What is Attribution Bias?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Attributional biases in social psychology are a class of cognitive errors triggered when people evaluate the dispositions or qualities of others based on incomplete evidence. For instance, in one famous 1967 study, participants observed two groups of people reading essays aloud – one reading essays in favor of Fidel Castro, others against Castro.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Even though the observers were told that the readers were assigned to the groups entirely randomly, watching them read the essays caused them to attribute greater probabilities that those reading the pro-Castro essays were in fact pro-Castro and those reading the anti-Castro essays were in fact anti-Castro. This is an example of the so-called fundamental attribution error, where people overemphasize dispositional (personality-based) explanations for behavior over situational explanations.

Attribution biases are ubiquitous in psychology, and one famous researcher even called them the bedrock of modern social psychology. The attribution bias cause us to under-estimate the importance of inanimate, situational factors over animate, human factors. For instance, we might talk to a person from another country who mentions they only venture outside the house for outdoor recreation a once times a week, and assume this means that they are a person that loves the indoors. However, we may be unaware that they live in a cold location where it is freezing outside for most of the season. The consistent human tendency to attribute qualities to dispositional explanations is not just intuitively obvious: it is also experimentally measurable, and the effect has been reproduced in hundreds of different experiments put under numerous possible manipulations.

Another example of an attribution bias might be a situation where we observe someone kicking a soda machine, and assume they are an angry person. But perhaps they’ve just had a bad day, only to lose their money to this soda machine, and under similar circumstances, we would do the same thing ourselves. This application of different standards to the self and others, or an observer and an actor, fall into the category of egocentric biases and observer/actor differences, respectively.

Avoiding the attribution bias can be difficult. One debiasing strategy is to simply give other people the benefit of the doubt. Another would be to inquire into the background behind the circumstances of a situation, to clarify whether a dispositional explanation is really most plausible. Yet another would be to ask oneself how one would behave in a similar situation. Eliminating the attribution bias completely seems impossible, as it is likely built into human nature. However, through reflective thinking, it appears possible to minimize its effects.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


Discrimination that is due to stereotypes is an "attribution error" that is more prevalent than you can imagine.

When a stereotype makes a convenient explanation for a situation, it is difficult for people to realize that they are choosing an explanation of convenience rather than an explanation that is accurate. It leads people to not look for the facts and causes. All kinds of assumptions often lead to discriminatory behavior by those who unknowingly commit an "Attribution error."


The halo effect bias is a result of "judging a book by its cover" in a positive sense. This is the reason many criminals are let off the hook scot-free because of their good looks and ostensibly charismatic personality. Con men thrive on this bias by dressing well and convincing people of their sincerity. If someone is good looking, people tend to think the person is generous and genuinely good in intentions.


Inferiority complex can be related to a hostile attribution bias. Someone with this complex will see the world as a series of hurdles, and the self as inadequate and needing constant improvement to overcome.


Hostile attribution bias is common among tyrants and criminals, and is the basis of a paranoid view of one's environment. This paranoia sometimes leads to violent and retributive action on innocents. The source of this kind of behavior can sometimes be a fearful or abused childhood, as was the case with Stalin, who was maimed by his drunk father. Little did his dad know that he would be indirectly responsible for the paranoid slaughter of millions under the regime of his son.


People avoid even touching on controversial subjects because they fear being the object of attributional bias. They don't want to be seen as having supported something that they don't support, so they fearfully avoid directness. I think it is important for people to recognize our tendency to make quick judgment calls based on faulty evidence. Perhaps the culture of television and excessive media causes us to lump people together in categories alongside extreme examples we see on a daily basis via media.

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