Interpersonal perception attribution
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INTERPERSONAL PERCEPTION & ATTRIBUTION. Attribution theories: describe psychological operations that lead us to make Situational or Dispositional interpretations of behaviour  describe how people think about each other. Fritz Heider 1953.

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Attribution theories:

describe psychological operations that lead us to make Situational or Dispositional interpretations of behaviour

 describe how people think about each other

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Fritz Heider 1953

  • Phenomenological causality – how ordinary people understand cause & effect & the errors they make in doing so.

    • Esp. social perception – how we explain own actions & those of others

  • Analogy from gestalt analysis of visual perception: misperceive actions, because confuse figure (actor)/ground (social situation)

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Anticipated social constructionism:

  • explanations we use to explain the world are both products of the way they ‘structure the world’ and at the same time contribute to that structuring.

  • We don’t respond to how world actually works but to our perception of it

  • can only develop psychological theories about the way people act if we have access to explanatory framework within which they operate.

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The Logic of Attribution

Kurt Lewin – attributional/Lewinian equation

B = S + D

(behaviour) = (situation) + (disposition)

dynamic relation between attributional elements = core logic of attribution theories

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Discounting principle: (Kelley 1972)

Do not conclude unique predisposition to act if behaviour is exactly what situation demands: Ignore nondiagnostic behaviour

Do we obey this rule?

Correspondence Bias: 1967 Jones & Harris (pro-Castro essays) tendency to conclude person has a disposition that corresponds to behaviour even when behaviour attributable to situation

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Fundamental Attribution Error Ross 1977


1.       wanting dispositions -

  • sense of control (emphasis on individuality)

  • powers of prediction (function as a theory)

    overestimation of D

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2.   misunderstanding situations

  • situation invisible (Ross, Amabile, Steinmetz 1977) -

  • psychological construal of situation inadequate (Sherman 1980)

    underestimation of S

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3.       misperceiving behaviour

seeing behaviour complex inferential process

helping/cheating not actions but action identifications

factors determining accuracy:

expectations Rosenhan 1973 (pseudopatients), perceptual assimiliation (Bruner 1957)

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Trope 19862 stage model of attribution

Identification ► Attribution

What is actor doing? Why is actor doing it?

(*information about situational constraints can increase accuracy of attributions = prevent underestimation of S,

But can also can decrease accuracy of identifications = overestimate B)

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4.       failing to use information

how we use what we know


Quattrone 1982: First make dispositional inferences, then change those to Situational ones

Attribution = series of sequential operations

anchoring heuristic Tversky & Kahneman 1974

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Gilbert, Pelham & Krull 1988

3-stage model

Identification ► Attribution

Automatic dispositional inference

Effortful situation correction

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tested using divided attention technique

cognitively busy Subjects - made dispositional inferences (automatic) and did not correct those inferences (effortful ) to take account of situation

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Any mental event, an attribution, can change the world and then be affected by the world it changed

We change the behaviour of those we analyse

Attributional errors

Snowball effect - final nature of event strongly influenced by minor changes in antecedent conditions

sensitive dependence on initial conditions

final judgements about others = v sensitive to small changes in initial impressions

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3 mechanisms

  • Matching reactions: Synder, Tanke & Berscheid 1977

  • Providing opportunities: Rosenthal & Jacobson 1968;

    Harris & Rosenthal 1985; Fail to provide opportunities to repudiate suspicions, create special opportunity to confirm; Snyder & Swann 1978 Leading questions

    Hypothesis –confirming bias

  • Setting norms: emperor’s new clothes Baumeister, Hutton & Tice 1989

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Perceiver-induced constraints

I cause you to act in certain ways and then conclude that you are predisposed to those actions

Co-variation problem Ichheiser 1949

No information about how people behave in our absence, (i.e., misunderstanding situations)

Self-regulation problem

Impression management, strategic self-presentation Goffman 1959 (i.e., failing to use information)

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Critique & Reading

  • We have induced, not just observed, behaviour.

  • We cannot separate ourselves from the social worlds we are appraising.

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Relevant material in Hogg & Vaughan


  • Langdridge, D. & Butt, T. (2004) The fundamental attribution error: A phenomenological critique. British Journal of Social Psychology, 43(3), 357-69.

  • Reynolds, B. & Karraker, K. (2003) A Big Five model of disposition and situation interaction: why a ''helpful'' person may not always behave helpfully. New Ideas in Psychology, 21(1), 1-13.