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Proposed explanations for the correspondence bias and actor-observer difference 1. Attention focus: Storms’ study suggests that the differential tendency to attribute an actor’s behaviour to internal factors depends on the direction of attention. Actors tend to be more salient (see below) to observers than the surrounding context, whereas the situation tends to be more salient to actors because attention is typically focused outward. This kind of explanation was already anticipated in Heider’s (1958) original account of attribution: “It seems that behavior in particular has such salient properties it tends to engulf the total field rather than be confined to its proper position as a local stimulus whose interpretation requires additional data of a surrounding field — the situation in social perception” (p. 54).

2. Differential availability of information: Jones and Nisbett (1972) suggested that one of the reasons why actors’ attributions may differ from observers’ is that actors tend to have access to more background information about their behaviour in other situations, making them better able to appreciate its variability. Correspondingly, knowledge of other people may be limited to a restricted range of situations in which consistency in behaviour is more likely.

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3. Properties of the English language: Brown and Fish (1983) argued that the majority of English verbs available for describing actions carry clear implications about the dispositions of the actor. For example, the description “Margaret disobeyed Frank” tends to imply that Margaret is disobedient rather than that Frank is often disobeyed. This may go some way to explaining the correspondence bias especially since most experiments ask participants to explain behaviours that are already described in verb form. Semin and Fiedler (1988) proposed that the actor-observer difference reflects a general linguistic tendency to describe one’s own actions using less abstract, more situationally specific terms. The question arising from both these accounts is whether the linguistic differences explain the attributional effects or the reverse.

4. Cultural processes: Miller (1984) confirmed that the correspondence bias is not a universal phenomenon by demonstrating that it was less apparent among a sample of Indian Hindu participants than among American participants. She suggested that attributional style depends on the socialization practices of the surrounding culture, and in particular on the extent to which an individualistic ideology is favoured. In support of this argument, younger children in the two investigated cultures showed little difference in their use of personal or situational attributions.

Salience effects

“Instead of reviewing all the evidence that bears upon a particular problem, people frequently use the information which is most salient or available to them, that is, that which is most easily brought to mind”

Salience refers to the degree of attention that a particular object attracts: Highly salient stimuli are ones that attract a lot of attention, because of their novelty, brightness, complexity, size, distinctiveness, or vividness. Taylor and Fiske (1978) followed up Storms’ research by examining how differential salience of potential causes affects attributions. They found that the more salient a particular stimulus, the more likely it was to be judged as playing a causal role.

For example, judgements about how influential a particular speaker was during a group discussion were found to depend upon whether or not the speaker was distinctive and therefore salient due to their solo status. When the actor was a single female in an all-male group or a solitary black person in an all-white group, he or she was judged to be more influential than when the same person was in a situation where the respective groups had equal numbers.

Self-serving biases

Self-serving biases in attribution reflect a preference for explanations that tend to support a favourable impression of the attributor. Two kinds of self-serving bias have been distinguished: The self-enhancing bias is the tendency to attribute the successful or positive outcomes you experience to your own abilities or efforts. The self-protective bias is the tendency to attribute failures or negative outcomes to external causes. For example, Johnson, Feigenbaum, and Weiby (1964) found that trainee teachers tended to explain a pupil’s improved performance as resulting from their own successful teaching methods, but a pupil’s continuing poor performance as reflecting the pupil’s lack of ability.

Evidence for the existence of genuinely self-serving biases was reviewed by Miller and Ross (1975) who argued that many of the relevant experiments failed to rule out the possibility that participants were simply publicly reporting the causes in this biased way in order to present a more favourable impression of themselves. Whether participants privately believe that they are more responsible for positive than negative outcomes is harder to determine.

The traditional explanation of self-serving biases is that people are selectively processing information in order to maintain their self-esteem. In contrast to this motivational account, Miller and Ross (1975) suggested two cognitive explanations of self-serving biases which do not depend on the assumption that people are driven in some way to arrive at distorted attributions of causality: 1. Expectations of success: People are typically more familiar with success than with failure, and hence come to expect their actions to result in positive rather than negative outcomes. Self-serving biases are a consequence of the tendency to interpret confirmations of expectation in terms of internal causes and disconfirmations of expectation in terms of external, interfering factors.

2. Co variation of success with personal effort: Because people usually try harder when they fail, a pattern of increasing success covaries more with personal effort than a pattern of constant failure. Thus, when performance improves this is seen as a consequence of trying harder but when performance remains poor it seems unresponsive to personal strivings. Ross (1977) summarized these two points as follows: “Success … is likely to be anticipated and congruent with the actor’s past experience, whereas failure may be unanticipated and unusual. Similarly, successful outcomes are intended and are the object of plans and actions by the actor, whereas failures are unintended events which occur in spite of the actor’s plans and efforts”.

Reading and references

Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (1991). Social cognition (2nd edition). New York: McGraw-Hill. (parts of Chapters 3 & 7) Gilbert, D. T. (1995). Attribution and interpersonal perception. In A. Tesser (Ed.). Advanced social psychology (pp. 98-147). New York: McGraw-Hill. Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 21-38.

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