The Fundamental Error of Lee Ross

The fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to place greater weight on personal factors than on social or contextual circumstances when evaluating a person. Illustration: © Amélie Tourangeau

Why is there an obvious tendency to explain bad behavior with an individual’s personality, even though contextual explanations are often more plausible?

Véronique Chagnon

If the American social psychologist Lee Ross described humans as being fundamentally individualist, it was because:

a) He is a misanthrope and mean-spirited.
b) He was blinded by his preconceptions and those of the participants in his study. 

If you think a) applies, you most likely made what is referred to as an attribution error. 
In 1977, Lee Ross, a professor at Stanford University, published a paper that would leave its mark on social psychology. Intended to make mental health professionals aware of their prejudices, this scientific article argued that individuals, including psychologists, tend to explain people’s bad behavior with their personality traits, i.e. their intrinsic dispositions, even when contextual explanations would be more plausible. Ross said that this propensity for individualistic explanations leads us to commit a “fundamental attribution error” that distorts our judgment – and, in the case of shrinks, influences the choice of treatment.
Since then, this revolutionary concept has been adopted on a broad basis; each of its implications has been studied from several angles... And in the process, its findings were partially refuted.
In 1984, Lee Ross’s colleague Joan G. Miller conducted a comparative study to assess the role of culture in what is known as “attribution biases.” Two comparable groups of participants were formed: one in Chicago, in the United States, and another in Mysore, in India. The Indian group were Hindus, and the Americans were Protestants. Researchers associated with the University of Chicago asked all of the participants to report on misconduct they had witnessed and explain why they thought the person did it.
An Indian participant, for example, reported paying an advance to a worker for work that the worker never did and attributed the behavior to the precarious financial situation of the worker who vanished with the rupees. An American participant, on the other hand, said that one of his peers had stolen his ideas by passing them off as his own and explained this behavior by blaming it on the selfish personality of his colleague.
The explanations provided by the participants were weighted and classified into two categories: contextual or relating to the personality of the subject who had committed the mischief. The result was that 45% of those explanations provided by the American participants were related to the wrongdoer’s personality, whereas 15% were related to the context. Among the Indian participants, only 15% of the explanations related to the personality of the wrongdoers, and 32% pertained to the context. In summary, Hindu participants were much more likely than their American counterparts to believe that the bad behavior of their peers was contextual.
Miller’s study also demonstrated that individuals acquire their attribution biases as they advance in age. For example, American participants between the ages of eight and 11 blamed the personality of the other in 13% of the explanations, and this proportion increased to 30% among 15-year-olds. This indicates that we are not born with our attribution biases; learning and cultural factors contribute a great deal.
Over the years, researchers have also noted that attributing negative behavior to an intrinsic disposition is not necessarily a mistake. Those who criticize the personality of the people who wronged them are not always wrong, and those who explain bad actions with their context are not always right.
Thus, the fundamental attribution error is... circumstantial.

Read On

Joan G. Miller, Culture and the development of everyday social explanation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 5, 961-978 (1984).
Lee Ross, The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process, dans Leonard Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 173-220 (Academy Press, 1977).
John H. Harvey, Jerri P. Town and Kerry L. Yarkin, How fundamental is ‘the fundamental attribution error’?, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 2, 346-349 (1981).

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