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Attribution Theory: Influences on People's Behavior

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Attribution theory explores how emotion and cognition together influence people’s behavior (Fiske and Taylor, 1991). The theory concerns itself with the information people use in an attempt to explain their actions and events that occur, and how this input is analyzed to form a causal judgment (Ross, 1977). Two types of attribution bias, the fundamental attribution error, and the actor-observer effect will be compared followed by a critical examination of attribution through the lens of the stigmatizing people with mental health conditions.

The fundamental attribution error (FAE) claims that people will over-attribute the behaviors of others to something personal about them rather than to something about the situation (Ross, 1977). This bias is illustrated in a seminal study by Jones and Harris, where participants were forced to write either a pro or anti-Fidel Castro speech. Subjects then rated the writers’ attitudes towards Castro. When subjects believed participants freely chose their positions, those who were forced to write a pro-Castro essay were rated as leaning more positively towards the figure than those who wrote anti-Castro essays. When the subjects were told the choice of the essay was random, they still saw participants who wrote pro-Castro as having a more positive attitude towards him. The study shows that people couldn’t refrain from attributing the participant’s attitudes based on disposition rather than on the situation of being forced to write an essay about a political figure (Jones and Harris, 1967).

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The actor-observer effect differs from the FAE in that it refers to a person’s tendency of attribution of others’ actions due to disposition, but of one’s own actions as due to external, situational causes (Jones and Nisbett, 1971). For example, when a stranger is helpful to us, we may believe that this person is friendly, attributing their actions as based on their personality. When we also act helpful towards a stranger, we may find many other external factors are explaining this behavior. Malle notes that when doing an action, people are more aware of how the environment affects their own behavior, whereas when merely observing an action causes the person to focus more on the person doing such action rather than their environment (Malle, 2006). Interestingly, we are more prone to using this bias when interpreting behaviors of people we don’t know well, suggesting that we are less likely to use this bias towards family and friends because we store more information about their ways of thinking, intrinsic motivations, and circumstances (Nisbett et al, 1973).

The similarities between FAE and actor-observer effect are evident in that they are pervasive effects that are quite difficult to correct. Both biases direct attributions towards other people’s behaviors as a reflection of disposition. Further, studies have shown that both biases are more prevalent when the outcomes are negative (Morewedge, 2009).

Although seemingly like two sides of the same coin, the main difference between both biases are the parties they reference. FAE discusses solely the attribution of other’s behaviors, while the actor-observer effect addresses how we address our own actions. Nisbett says that FAE happens because people perceive the external world as having little effect on human behavior, whereas, in the actor-observer effect, people do accept situational factors influencing their behavior specifically when considering their own actions (Nisbett et al, 1973). It should be noted that the actor-observer effect has been challenged by a recent meta-analysis that showed the difference between actor and observer may not be as common or as strong as the FAE, and may only hold under limited conditions (Malle, 2006).

One limitation is that the FAE and actor-observer effect do not explain the types of attributions we make, and such distinctions are important in understanding how biased attributions contribute to stigmatizing people with mental health disorders and those suffering from addictions. In the FAE model, we may attribute the actions of a depressed or addicted person as a personality trait internalized under their disease, not of a circumstance equally likely in their environment, and we would then be unable to break free of that association when engaging with that person. I would also argue for the inverse of the actor-observer effect in these depressed individuals who seem to perpetuate a self-stigma, where they attribute their own behaviors as inherently who they are, making it even more difficult for them to believe in seeking external help or having the hope of recovery.

In summary, attribution biases are important in understanding the mechanisms by which we judge others’ actions, and it would be interesting to develop studies that correlate these biases against the outcome of stigmas in people with mental disorders.  

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