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Why Do Things Happen?

Cognitive theory explains how we make sense of behavior and events.

Key points

  • A cognitive attribution is the process through which an individual determines the cause of an event or behavior.
  • Preexisting beliefs, such as that the world is inherently just, will impact the cognitive attributions people make.
  • Attribution biases impact one's ability to make accurate cognitive attributions.

As human beings trying to make sense of the world, it’s understandable that when something happens, we form interpretations regarding the cause. Consider this example:

Jake and Isaiah are two young men walking home from dinner. Across the street, they witness an older Black man scuffling violently with police, then being handcuffed and forced into the back of a police car in an apparent arrest.

“I wonder what that guy did,” Jake says.

“No, I know him,” Isaiah responds, “He was probably just selling cigarettes. The police want to harass him for trying to make a living while Black.”

They are making vastly different interpretations about the same event. Perhaps Jake assumes fault with the man being arrested because he holds positive attitudes towards the police. Maybe Isaiah is more likely to assume he is innocent because he knows him. What is the underlying cognitive process at play in these types of situations?

Cognitive Attribution Theory

A high school student fails a test and thinks this happened because they didn’t study enough. A Black man is pulled over by a police officer and believes it is racial discrimination. A barista is yelled at by a patron and assumes the patron was having a bad day. In each of these scenarios, the individual is making an attribution: the cognitive process through which someone makes a causal ascription for a behavior or an event. Attributions represent the why we come up with when making sense of the world around us.

Attribution theory is the study of perceived causation of behavior or events, and the subsequent behavioral, emotional, or cognitive reactions. The general model is that when something happens, antecedents (information, motivation, and personal beliefs) lead to attributions (perceived causes of behavior) that have consequences (feelings or behaviors).

Beliefs

Individuals view the world through the lens of their preexisting beliefs and interpret what they see accordingly. For example, if an individual believes that most people cheat in relationships, they will likely attribute the behaviors of their romantic partner as suspicious and act distrustfully towards them. If a police officer believes that Black men are criminals, they are more likely to interpret their behaviors as violent and become more likely to use deadly force. And so on.

One widely studied belief system in social and cognitive psychologies is belief in a just world (BJW), which refers to the belief that the world is inherently just. In other words, good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to people who deserve them. Individuals with this belief are more likely to victim blame and may struggle to give up this belief even when confronted with evidence that challenges it. Research suggests that people are subconsciously motivated to maintain this belief because it protects them against the harsh reality that injustice occurs, which potentially opens them up to perceived vulnerability and minimizes a sense of control over their own destiny. It may stoke an individual’s fear that if others can suffer undeservingly, then they may face a similar fate.

Pablo Rebolledo/Unsplash
Source: Pablo Rebolledo/Unsplash

Unsurprisingly, members of traditionally marginalized groups and victims of discrimination tend to report lower levels of BJW. These individuals may be more likely to interpret the causes of situations to perceived mistreatment, such as discrimination.

Returning to the example above, Isaiah attributes the behavior of the police to racial discrimination, which is likely due to his belief that police act with racial bias. This belief is more common among people of color, who are disproportionately targeted by police officers and the legal system at large. Using the general cognitive attribution model from above, Isaiah’s belief that police are racially biased informs his attribution that the officers are acting in a discriminatory manner and may lead to certain behaviors, such as avoiding police officers in the future.

Attribution Bias

Beliefs and past experiences may influence the type of attribution a person makes about an event, but what are the ways in which these antecedents may influence our cognitive attributions?

Attribution biases occur when systematic errors impact our ability to make accurate cognitive attributions. Considering the high amounts of information we are exposed to regularly, it is common for these biases to form due to the use of heuristics, or shortcuts, our brains sometimes use to make judgments without taking in all of the necessary information first.

One common attribution bias, the fundamental attribution error, is the tendency to inaccurately attribute the cause of another person’s behavior to the personal attributes of that person as opposed to situational factors. Conversely, this error can also manifest as tending towards attributing the causes of our own behaviors to situational factors instead of personal attributes, often referred to as the actor-observer bias. For example, one might believe that a colleague arrives late for work because they are irresponsible. That same person might attribute their own tardiness to situational factors, such as the bus being behind schedule that day.

In-group bias occurs when these biases are more pronounced across social groups to favor the individual’s in-group. Let’s revisit the previous example:

Jake and Isaiah made very different attributions about the police offcier's scuffle with the Black man. Perhaps Isaiah is Black and Jake is training to be a cop. Jake’s attribution about the event (that the man being arrested was in the wrong) is likely to be informed by his in-group membership with the police. He is more likely to make an attribution that views the police more favorably by attributing their behavior to a situational factor as opposed to a personal characteristic.

On the other hand, Isaiah’s attribution places blame on the officers in a discrimination attribution. He minimizes blame of the man being arrested (a person in his “in-group”) and attributes the behavior of the officers to a personal characteristic (racial bias). In this case, several attribution errors are potentially operating at the same time based on the externalizing and internalizing attributions each of them is making regarding the same event.

Why Do Attributions Matter?

How people make sense of events and behavior has real-world implications. Returning to the general attribution model: Antecedents lead to attributions lead to consequences. How individuals or collectives attribute the cause of behaviors and events has the power to influence their actions towards others; their mental health outcomes; their involvement in community issues; public policies they support or oppose; and many other tangible consequences for individuals and the socio-cultural and political context with which they live.

There is personal work that each of us can do to promote critical thinking and combat attributional bias. Consider this a challenge to promote a critical awareness of your own attributional process, which will lead you to more intentional behaviors towards others.

  • Acknowledge that cognitive bias exists for everyone, including you.
  • Identify factors that influence your attributions (i.e., preexisting beliefs, motivations, and information).
  • Practice awareness of and critically examine your personal biases.
  • Pay attention to situations where you tend to make internal attributions as opposed to external attributions. (Are there any patterns?)
  • Identify how your perceptions of your in-group memberships shape your thinking about events and the behaviors of others.
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