How do we form explanations for other people’s behaviour, and in what ways might these explanations be biased? Support your answer with reference to relevant theory and research Introduction
The phenomenon of how we form explanations for other people’s behaviour and the biases that exist within these explanations has received extensive research over the years, with some of social psychologies earliest pioneers devoting time to the baffling subject. Why and when explanations are internal, external or both, we have yet to receive definitive research that supports one more than the other. Internal attributions are made based on a person’s personality or attitudes e.g. Billy gives his neighbour a present every Christmas because he is a generous person. In contrast to this there are external attributions which are a result of situational factors e.g. Billy gives his neighbour a present every Christmas because that is the norm in his neighbourhood (Bargh). It is commonly known that we tend to over -look the influence that situational factors have on people’s behaviour (the fundamental attribution error). Due to cognitive miser, we are biased when forming explanations for people’s behaviours. The most common forms of biases include the primacy effect, the recency effect (Asch, 1946), positivity vs negativity, physical appearance and stereotypes. Although, we would never admit to suffering from these cognitive short-comings, these biases do exist subconsciously. As naïve scientists, we long to understand our environment and from that predict what will happen in the future (Heider, 1958).
Internal and external attributions
Often, we make internal attributions when forming explanations for other people’s behaviour, too much emphasis is placed upon the extent to which people’s dispositions influence their behaviour (Sabini and Siepmann, 2001, p.1). Internal attributions require less cognitive effort and are instantaneous, which allows us to reserve energy for abnormal events (Fiske and Taylor, p. 150). The reservation of energy is important as we have limited cognitive capacity (Bargh, 2007, p. 558). Internal attributions are somewhat of a heuristic. We often attribute other’s negative behaviour internally. When forming explanations for our own bad behaviour it is most always externally influenced. Jones & Davis (1965) correspondent inference theory and Kelley’s covariation model (1973) help us determine whether the behaviour is dispositional or situational. The correspondent inference theory takes control, expectancy and intention into account. Whereas the covariation model looks at how consistent and distinctive a behaviour is as well as the consensus of a behaviour. A study conducted by Schuster, Ruble and Weinert (1998, p.1588) shows children as early as second grade can make the correct attribution when given the three factors of consistency(ct), distinctiveness(d) and consensus(cs). However, cs was not considered by the children when it was presented alone. Reeder also played an influential part in determining when dispositional inferences were made. He designed the ‘Multiple Inference Model’ which assesses whether the behaviour was intentional or unintentional. An article written by Fletcher and Fincham (2013) investigates if the locus of causality applies when used in close relationships, they argue that the boundary between causal attribution and responsibility attribution becomes less defined. A much earlier study conducted by Seligman, Fazio and Zanna (1980) tried to establish correlation between attributions and relationship satisfaction. The subjects were asked to give a list of reasons as to why they wished to continue their relationships. Those who were externally focused showed less love for their partners compared with those who were more internally focused. Research also suggests that Westerners and wealthier people are more prone to the fundamental attribution error (Bauman and Skitka, 2010, p.278). Much less research has been conducted on external attributions and when we make them, as they are less used. The limited research suggests self-construal’s impact how we form explanations. Those with stronger self-construal’s tend to consider situational factors more than those with weak self-construal’s.
Biases within these explanations
As mentioned in the introduction we are prone to biases when explaining other people’s behaviours. Asch contributed greatly to our understanding of biases in impression formation. His configural model discusses how some traits (central traits) can be more influential than others (peripheral traits). A person was listed with identical traits with only one difference, one was described as warm and the other cold. Warmth and coldness are both considered central traits and therefore more influential (Asch, 1848, p. 258). More interestingly how the same traits in different orders can lead to different impressions being formed. Those that are presented at the beginning have been proven to have a greater impact on us, this is known as the primacy effect. The recency effect explains how when tired or distracted more recently acquired information has less impact on us. Sullivan (2018, p.2-6) conducted a series of experiments to test whether the primacy effect existed and if it was a result of pragmatic information (information is presented in order of importance). Half of the subjects in the experiment were presented with the adjectives in the following order; fun, helpful, angry while the other half received the reverse; angry, helpful, fun. An additional manipulation was added to test if pragmatic information had an impact on the primacy effect. Trials were either generated by a computer or human. Sullivan’s methodology showed no evidence of the primacy effect or that the human opposed to computer generated list was any more influential. However, she did get evidence of the primacy effect upon replicating Asch’s original experiment. Was Sullivan’s methods unsuitable or are there other experiments disproving Asch’s works hidden away in the file drawer? Negative impressions are harder to change than positive ones. Physical appearance also can alter how we form impressions. The idea that we believe anything that is attractive is good is referred to as the ‘Halo effect’ and was proposed by Dion (1972).
Over the years, it has become clear that most of the attributions we make for other’s behaviour is dispositional. We believe that all good done by others is merely a result of external factors and all wrong-doing is the result of an internal mishap. In contrast to this, our self-serving bias leads us to believe the opposite when explaining our own behaviour. The explanation as to why we make these internal inferences is simply because its easier. Why would we challenge ourselves and expend time and energy when we can take a simple short-cut? Theories such as the correspondent inference model and covariation model are still being used and re-proven in research today. Early biases are still dominant also. Why is it that despite our awareness of these cognitive misers and biases we cannot correct them? How can we improve our own self-construal and become more aware of the situational factors?