Attributional biases in social psychology are a class of cognitive errors triggered when people evaluate the dispositions or qualities of others based on incomplete evidence. For instance, in one famous 1967 study, participants observed two groups of people reading essays aloud – one reading essays in favor of Fidel Castro, others against Castro.
Even though the observers were told that the readers were assigned to the groups entirely randomly, watching them read the essays caused them to attribute greater probabilities that those reading the pro-Castro essays were in fact pro-Castro and those reading the anti-Castro essays were in fact anti-Castro. This is an example of the so-called fundamental attribution error, where people overemphasize dispositional (personality-based) explanations for behavior over situational explanations.
Attribution biases are ubiquitous in psychology, and one famous researcher even called them the bedrock of modern social psychology. The attribution bias cause us to under-estimate the importance of inanimate, situational factors over animate, human factors. For instance, we might talk to a person from another country who mentions they only venture outside the house for outdoor recreation a once times a week, and assume this means that they are a person that loves the indoors. However, we may be unaware that they live in a cold location where it is freezing outside for most of the season. The consistent human tendency to attribute qualities to dispositional explanations is not just intuitively obvious: it is also experimentally measurable, and the effect has been reproduced in hundreds of different experiments put under numerous possible manipulations.
Another example of an attribution bias might be a situation where we observe someone kicking a soda machine, and assume they are an angry person. But perhaps they’ve just had a bad day, only to lose their money to this soda machine, and under similar circumstances, we would do the same thing ourselves. This application of different standards to the self and others, or an observer and an actor, fall into the category of egocentric biases and observer/actor differences, respectively.
Avoiding the attribution bias can be difficult. One debiasing strategy is to simply give other people the benefit of the doubt. Another would be to inquire into the background behind the circumstances of a situation, to clarify whether a dispositional explanation is really most plausible. Yet another would be to ask oneself how one would behave in a similar situation. Eliminating the attribution bias completely seems impossible, as it is likely built into human nature. However, through reflective thinking, it appears possible to minimize its effects.