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The fundamental attribution error, and the organizations

The fundamental attribution error, also known sometimes as the bias of correspondence, is the phenomenon by which we tend to give more importance to the alleged personal motives of the individual (personal dispositions) to explain a behavior, that the external reasons or the situation in which that individual is located. Hence, this phenomenon is called “attribution”: we attribute to others certain reasons, or provisions to explain their behavior, when those reasons may have little to do with the same. As we are told in the Wikipedia article:

In other words, people tend to explain the behaviors based more on that “type” of person, giving little weight to the environmental and social factors that surrounded and influenced the person.

How does the attribution error? The article of Gilbert and Malone, The correspondence biass offers us a complete explanation of this phenomenon (and, by the way, also an interesting historical perspective of their study).

The authors tell us that the attribution of provisions to the behavior follows a sequence of four steps:

In the first place, the observer would identify the situation in which the actor (the individual whose behavior we observe).

In the second place, the observer creates a set of expectations about what would be the expected behavior of the individual in that particular situation.

In the third place, the observer categorizes the behavior of the agent (that is, identifies him as belonging to a particular type of action).

In the fourth place, the expected behavior by the observer compared to the observed in the agent: if there is no correspondence between the expected behavior and the observed, it is likely that the observer will perform an attribution of provisions to the agent. This is: it is likely that the observer will ask what have been the reasons that have led the agent to act in such a way, implying that as a response to various reasons of the agent.

Gilbert and Malone tell us that errors in these four stages can end up producing the fundamental attribution error. Let’s see what are these errors:

1. The situation is not identified correctly: according to the authors, this may happen for two reasons:

In the first place, the forces that form what we call a “situation” may not be as visible as the behavior of the agent. In this way, the observer may not understand what is the situation in which the agent is located, and the non-identification of the situation is a requirement to produce the error of attribution.

In the second place, people often fall into what is known as the assumption egoncéntrica, that is to say, we believe that the situation that we perceive is the situation that the agent perceives. So, we can ignore that people process differently to situations depending on our previous beliefs, so that we can ignore the effect that you can have a situation for a person, only by the fact that we do not feel influenced by that situation.

2. The expectations about the behavior of the agent are not realistic

In case you have identified the situation, the observer must have a reasonable idea of how you can affect it to the agent. And how we tend to form that idea of expected behavior? Very often, we do so by using the heuristic of availability, which is the phenomenon in which behaviors that are easily imagined, or remembered as frequent, are applied to new behaviors that we observe (something like a typical behavior that we expect to occur on similar occasions). The problem, of course, is that people do not always behave according to similar patterns.

3. It produces a categorization erroneous behavior of the agent

Although some behaviors can be easily perceived and categorized, there are behaviors that can be ambiguous. The interpretation of these behaviors can be affected by what the observer believes that it is the situation. Thus, the observer may believe that the behavior of the agent is due to the situation more than it actually does. The result remains the same: to attribute to the agent a reason for action that in reality may not have.

4. Corrections to incomplete predictions

Although Gilbert and Malone, we have a sequence of four steps, these are not always presented one after the other. You may default to attribute some reasons to the agent, to re-evaluate this attribution if the behavior of the agent is inconsistent with these reasons (that is, does not perform an initial prediction of the behavior). Here the verb key is to “re-evaluate”, since they do not always examine critically our mistaken beliefs: without this re-evaluation, the attribution error is served.

We have already outlined how the attribution error, but why this phenomenon occurs? Gilbert and Malone admit that social psychology does not have a clear answer to this question, but we can offer some conjecture, of which I am left with just one. The attribution error is a logical error that does not have catastrophic consequences for our life. In fact, in most of the scenarios of our real life, the error of attribution is not a problem, because individuals somehow choose those situations in which they are involved. Thus, directly attribute a few reasons to the agents to act, we are freed from the cognitive work of walking by examining constant situations which may not affect the behaviors that we observe in a relevant manner.

But there is a nuance that gives meaning to this post. I commented that “in most scenarios” of our life we choose the situations in which we find ourselves. But that does not mean that we do it at all. The social life of the human is of a complexity overwhelming, so we do not always control the environment the way we would like. One way or another, to the growing social complexity, the situational factors may gain weight in the motivation for our actions.

A fairly complex scenario in terms of social relations is the modern organization. Organizations are not only the place in which we work, and relate to, but also one in which you have place the personal problems, conflicts of interest and struggle for power.

I think that this is an important point, given the ubiquity of speeches and rhetoric about corporate governance, and the concept of “professional competencies”, at the time of charging workers certain provisions which, today, have an open negative sense: thus, such a member of the organization behaves in a certain way because “afraid to change”, “feel the envy of his peers”, “is not creative,”… and not because the organization are created conflicts of interest, because the posts do not have a few clear responsibilities, or because the management is not effective. In the words of Gilbert and Malone:

Some writers have argued that capitalist societies maintain an illusion of fairness by teaching their members that they are both the proximal and ultimate causes of their own behavior; as such, both the “haves” and the “have nots” are socialized to believe that they are responsible for their respective successes or failures

I’m not saying, of course, that has to give rise to victimhood easy (“I am a victim of my circumstances, I can’t do anything!”) on the part of the workers who show behaviors that can poison the climate of the organization. But for a correct evaluation of the human potential of the organizations, it is necessary to pay attention to factors such as:

  • How individuals relate to each other
  • What is the knowledge that really is expected of each position
  • What are the responsibilities of the different members
  • How they resolve the conflicts that are presented
  • In what is based the psychological contract oraganización-worker, and if this has deteriorated or strengthened.


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