The Fundamental Errors of Situationism

More about why the fundamental attribution error is overrated

Posted Feb 01, 2017

In the previous part of this article, I examined Richard Nisbett’s claims that the fundamental attribution error—defined as overestimating the role of traits and underestimating the importance of situations—is a scientific concept that deserves to be more widely-known. I showed that this phenomenon is based on a false dichotomy between dispositions and situations in explaining behavior, and that the tendencies described by the fundamental attribution error have not actually been shown to be of fundamental importance in understanding how people explain behavior. In this second part, I address Nisbett’s arguments for situationism, the claim that personality traits are of much lesser importance than situations in explaining why people act as they do, and show that they are outdated and contradicted by current evidence.

"Nothing personal Caesar, we're just responding to situational demands that require your murder."
Source: Wikipedia

Nisbett brings out some very old statistical arguments (some of which I have mentioned in a previous post) to illustrate how people supposedly underestimate the power of situations, and the inferiority of personality.

"When they observe a single instance of honest or extroverted behavior they are confident that, in a different situation, the person would behave in a similarly honest or extroverted way. In actual fact (sic), when large numbers of people are observed in a wide range of situations, the correlation for trait-related behavior runs about .20 or less. People think the correlation is around .80." 

The implication here is that personality traits have only a weak relationship with behavior, whereas situational factors obviously have a much stronger influence on behavior, the core claim of situationism. However, the information Nisbett presents is misleading. It would be more accurate to say that when large numbers of people are observed in a single situation, the correlation between their behavior and their traits averages about .20 (but may range as high as .40). However, when people are observed in a wide range of situations the correlation is much higher. For example, studies from the 1970’s and 80s (Epstein & O'Brien, 1985) showed that when people are assessed on a range of behaviors over a longer period (e.g. 12 days in one study), correlations between their behavior and their traits ranged between .75 and .93!

Perhaps, it might be argued that Nisbett is only talking about single instances of behavior after all, and is arguing that situational influences are much more important, and dispositional influences much less important in these circumstances than people believe. That is, people might think that the influence of traits in these circumstances is much higher (.80) than the actual .20 correlation he cited, and conversely, they think that the actual influence of situations is much lower than… well, Nisbett does not actually provide any numbers for how strong people think situational influences are compared to what they really are, so it’s hard to say what is being compared here. But surely the real power of situations is much greater than .20, because that’s such a low number, isn’t it? And situations are so much more powerful than personality, aren’t they? Well, actually a systematic review of 100 years of experiments in social psychology (Richard, Bond Jr., & Stokes-Zoota, 2003) found that the average correlation of situations with behavior is .21.That is, all else being equal, the influence of a specific situational factor on a single instance of behavior is about the same as the influence of a specific personality trait. Of course, .21 is just an average, some situational effects are larger. Some of the classic experiments in social psychology that have been touted as demonstrating the “power of the situation” have produced larger correlations – of about .40 (Funder & Ozer, 1983). Nisbett’s go-to example, the Milgram obedience studies that produced such dramatic results, had a correlation of .42. As I noted earlier, correlations between personality traits and behavior in a single situation are known to range as high as .40, and when behavior is considered across multiple instances and times, the correlations may be much higher. Perhaps, when people think that the correlation between personality traits and behavior is about .80 as Nisbett claims, this is really because people are interested in patterns of behavior, rather than isolated instances. Furthermore, since Nisbett does not cite any estimates of what correlation people expect between specific situations and behavior at different times, he provides no basis for claiming that people underestimate the importance of situational influences. Historically, social psychologists have paid little attention to assessing the actual size of the effect of situations, yet when these effect sizes become known, claims that situations are much more important for understanding behavior than personality traits become untenable (Kenrick & Funder, 1988).

 Furthermore, Nisbett concluded his essay by stating that:

Our susceptibility to the fundamental attribution error—overestimating the role of traits and underestimating the importance of situations—has implications for everything from how to select employees to how to teach moral behavior.

Hence, it is clear that he is not just talking about single instances of behavior, he is claiming that the fundamental attribution error is a pervasive phenomenon of great importance. However, as stated earlier, the evidence for the fundamental attribution error derives almost exclusively from highly artificial laboratory experiments examining narrow aspects of behavior. Regarding employee selection and moral behavior there is considerable evidence that personality traits are important for understanding both how people behave at work and when confronted with moral issues (Ozer & Benet-Martínez, 2006). What relevance the fundamental attribution error has for these things is far less clear. Presumably, when selecting employees, one would be interested in how they are likely to behave across a wide range of situations and over longer periods of time, rather than in a single situation. Similarly, for moral concerns, I think people would be interested in understanding the general pattern of how people apply moral standards and how this reflects their character.

Social psychologists have argued that people tend to blame others, often unfairly, for their circumstances without proper consideration of environmental (and presumably other) factors beyond one’s control. They claim that social psychology has a humanizing message that locates blame outside the person by focusing on situational factors that influence behavior (and life outcomes generally). This line of reasoning has been used to defend the importance of the fundamental attribution error in understanding how people explain behavior. However, in their critique of the fundamental attribution error Sabini, Siepmann, and Stein (2001) replied that “the overly broad message that situations, not dispositions, cause behavior seems to erode responsibility for behavior. This message lets people off the hook for what is their fault (as well as for what is not their fault) and denies them praise for what they should be praised for. If claiming that situations are more important than dispositions lets the innocent off the hook, it does so by a blanket denial of human responsibility, and that is dehumanizing, not humanizing.” Hence, the message that factors external to a person are generally responsible for their behavior, as if the behavior of persons is comparable to that of inanimate objects as Nisbett argues, is morally, as well as scientifically, unsound.

Situationism regards people like chess pieces moved by external forces
Source: pixabay

I think it is fair to say that research on the so-called fundamental attribution error has shown that people often misunderstand the causes of behavior, both their own and that of other people. However, it does not make sense to say that this means that people overestimate the influence of traits and underestimate that of situations because this formulation relies on a false dichotomy between internal and external causes of behavior. That is, an external cause (a situation) only influences behavior if it activates a corresponding internal cause (a disposition). Furthermore, it has not been demonstrated that the fundamental attribution error really is something “fundamental” that permeates how people understand behavior in general. The situationist account of the fundamental attribution error, that denigrates the importance of personality, promotes an unscientific and simplistic dichotomy that hinders a deeper understanding of human behavior. This is why I think the fundamental attribution error is overrated.

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

Image credit 

The Death of Caesar (1798) by Vincenzo Camuccini


Epstein, S., & O'Brien, E. J. (1985). The person–situation debate in historical and current perspective. Psychological Bulletin, 98(3), 513-537. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.98.3.513

Funder, D. C., & Ozer, D. J. (1983). Behavior as a function of the situation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1), 107-112.

Kenrick, D. T., & Funder, D. C. (1988). Profiting from controversy: Lessons from the person-situation debate. American Psychologist, 43(1), 23-34. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.43.1.23

Ozer, D. J., & Benet-Martínez, V. (2006). Personality and the Prediction of Consequential Outcomes. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 401-421. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.57.102904.190127

Richard, F. D., Bond Jr., C. F., & Stokes-Zoota, J. J. (2003). One Hundred Years of Social Psychology Quantitatively Described. Review of General Psychology, 7(4), 331-363. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.7.4.331

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