Explaining Others Behavior

Our explanations (or attributions) of othersí behaviors is central in determining how we will react to them.

Attribution Theory

Is the attribution we make centered on personal characteristics or situational variables?


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Personal attribution Situational attribution

(Internal attribution) (External attribution)

The better we know someone, the more likely we are to attribute behavior to the situation.

The more examples of a personís behavior across a wide variety of situations we have seen, the more likely we are to take context into consideration in making attributions.

In a marriage, those who are able to make external attributions

of spouses negative behaviors are more likely to be happy with their marriage.

Misatributions can have serious consequences

Men whose misatrribute a femaleís friendliness as sexual interest can lead to behavior which the women regard as sexual harassment (Johnson et al 1991, Saal et al 1989).

Sexually Aggressive men are especially likely to misinterpret friendly behavior (Malamouth & Brown, 1994)

Is this part of Bill Clintonís problems ?

Attribution Theory

Analyzes how we explain peoples behavior

We often infer a correspondence between actions and internal states

Common sense attributions have three major parts:


Consistency --- Does person usually behave this way in this situation?

Distinctiveness -- Does person behave differently in different situations?

Consensus -- Do others behave similarly in this situation ?


To the extent we answer "Yes" to the questions concerned with distinctiveness and consensus, we are likely to make an External Attribution, that the person is behaving in a particular way due to the situation.



Information Integration -- When we here a set of facts or traits associated with an individual, we weight them according to their perceived importance.

Additionally, we may put more weight on the first piece of information given to us. (Primacy effect)

We may put greater weight on negative information, especially if there is only one or two pieces of negative information given with numerous positive pieces of information.

Why do we study errors in attribution?


Errors can help us determine how people normally think about ourselves and others.

By making ourselves aware of the errors we commonly make, we may be able to prevent some of the errors.

In other words, by pointing out our faults, we hope we can improve on ourselves in the future.


The Fundamental Attribution Error

The tendency for observers to overestimate the influence of personal characteristics and to underestimate the influence of situational characteristics.

Jones & Harris (1967) -- Students rated a statement written by another student which either supported or attacked Fidel Castro.

D.V. -- Students gave a rating which estimated how much the person who wrote the pro- or anti-Castro statement personally believed in the statement. (To what degree is the sentiment reflected by the statement a representation of the authors personal beliefs)

I.V. --- Whether the student who wrote the pro- or anti-Castro statement volunteered or was assigned to write it.

Results -- Students believed that individuals who wrote pro-Castro statements were supporters of Castro, even when they know the individual was assigned by the researcher to write a pro-Castro statement

How does the F.A.E. occur in everyday Life?

The Alex Trebak Effect

Ross, Amabile, & Steinmetz (1977) - Used a game show situation to examine what attributions students would make of the intelligence of the contestants and the game show moderator.

D.V. -- The intelligence rating given to the game show contestants and the moderator by the observers.

I.V. -- People were randomly assigned to be either the game show host or the contestants. People who were selected to host the game show were allowed to come up with their own questions.

Results -- Observers (and contestants) rated the intelligence of the game show host as higher than that of the contestants.


In life, people with social power usually initiate and control conversations. Because people usually donít discuss things they know absolutely nothing about (except when explicitly seeking information about a topic), their knowledgeability concerning a particular topic can give the other person the impression that they are knowledgeable on a whole host of other topics. (Halo effect)

Medical doctors and teachers are often presumed to be experts on topics completely unrelated to their field of study.






Why do we make Fundamental Attribution Errors?


Attributions are dependent upon the focus of our attention.

Usually, we focus on the person within the situation, leading to personality centered attributions.

If you can get a person to be hyper-vigilant (made more aware of) situational factors, they are less likely to commit F.A.E.

F.A.E. can have real world consequences

Lassiter & Irvine (1986) -- Studied how changing the perspective in a police interrogation affected observers believability in a suspects confession.

D. V. -- How genuine the suspectís confession was seen as by observers

I. V. -- Whether the camera was focused on the Detective conducting the interrogation or the suspect who was being interrogated.

Results -- Observers rated the confession as being more genuine when the camera was focused on the suspect. Observers who saw the camera focused on the detective were much more likely to conclude that the confession had been coerced.

An additional reason for F.A.E. may be our own focus

To the degree to which we take responsibility for all of our own actions (both positive and negative), we are more likely to make personality based judgements of other peoples actions.

Collectivist cultures (non-western) are less likely to make personality based judgements of behavior

Behavior and Belief


Attitude -- a favorable or unfavorable evaluative reaction toward something or someone, exhibited in oneís beliefs, feelings, or intended behavior

When is attitude a good predictor of our behavior?

1. When external influences on our words and actions are minimal

2. When the attitude is specific to the behavior

3. When we are conscious of our attitudes. If forced to think about your attitude concerning a particular action, you are more likely to act in concordance with that attitude. (Availability heuristic)


When the above three conditions are not met, we will often perform in ways inconsistent with our attitudes.


Can our behavior influence our attitudes ?

Many studies have shown that attitude, and specifically attitude change can follow behavior. The roles we take in life often help determine our


Lieberman (1956) -- Studied how assembly line workers attitudes changed when promoted to either a shop steward position or a supervisor position.

People promoted to shop steward attitudes shifted in a pro-union direction, while attitudes of those promoted to supervisor shifted in a

pro-company direction.

The foot-in-the-door phenomenon

( Or, how people can get you to do more than you ever planned on)

If you want someone to do you a big favor, chances are you will be more successful in your request if you first ask them to do a small favor.

Freedman & Fraser (1966) -- Studied how to get people to comply with requests.

D.V. -- Whether the people would agree to let the researchers post a large sign, marked "Drive Carefully" on their lawn.

I.V. -- Whether they asked to post the large sign, or first asked the people if they would display a 3 inch "Be a safe Driver" window sticker.

Results: Only 17% of people asked to post the large sign consented, but 76% of the people who agreed to post the 3 inch sticker later agreed to post the large sign in their yard.


Pliner et al (1974) found that the percentage of Canadiens who were willing to give money to the cancer society increased from 46% to 90%, when the people had been asked the day before to wear a lapel pin publicizing the fund drive.

Lipsitz et al (1989) - Increased show up rates for a blood drive from 62% to 81% by ending reminder calls to people who had previously agreed to donate blood by ending the reminder call with the sentence, "Weíll count on seeing you then, OK ?"



Low-Ball technique -- a foot-in-the-door technique used in sales. A salesman (especially car dealers) will quote you one price to get you to think about the purchase, and then tell you that the price is actually a lot higher.

These techniques even work in the college environment


Cialdini et al (1978) Asked one group of intro-psych students to participate in an experiment that started at 7 am. Only 1/4 of the students participated.

However, when they asked another group of intro-psych students to participate in the experiment before telling them what time the experiment was to be held, Over Ĺ showed up at 7 am.


The bottom line is that when people ask us to perform some small favor, we need to ask ourselves whether we think a larger request is likely to follow.



Why do we allow our behavior to influence our attitudes?


Sometimes, if we perform behaviors which are inconsistent with our attitudes, we change our attitudes to be more in line with our behavior


Cognitive Dissonance -- the realization that one has acted in a manner counter to ones beliefs.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory -- States that we will adjust our attitude in order to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Festinger & Carlsmith (1959) - Studied attitudinal change by getting students to tell other students how exciting a very boring task was.

D.V. -- Rating, afterwards, of how much they enjoyed the experiment

I.V. -- Whether they were told to tell the next person how interesting the experiment was, and how much they were paid to do so (1$ or 20$)

Festinger & Carlsmith (continued)

Results -- Not surprisingly, subjects who did not have to tell the next student that the experiment was interesting reported the task as being very boring.

Students who were paid $20 to convince the next person that the experiment was exciting reported that the task was neither boring or interesting (Low dissonance). Students in the $1 payment group, however, reported the task as being somewhat enjoyable! (High dissonance)

That is, since they had to convince someone else that this task really was interesting, and were only paid a single dollar, they convinced themselves that the task was more interesting than it really was ! Otherwise, they would have to live with the fact that they lied to this other person, and were only paid a dollar for their lie.

The people in the $20 payment group could live with their lie, because it allowed them a $20 payment, not an insignificant amount of money in 1956!


Additional Example:

Smokers who write an anti-smoking essay will be more opposed to smoking after they write the essay than before they write it. (Although it is doubtful that merely writing the essay convinced many of them to stop smoking!)

Dissonance theory best explains what happens when our actions openly contradict well-defined attitudes.

But what about situations when we arenít really sure of our attitude?


Self-Perception Theory -- When unsure of our attitudes, we look to our behavior and the circumstances surrounding it to determine what our attitude is.(Bem, 1972)