Have you ever heard of Attribution Bias? No? Me either….until recently, and I found out that every single human experiences it nearly every day. I’ll explain what Attribution Bias is, as well as, why you should know about it.
About a year or so ago, my friend Holli brought her kids over for a Sunday swim and mimosas. We wanted to get to know each other better so we dived into deep conversation such as; church, eating disorders, recovery, and of course the story of my mom.
She wasn’t familiar with what happened and during my storytelling I remember saying things like, “if she wouldn’t have drank, if she wouldn’t have gone to a bar alone, and if she wouldn’t have invited him home, she would still be alive.” I proceeded with, “I would never make those decisions so it wouldn’t happen to me.”
Holli, wife of a psychiatrist, opened my eyes to something I’d never seen. I was placing blame on my mom’s choices, believing those choices were what caused her death, which in turn, gave me a false sense of security.
I understood what she said and wanted to understand more. I knew there had to be a phycological or professional term for that thought process so I researched. What I found is called Attribution Bias. Let’s look at what this even means.
“In psychology, an attribution bias is a cognitive bias that refers to the systematic errors made when people evaluate or try to
find reasons for their own and others’ behaviors.”
Attribution Bias is a type of social judgement. It’s when we judge someone, or our own, behavior in order to find reason. There are three in particular I want to talk about: Fundamental Attribution Error, Self-Serving Bias, & Defensive Attribution.
Fundamental Attribution Error is very similar to Correspondence Error. we tend to attribute someone else’s behavior that leads to a negative outcome, to their intrinsic nature “character” and we underestimate or don’t consider at all the situational factors (circumstances out of ones control). This easily leads to a negative opinion of that person and all we’ve really done was assume what is going on.
Self-Serving Bias is exactly how it sounds. When it is our behavior that is less than desirable, perhaps we are late for a meeting or we’ve lost our patience with someone we love, we attribute it to situational factors in order to see ourselves more positively. In other words, it was the traffic, it was the kids arguing in the morning, it was the printer that ran out of ink that made us late. It was everything except our own choices that caused this a shitty outcome.
When we inaccurately attribute someones behavior to their character, Fundamental Attribution error, we’re simply doing it because we lack information about the external/situational factors and remember when we learned about when we assume? It makes an ass out of u and me:)
Additionally, when we apply Self Serving Bias to our own behavior, our first instinct is to blame an external factor and protect our ego.
Are you wondering how this applies to the “what if’s” I leaned on so heavily when my Mom died? Well, it’s important because it’s something I never faced and needed to for many reasons which I write about.
- I realized that she could have died, even if, she didn’t make any of those choices.
- I realized that my though process was a form of victim shaming, moreover, I found that I victim shame frequently.
- I realized that I’m not immune to the possibility of ever being attacked simply because I make different or “better” choices. I, nor you, are exempt from the possibility of becoming a victim. We simply are decreasing our chances, or the probability when we are aware and practice prevention.
More than just Self-Serving Bias, I was applying Defensive Attribution. This occurs when we make attributions which defend ourselves from the notion that we could be the victim of an unfortunate outcome, and often also that we could be held responsible as the victim (Shaver, 1970).
People’s attributions about the victims are motivated by both harm avoidance (this is unlikely to happen to me) and blame avoidance (if it did happen to me, I would not be to blame). If we see ourselves as more similar to the victim (relatability), therefore, we are less likely to attribute the blame to them. If, on the other hand, we identify more with the perpetrator, then our attributions of responsibility to the victim will increase (Burger, 1981).
If you took the survey in my last blog post, you’ll remember a question I asked that essentially was to determine if we’re applying attribution bias when hearing about sexual assault and murder victims.
I think it’s important for all of us to understand that this exists, probably on a daily basis. Ask yourself when was the last time you applied some form of bias. On any scale; at work, at home, or even in response to something you heard on the news. If we are more aware of our thoughts, we may become less judgmental and gain more universal compassion. And universal compassion is a key to true joy.
Click here to read more about Attribution Bias. Also, I’d love to hear how you may have experienced this. Go to my contact page or leave a comment! Unity is powerful and leads to growth.
Burger, J. M. (1981). Motivational biases in the attribution of responsibility for an accident: A meta-analysis of the defensive-attribution hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 90(3), 496-512. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.90.3.496
Shaver, K. G. (1970). Defensive attribution: Effects of severity and relevance on the responsibility assigned for an accident. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 14(2), 101–113. doi: 10.1037/h00028777