terms of the senses.

          • 12kilroy Says:

            Do you think creative agency is the important factor? As I said earlier, my bias is in favor of the individual – uniqueness rather than sameness. Is creative agency what makes us (irreducibly) unique?

            • I think everything human comes from the individual. It’s only once you understand the significance of the individual that you understand that of relationships and groups.

              But when I think of what is essential to me as an individual–the conditions for my existence–I can’t think of any characteristics or group of characteristics besides those other human beings have. Consciousness, by which we perceive external phenomena; some degree of rationality and intuition; creative agency which can only exist when consciousness exists, by which we take the information we receive and make something out of it. Not according to a predictable mathematical function nor random chance but with creativity, i.e. volition. These characteristics, while universal, necessitate differences because one’s choices and perspective and experience and physiological/mental capacities and the relationship between all those things result in different outcomes. So it is not the uniqueness itself that defines, but the universal capacities enable the uniqueness. It is necessary that I am unique, but in what ways and to what degree is contingent.

              On the other hand personal experience brings me to think of myself differently than what I hold officially. The kinds of “being-in-the-world” that I identify with, subjective states, actions, and desires I feel integral to my real nature, make me actually conceive myself as having a unique soul. I still don’t know what to make of these unspoken convictions.

              • 12kilroy Says:

                We seem to agree about the significance of the individual.

                I don’t know what to make of the soul. There is a difference between my intellectual views and my actual views. There are things I can account for and things I can’t. The concept doesn’t trouble me. It just remains intangible; and it remains something I can’t quite manage to put into words..

                At the same time, any philosophy or theology, or religion, or politics, or even science that don’t accommodate // account for that “being in the world” – the essentially subjective experience of self – are faulty, defective, or at best incomplete.

You disagree:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: