Discuss two errors in attributio

Discuss two errors in attributions

Error 1: Fundamental Attribution Error

FAE occurs when people overestimate personality traits (dispositional factors) and underestimate environmental factors when they explain other people’s behavior. According to social psychologist Fiske (2004), people rely too much on personality in explaining behavior and they underestimate – or never consider – the power of situations.

  • In Western societies it could be because of the ideology that people get what they deserve.
  • It makes life more predictable if people’s behavior is mainly caused by their personality. This gives the impression that people are understandable and easy to deal with.
  • Explanations based solely on personality are incomplete. It would be wrong not to consider the power of situation.

Study to use: Ross, Amabile, and Steinmetz (1977)

Strengths of the FAE:



  • The theory has promoted understanding of common errors in explanation of what happens in the world.
  • The theory has proven very robust and has been supported by many research studies.

Limitations of the FAE:

  • The theory is culturally biased with too much focus on individualism.
  • Much research on the theory has been conducted in laboratories and with a student sample (problems with generalization of findings).

Error 2: The self-serving bias (SSB)

The SSB (i.e. a self-enhancing strategy) refers to people’s tendency to evaluate themselves positively by taking credit for their success (“I am intelligent”) and attribute their failures to situational factors (“The teacher is not competent”).

A special version of the SSB is called “self-handicapping”. For example, students who expect to fail an exam can openly make situational attributions before the exam by saying that they have hangovers or that they haven’t slept the whole night.

Possible explanations:

  • The SSB could be a way to uphold self-esteem (self protection). People see themselves as responsible for success but not for their failures because they want to see themselves in this way.
  • Others have suggested that the SSB occurs when people don’t have enough information and limit themselves to the available information. People typically expect to succeed and correlate success with their own effort and exaggerate the amount of control they have (Miller and Ross, 1975).

Study to use: Lau and Russel (1980)

Strengths of the SSB:

  • The theory can explain why some people (mostly from individualist cultures) explain their failures as being caused by situational factors.

Limitations of the SSB:

  • The theory is culturally biased. It cannot explain why some cultures emphasize a self-effacing attribution (modesty bias).