Everything You Need to Know About Attribution Bias

Helen Lee Bouygues

“My manager wants me back in the office because she doesn’t believe we are really working at home.”

“That person left a big tip; they are so kind!”

Sound familiar? We are all liable to jump to conclusions about the motives of other people’s actions. In the field of psychology, this type of thinking is called “attribution bias,” and is one of several cognitive biases that we all experience. 

While the word “bias” has a negative connotation, it is helpful to remember that all humans have cognitive biases because they help us take in information, evaluate situations, and make decisions quickly. These biases are often based on memory, and can be complicated by constant influxes of information, like browsing social media. 

Because of the Reboot Foundation’s focus on advancing critical thinking skills, it’s important for us to share information about cognitive biases so we can help more people understand how to identify biases and combat them with critical thinking skills. Attribution bias can often lead to faulty decision making because it fundamentally miscategorizes the cause of an action, which then leads us to make decisions based on that incorrect assumption. 

Attribution error often comes into play during criminal justice proceedings or in investigations as authorities try to determine why somebody may have done something illegal. For example, recently a police department in Florida posted a video on social media of a father with two young children leaving a Walmart with a box of diapers that he did not pay for. 

The police asked for the public’s help in identifying the man, saying in the post: “So when your card is declined and you try another one with the same result, that is NOT license to just walk out with the items anyway. Poor little kids had no idea.”

Attribution bias can often lead to faulty decision making because it fundamentally miscategorizes the cause of an action, which then leads us to make decisions based on that incorrect assumption.

The condescending tone of the post irked thousands of people who saw it, calling the police “cold and heartless.” Many viewers saw something in the video that the police did not: A struggling parent who made a poor choice.

“My first reaction was not that the man pictured was a thief [but] rather a father facing an impossible decision to either break the law or not have basic necessities for his kids,” said one commenter.

Investigators, police, and prosecutors often want judges and juries to consider that a suspect committed a crime because they’re a “bad person.” (After all, “good” people don’t break the law, right?) Defense attorneys and other advocates want courts to instead consider the circumstances and situations that may have influenced or contributed to their defendant’s actions. 

Cognitive biases are a real part of our personal and professional decision-making processes. So, what do we do about it? Here’s how you can use critical thinking skills to combat your own attribution biases.

Identifying Attribution Bias

If you find yourself in a situation where you’re feeling angry or upset with someone’s behavior, look out for thinking patterns that attribute that behavior to your assumptions. Are you looking at the big picture when confronted with challenging situations at work and at home? Here are four common types of attribution biases to take into account: 

Fundamental attribution error: This form of attribution bias describes a tendency to attribute behavior to a person’s intrinsic personality instead of situational or environmental causes. For example, if a driver cuts you off, fundamental attribution error makes you think that they must be a terrible driver, when in fact they were potentially avoiding some debris in the road that you didn’t see. 

Actor-observer bias: The way we experience fundamental attribution error differs if we are making attributions about ourselves or about others. When we are the actors, we tend to base our motives for action on situational or environmental causes. However, when we observe others, we tend to base their actions on what we perceive about their personalities, instead. If you swerve to avoid some debris and accidentally cut off another driver, you are not likely to think of yourself as a bad driver, the way you would if you were the one being cut off. 

Self-serving bias: This is an aptly named form of attribution bias in which we assume that our wins are because of our own intrinsic characteristics, while our failures are because of others or because of a larger situation outside of our control. If we swerve our car to avoid debris, we consider ourselves to be very skilled drivers. If we are unable to avoid the debris, it’s more likely that we will blame the debris or the width of the road rather than our own skills. 

Hostile attribution bias: This form of bias describes a common tendency to interpret other people’s actions as hostile, rather than neutral or benign. In our example of being cut off by another driver, let’s imagine there is no debris in the road. We may assume that the driver who cuts us off is doing so on purpose because of some unknown offense, which can lead to road rage instances. It’s possible that the other driver didn’t even see us, or has an emergency of some sort and is rushing.

Just exploring two to three other causes of a challenging situation puts you in a position to counteract your own attribution bias.

How To Overcome Attribution Bias

Define your perspective, then challenge it. We often find ourselves reaching a conclusion about a topic or a challenge without even realizing it. Identifying our own beliefs about various topics provides us with an opportunity to challenge those beliefs by conducting additional research or reading opposing viewpoints. If we don’t identify our own thoughts about a topic, it’s nearly impossible to refute or solidify them. 

Get curious about other options. Even if you feel sure that your manager wants you back in the office to satisfy her own control issues, it is still helpful to consider other options. Why else could this situation be happening? What are other potential reasons for someone’s behavior? Just exploring two to three other causes of a challenging situation puts you in a position to counteract your own attribution bias, and potentially change your mind about how to address the challenge at hand, and in the future. 

Do your research. Once you have defined your own thinking on a situation and considered other options for why it might be happening, conducting independent research can help us all identify potential solutions or opportunities. In this age of never-ending information, identifying accurate and reliable sources of information can be challenging. Our global COVID-19 experience has shown us the various ways an advanced field like scientific research can be misunderstood, misconstrued, and misrepresented. Academic and scholarly sources of information are hugely important primary sources of research. Searching for research reviews or summaries can help us understand complicated topics by getting an overview of the research that has been done to date on that topic. 

So, maybe your boss got some significant feedback from your colleagues about how they want a structured office environment. Maybe the friend that tipped heavily is trying to impress the group he’s dining with. Identifying these moments allows us to practice tackling our own attribution biases. 

The Reboot Foundation is dedicated to supporting efforts by individuals and organizations to better integrate critical thinking into our daily lives. By learning about our biases and how to combat them with critical thinking skills, we open up opportunities to better understand ourselves, each other, and the systems we operate within – all ultimately in service of making better decisions that advance opportunity.

Helen Lee Bouygues is the president of the Reboot Foundation

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