In This Article Fundamental Attribution Error/Correspondence Bias

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Background References
  • Journals
  • Applications

Psychology Fundamental Attribution Error/Correspondence Bias
by
Glenn D. Reeder
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0114

Introduction

The fundamental attribution error (FAE) suggests that social perceivers attribute other people’s behavior primarily to dispositional causes, rather than to situational causes. For instance, if a college professor explained a student’s exam failures as due to something about the student’s character or intelligence—rather than lack of study opportunity or poor teaching—the professor might be seen as committing the fundamental attribution error. In part, the popularity of the FAE is due to its uniquely social psychological message: ordinary people typically underestimate the importance of social situations. For example, people typically express surprise that people will follow an experimenter’s orders to deliver potentially lethal shocks to an innocent person (Milgram 1963, cited under Background References). To the extent that perceivers fail to appreciate the power of the experimenter’s orders, they fall prey to the FAE. The correspondence bias (CB) is a related tendency to draw correspondent trait inferences from situationally constrained behavior. For example, many studies have exposed research participants to a speech supporting a given topic that was created in response to an authority figure’s directions (e.g., a debate coach who requested a pro-marijuana speech). Despite the obvious situational constraints, perceivers still tend to infer that the speaker holds a personal attitude corresponding to the speech (e.g., a pro-marijuana attitude). Although some writers treat the FAE and CB as more or less equivalent, others stress differences. One difference occurs in the dependent variable. The FAE is typically assessed by questions about abstract, global attributions to dispositional versus situational causes (Was this behavior caused by the person or the situation?), whereas CB is typically assessed by specific attitude ratings (e.g., Does this person hold a pro-marijuana attitude?). Although highly influential, both the FAE and the CB have been engulfed in controversy. Some researchers believe that perceivers are sophisticated enough to recognize that both dispositions and situations typically contribute to behavior. Others question whether the word “fundamental” is appropriate, or they question the very existence of such a bias. Relative to the FAE, evidence in support of CB has held up better through the years, although a number of moderators have been identified.

General Overviews

Perhaps the best introduction to the fundamental attribution error/correspondence bias (FAE/CB) can be found in the writings of the two theorists who first introduced the concepts. Jones 1979 coined the term CB and provided a summary of early research that aimed to rule out artifactual explanations of the bias. Ross 1977 introduced the FAE as an enduring concept with strong roots in the basic approach of social psychology. Ross and Nisbett 1991 extended this line of thinking. If the reader were restricted to reading just one authoritative source, however, the best choice would be Gilbert and Malone 1995, a highly accessible and much-cited review of the FAE/CB. Readers interested in neuroscience as it relates to FAE/CB might wish to consult Lieberman, et al. 2002. Gawronski 2004 presents a more critical perspective on FAE/CB, suggesting that perceivers engage in quite sophisticated thinking when making dispositional inferences. The theme of greater complexity in person perception is also present in McClure 1998, which suggests perceivers often believe that multiple causes contribute to behavior. Reeder 2009 echoes this theme, proposing that when perceivers attribute traits, they attempt to understand the mental states (e.g., intentions and motives) of others.

  • Gawronski, B. 2004. Theory-based bias correction in dispositional inference: The fundamental attribution error is dead, long live the correspondence bias. European Review of Social Psychology 15.1: 183–217.

    DOI: 10.1080/10463280440000026E-mail Citation »

    Comprehensive review that sees CB as due to the implicit causal theories (expectations) perceivers hold. These implicit theories describe the conditions under which situations have an impact on behavior. In general, CB is not caused by the FAE, which is the failure to recognize the power of situational forces.

  • Gilbert, D. T., and P. S. Malone. 1995. The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin 117.1: 21–38.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.117.1.21E-mail Citation »

    Provides a broad and theoretical overview of CB. It traces the historical roots of CB and proposes that four mechanisms underlie the bias: lack of awareness of situations, unrealistic expectations about behavior in specific situations, inflated behavioral categorizations due to situational forces, and the tendency for perceivers to undercorrect their dispositional inferences for situational forces.

  • Jones, E. E. 1979. The rocky road from acts to dispositions. American Psychologist 34.2: 107–117.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.34.2.107E-mail Citation »

    Summarizes early work on CB, most of which was conducted by Jones and his students. The article examines several alternative explanations for the findings and finally settles on an anchoring/adjustment heuristic (see Tversky and Kahneman 1974, cited under Background References) as the best of these.

  • Lieberman, M. D., R. Gaunt, D. T. Gilbert, and Y. Trope. 2002. Reflexion and reflection: A social cognitive neuroscience approach to attributional inference. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 34:199–249.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(02)80006-5E-mail Citation »

    Offers an account of CB in terms of neuroscience. Relatively automatic processes operate as a reflexive process, and controlled processes operate as a reflection process.

  • McClure, J. 1998. Discounting causes of behavior: Are two reasons better than one? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74.1: 7–20.

    DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.74.1.7E-mail Citation »

    Early attributional theorizing assumed that causes (e.g., dispositional versus situational) were negatively correlated. This article reviews evidence that perceivers may see multiple causes of behavior that are independent or even positively correlated.

  • Reeder, G. D. 2009. Mindreading: Judgments about intentionality and motives in dispositional inference. Psychological Inquiry 20:1–18.

    DOI: 10.1080/10478400802615744E-mail Citation »

    Portrays a sophisticated social perceiver who takes account of the mental states of others. The focus is on perceptions of intentionality and motive, which, in turn, play an important role in inferences of attitudes, morality, and ability.

  • Ross, L. 1977. The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 10. Edited by L. Berkowitz, 173–220. New York: Academic Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Introduced the controversial term “fundamental attribution error,” defined as a general tendency to overestimate the importance of dispositional factors relative to situational influences. The error may lead people to draw dispositional inferences for behavior that is actually controlled more by situational forces, and to overestimate the consistency of behavior.

  • Ross, L., and R. E. Nisbett. 1991. The person and the situation: Perspectives of social psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    E-mail Citation »

    A sophisticated view of personality as it manifests itself across different social contexts. Reviews the powerful impact of situational factors on social behavior, while emphasizing that perceivers are often unaware of this impact and instead rely on the FAE. Perceivers are seen as paying more attention to behavior than situations.

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