The Fundamental Attribution Error is Overrated

This widely hyped phenomenon is not all it appears to be.

Posted Jan 25, 2017

This article is part 1 of 2.

Every year, the Edge asks many different scientists to answer a question, the nature of which changes every year. Their question for 2017 was “what scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” Many noted scientists delivered some great answers. However, one answer I thought was less than great was by the eminent social psychologist Richard Nisbett, whose response was the fundamental attribution error. He defined this as overestimating the role of traits and underestimating the importance of situations when explaining someone’s behavior. This is already a widely-known concept in psychology, but is it really that important an idea? Nisbett’s explanation of the fundamental attribution error is based on an outdated and false dichotomy between personality and situations in explaining behavior. Furthermore, the evidence that this concept is of fundamental importance in understanding how people explain behavior has been greatly exaggerated. Far from deserving to be more widely-known, I think the fundamental attribution error is highly overrated.

Nisbett attempts to explain the fundamental attribution error, the supposed tendency to attribute people’s behavior to their internal dispositions rather than their external circumstances, with an analogy to a wacky version of physics he attributes to Aristotle in which objects behave as they do because of their inherent properties. He states: “most of us think about the behavior of objects and people much of the time in purely dispositional terms… Modern physics replaced Aristotle’s dispositional thinking by describing all motion as being due to the properties of an object interacting in particular ways with the field in which it is located.” Just as modern physics has superseded Aristotle, Nisbett proposes that modern social psychology has replaced the outdated “pure dispositionalist view that most people supposedly have.

Modern scientific psychology insists that explanation of the behavior of humans always requires reference to the situation the person is in. The failure to do so sufficiently is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.

This analogy between the behavior of persons and of inanimate objects is a poor one. Obviously, inanimate objects have no agency, but persons do. Objects are passively acted upon, whereas people can initiate behavior. Furthermore, it would be more accurate to say that the mainstream view in modern scientific psychology explains behavior in terms of both the features of the person and the features of the situation they are in. However, Nisbett has long been associated with a theory known as situationism, that holds that internal features of a person ─ that is, their dispositions or personality traits ─ are of little importance in understanding behavior, while external situational factors are of central importance. I have written about situationism in more detail in a previous post.

Wikimedia commons
Yeah, I suppose guys like this were just reacting to situations and their personalities were of no great importance...
Source: Wikimedia commons

The concept of the fundamental attribution error has long been used to buttress the claims of situationism. For example, Nisbett argues that his students and “everyone else in Western society” is confident that people act in a way that is consistent with their personality traits. He then goes on to make some very old arguments that behavior is not as consistent with personality as most people think, and uses the famous Milgram obedience experiments as an example that supposedly illustrates that people overestimate the influence of personality dispositions on behavior and underestimate the power of the situation to control how people act. I will address these arguments in more detail in the second part of this post.

Firstly though, some background on the fundamental attribution error is necessary to clarify the claims made about it. Evidence cited in support of the fundamental attribution error derives largely from laboratory experiments in which, for example, people are pressured into doing something that goes against their stated preferences, and others are asked to explain why they behaved as they did (Sabini, Siepmann, & Stein, 2001). One famous example is an essay writing paradigm, wherein people were asked to write an essay in support of an unpopular political figure such as Fidel Castro. Other people were then asked to judge how much the essay reflected the writer’s real attitudes. Participants in this experiment tended to infer that the essay reflected the writer’s real attitudes, even though it was more likely that they wrote the essay because they were asked to. Social psychologists have interpreted this to mean that people overestimated the importance of the essay writer’s internal dispositions (their real attitudes) and underestimated the importance of the situation (being asked to write an essay by an authority figure). However, there is another way of looking at the results. Certainly, the participants in the experiment made an error in judging between the factors influencing the essay writer’s behavior. But arguing that one of these factors is an internal disposition and the other is an external situational factor is arbitrary. Deciding to do what an experimenter tells you to do has a dispositional component as much as a situational one – the desire to please an authority figure. Hence, one could say that the essay writer had to decide between two conflicting dispositions – to express their own beliefs or to obey a request. Therefore, those who misjudged the essay writer’s behavior may have underestimated the dispositional importance to the writer of obeying such requests. The idea that situations and dispositions are opposing forces in determining behavior reflects a false dichotomy, because the two are complementary. A situation can only elicit a response if a person has a disposition to respond in the relevant way. Hence, what these types of experiments show, is not that people overestimate dispositional causes and underestimate situational ones, but that people overestimate some causes (e.g. how they would like to behave) and underestimate others (e.g. their willingness to do things that make them uncomfortable to avoid awkward confrontations)(Sabini et al., 2001). That is, people might underestimate how conflicted their own dispositions are, and experimental situations can bring these awkward conflicts to light and expose how much people struggle to find compromises between them (Funder, 2001).

This conflict-based view is also useful for understanding Milgram’s obedience experiments, which Nisbett uses as his go-to example of people’s supposed preference for dispositional explanations over situational ones. He alludes to the fact that when people hear about the results of this famous experiment they find it hard to believe that they or someone like them might behave the same way as about two-thirds of people did in the most widely reported version of this study. He contrasts people’s belief in the “armor of virtue” versus the “power of the situation.” However, this does not mean that people underestimate the power of the situation in favor of the power of their own dispositions. An alternative explanation is that people do not appreciate their disposition to obey because they overestimate how much personal importance they place on behaving morally. That is, features of the situation in this experiment affect behavior because of people’s corresponding dispositions. This does not mean that situations are more important than personality, only that the two interact in ways that people do not always understand. Milgram himself actually thought that obedience reflected a complex mix of personality and situational factors, something that is often overlooked.

Some very strong claims have been made about the phenomenon known as the fundamental attribution error, including that it is a pervasive, routine part of life. This phenomenon was previously known under various other names, such as "correspondence bias." Heider, the person who originally studied this phenomenon, did not claim that it was somehow fundamental; instead, he said that it is a bias that occurs “under some circumstances." However, in the 1970’s, Lee Ross proposed that the tendency to attribute behavior to dispositional causes is a definite error, not just a bias, because he thought that personality traits are simply not of great importance in understanding behavior. Moreover, he claimed that this error is of central importance in psychology, and therefore justified in being called fundamental. However, evidence for the pervasiveness of this phenomenon is lacking because 95% of evidence for the FAE is based on carefully controlled lab experiments rather than observations of everyday life. Hence, it has not been demonstrated that the FAE occurs routinely in ordinary circumstances (Malle, 2006). Furthermore, there is research evidence that when people are made aware of salient situational constraints on behavior, they do not make dispositional attributions. Hence, this phenomenon does not deserve to be called “fundamental,” and for reasons that I hope will become clear, attributing behavior to someone’s dispositions is not necessarily an error (Harvey, Town, & Yarkin, 1981).

Nisbett argues that most people – nearly everyone even – are “pure” dispositionalists. But is this really true? That is, do laypeople consider that a person’s behavior is purely a result of their personality characteristics, and do not consider the circumstances in which behavior occurs? Contrary to Nisbett’s claims, there is evidence that laypeople do not find “pure” dispositionalism particularly appealing (Newman & Bakina, 2009). For example, in one telling study, participants in America and South Korea were asked to rate how strongly they agree with three different accounts of behavior (Norenzayan, Choi, & Nisbett, 2002). These were “pure” dispositionalism – the belief that personality influences behavior regardless of the situation people are in; situationism – the belief that situations largely control behavior, and that the influence of personality is weak; and interactionism – the belief that behavior results from a complex interplay of dispositional and situational factors. As it turned out, in two surveys “pure” dispositionalism was the least popular theory. On a 1-9 scale, where higher scores indicate greater agreement, participants in both America and Korea gave it about a 5, indicating that most were either neutral or skeptical. However, situationism did not fare much better, as average scores were also not much higher than 5 either. On the other hand, interactionism was much better accepted, as average scores were over 7 in both countries and these scores were significantly higher than for either of the other two theories. This suggests that when asked, most people do not strongly endorse either “pure” dispositionalism or extreme situationism (the latter to the possible disappointment of certain social psychologists). Perhaps, this is because laypeople intuitively consider such extreme and one-sided theories to be contrary to common sense. Another study (Newman & Bakina, 2009) found comparable results, and the authors suggested that laypeople might be skeptical of situationist type explanations of behavior, not because they are “intuitive dispositionalists,” but because they perceive social psychological accounts of behavior that emphasize the “power of the situation” to determine behavior as undermining personal responsibility. Downplaying personal responsibility in favor of external sources of blame has been a pervasive theme in the history of social psychology (Sabini et al., 2001), and probably helps explain why the so-called fundamental attribution error has been accorded such prominence within the field.

In the next part of the post, I will examine Nisbett's arguments for the supposed weakness of personality traits in explaining behavior, and explain why these arguments are lacking in substance.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

Related posts

Individual Differences in the Stanford Prison Experiment - definitely one of the most highly overrated studies in psychology

Are Heroes and Villains Really Just Victims of Circumstance?

Heroes and Villains: The Contradictions Within Situationism - these last two posts critique Zimbardo's claims about the "banality" of good and evil

The Ghost of Situationism and Why Personality Is Not a Myth - Long discredited claims about the "myth" of personality that will not die

Image Credit

Napoleon crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David


Funder, D. C. (2001). The Really, Really Fundamental Attribution Error. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 21-23.

Harvey, J. H., Town, J. P., & Yarkin, K. L. (1981). How fundamental is "the fundamental attribution error"? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(2), 346-349. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.40.2.346

Malle, B. F. (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), 895-919. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.895

Newman, L. S., & Bakina, D. A. (2009). Do people resist social‐psychological perspectives on wrongdoing? Reactions to dispositional, situational, and interactionist explanations. Social Influence, 4(4), 256-273. doi:10.1080/15534510802674292

Norenzayan, A., Choi, I., & Nisbett, R. E. (2002). Cultural Similarities and Differences in Social Inference: Evidence from Behavioral Predictions and Lay Theories of Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(1), 109-120. doi:10.1177/0146167202281010

Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). The Really Fundamental Attribution Error in Social Psychological Research. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 1-15. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli1201_01

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