Attribution Errors

Fundamental Attribution Error 

Fundamental attribution error as defined by Ross et al. 1977 is the tendency to overestimate the impact of dis positional factors and underestimate the impact of situational factors in making casual attributions to behavior. In his study, he randomly divided a sample into questioners and contestants. The questioners were asked to come up with the hardest questions they could think of. Even though both the questioners and contestants knew this, both rated the questioners as more intelligent than the contestants. This clearly illustrates the fundamental attribution error. Other researchers have also illustrated the FAE in other studies. Barjonet 1980 found that people consistently attribute poor driving to the disposition of the drives rather than external factors such as road conditions or perhaps an emergency situation.


Interestingly enough, although perhaps not all too surprising, the fundamental attribution errors appears to be more prevalent in western societies. Miller (1984) found that US adults were far more likely than Indian adults to commit the fundamental attribution error.

Actor-Observer Differences

Jones  and Nisbett (1972) described actor-observer differences as the tendency for actors to attribute their behaviour to external rather than internal causes. In his study Nisbet (1972) asked male students to write 2 essays. One essay was about their girlfriend and their choice of course. The other essay was about their best friend’s girlfriend and their friend’s choice of course. Nisbett found that when the male students wrote about themselves they made far more situational attributions to their choices, and when they wrote about their best friend, they made far more dispositional attributions to their choices.

Actor-observer differences were also observed by West (1975) during the Watergate Scandal involving President Nixon. He found that observers such as the public and the press blamed the scandal on the dispositions of the White House staff, where as the Nixon administrations blamed the circumstances for their behaviour.


Storms et al. (1973) attributed the actor-observer differences to perceptual focus. If you change perceptual focus, he believed you could also change attribution style. In the study, actor attributions become less situational and more dispositional when a videotape of the conversation between the participant and another person was viewed from an observer’s view point. The actor attributions became more situational and less dispositional when video was shown from the person they had been taking to’s view point.

False Consensus Effect 

In 1977 Ross et al. also described the false consensus effect as a criticism of the ANOVA model. The false consensus effect suggests that people rely less on distinctiveness and stimulus and more on consensus. Ross et al. believed that people would act the same us as in a given situation (consensus). In the study, Ross et al. asked students if they would walk around campus for 30 minutes wearing a sandwich board. 62% of the students that agreed to wear the sandwich board thought other people would also agree. 67% of the students that refused to wear the sandwich board through others would also refuse. Clearly, 67% plus 62% adds up to more than 100!


Sometimes, the false consensus effect works the other way. When we feel strongly about and issue or when something is very important to us, we want to believe others do not believe the same as us or did not do as well as us. Fenigstein’s (1996) study is an excellent paradigm of this. He observed that students who received an A on a test underestimated the amount of other students that also received an  A. Fenigstein believed that we fall prey to the false consensus effect because it helps boost our self-esteem to over-estimate or under-estimate consensus in certain circumstances.

Self-Serving Bias 

Self-serving bias is the tendency to contribute success to internal causes (self-enhancing bias) but failure to external causes (self-protecting bias). Self-serving bias comes in many forms such as the self-centred bias and self-handicapping.

Pupils sit GCSE exams in a school hall

The self-enhancing bias is far more pervasive than the self-protecting bias, quite unsurprisingly. Williams et al. (1979) found that exam success was attributed to intelligence where as exam failure was attribute to either poor lecturing ability or bad luck. Self-centred bias is quite similar, but it specifically refers to taking too much responsibility (or too little) for jointly produced outcomes. A classic example is couples blaming their significant other for sexual dysfunction in their relationship (Mall and Volpato 1989). Self-handicapping is also self-enhancing and is something we all tend to do around this time of year. We exaggerate a factor that detrimentally affects performance in order to decrease feelings of guilt and responsibility in case of failure but also to increase our self-esteem if we do happen to succeed.

Unrealistic Optimism 

Unrealistic optimism is the false belief that you are slightly better than average and that good things are more likely to happen to you. This is consistent with human tendency to believe in a just world and also to disguise any feelings of vulnerability to death. Manstead et al. 1992 found that even after being hospitalised due to car accident, these drivers still rated their driving abilities as above average. Even more astounding is the survey conducted by Burger and Burns (1998) who found that women who did not use contraception thought they were less at risk of getting pregnant compared to other women.