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between attributions of intention and attributions of intentionality. An intention to do
something is de¬ned by wanting to do something (desire) and beliefs about which
actions will provide me with the outcome that I want. But intentionality requires the
¬rst two components plus the skill or ability to be able to do what is desired as well
as the intention to do it.
Malle offer us the following situation: A nephew plans to kill his uncle by running
him over with his car. While driving around, the nephew accidentally hits and kills a
man who turns out, unbeknownst to the nephew, to be his uncle. So what we have here
is the comparison between actions performed as intended (he planned to kill the uncle)
and actions that were unintended (he accidentally ran someone over who happened to
be his uncle). Malle asked people to judge whether the killing was intentional murder
or unintentional manslaughter.
There is no right answer here, but when people returned a murder verdict, it was
because they concluded that the intent to murder had been there and the actual event, the
accident, was less crucial than the attribution of the original murderous intent. Others
who voted for “unintentional” manslaughter concluded that the action (running uncle
over) was separate from the intent to murder (Malle, 2006).
While the circumstances of the case Malle has used are rather unusual, the results show
that observers may make attributions based upon different interpretations of intent.

Attribution Biases
We know that individuals are not always accurate in determining what other people are
really like. Although these attribution models assume people generally can make full
use of social information, much of the time we take shortcuts, and we make a number of
predictable errors. These errors or biases are examples of the cognitive miser as social
perceiver. We deviate from the rules that a “pure scientist” would apply as outlined in the
correspondent inference and especially the covariation models. Note, however, that some
theorists argue that these biases are a consequence of the fact that people use a somewhat
different attribution model than earlier theorists had assumed. In other words, there are
no biases in the sense that people do something wrong in the way they make attributions;
people just use the models in a different way than the earlier theorists thought they did.

A famous example of how our attributions may be misdirected is illustrated by a now
classic experiment by Schachter and Singer (1962). Schachter and Singer demonstrated
that two conditions are required for the production of an emotional response: physiologi-
Chapter 3 Social Perception: Understanding Other People 81

cal arousal and cognitions that label the arousal and therefore identify the emotion for
the person experiencing it. Schachter and Singer injected participants with epinephrine,
a hormone that produces all the symptoms of physiological arousal”rapid breathing,
increased heart rate, palpitations, and so on. Half these people were accurately informed
that the injection would create a state of arousal, and others were told the injection was
only a vitamin and would not have any effect. In addition, subjects in a control group
were not given any drug.
Participants were then placed in a room to await another part of the experiment.
Some subjects were in a room with a confederate of the experimenters, who acted in a
happy, excited, even euphoric manner, laughing, rolling up paper into balls, and shoot-
ing the balls into the wastebasket. Others encountered a confederate who was angry
and threw things around the room. All subjects thought that the confederate was just
another subject.
Schachter and Singer (1962) argued that the physiological arousal caused by the
injection was open to different interpretations. The subjects who had been misinformed
about the true effects of the injection had no reasonable explanation for the increase in
their arousal. The most obvious stimulus was the behavior of the confederate. Results
showed that aroused subjects who were in a room with an angry person behaved in an
angry way; those in a room with a happy confederate behaved in a euphoric way. What
about the subjects in the group who got the injection and were told what it was? These
informed subjects had a full explanation for their arousal, so they simply thought that
the confederate was strange and waited quietly.
The research shows that our emotional state can be manipulated. When we do
not have readily available explanations for a state of arousal, we search the environ-
ment to ¬nd a probable cause. If the cues we ¬nd point us toward anger or aggression,
then perhaps that is how we will behave. If the cues suggest joy or happiness, then
our behavior may conform to those signals. It is true, of course, that this experiment
involved a temporary and not very involving situation for the subjects. It is probable
that people are less likely to make misattributions about their emotions when they are
more motivated to understand the causes of their feelings and when they have a more
familiar context for them.

The Fundamental Attribution Error
One pervasive bias found in the attributional process is the tendency to attribute causes
to people more readily than to situations. This bias is referred to as the fundamental fundamental attribution
error The tendency to
attribution error.
automatically attribute the
If you have ever watched the television game show Jeopardy, you probably have
causes for another person™s
seen the following scenario played out in various guises: A nervous contestant selects
behavior to internal rather
“Russian history” for $500. The answer is, “He was known as the »Mad Monk.ʼ” A than situational forces.
contestant rings in and says, “Who was Molotov?” Alex Trebek, the host replies, “Ah,
noooo, the correct question is “Who was Rasputin?” As the show continues, certain
things become evident. The contestants, despite knowing a lot of trivial and not so trivial
information, do not appear to be as intelligent or well informed as Trebek.
Sometimes we make attributions about people without paying enough attention to
the roles they are playing. Of course, Trebek looks smart”and in fact, he may be smart,
but he also has all the answers in front of him. Unfortunately, this last fact is sometimes
lost on us. This so-called quiz show phenomenon was vividly shown in an experiment
in which researchers simulated a TV game show for college students (Ross, Amabile,
& Steinmetz, 1977). A few subjects were picked to be the questioners, not because
Social Psychology

they had any special skill or information but by pure chance, and had to devise a few
fairly dif¬cult but common-knowledge questions. A control group of questioners asked
questions formulated by others. Members of both groups played out a simulation quiz
game. After the quiz session, all subjects rated their own knowledge levels, as well as
the knowledge levels of their partners.
Now, all of us can think of some questions that might be hard for others to answer.
Who was the Dodgersʼ third baseman in the 1947 World Series? Where is Boca Grande?
When did Emma Bovary live? Clearly, the questioners had a distinct advantage: They
could rummage around in their storehouse of knowledge, trivial and profound, and ¬nd
some nuggets that others would not know.
When asked to rate the knowledge levels of the questioners as opposed to the con-
testants, both the questioners and the contestants rated the questioners as more knowl-
edgeable, especially in the experimental group in which the questioners devised their
own questions. Only a single contestant rated herself superior in knowledge to the
The fundamental attribution error can be seen clearly in this experiment: People
attribute behavior to internal factors, even when they have information indicating situ-
ational factors are at work. Because the questioners appeared to know more than the
contestants, subjects thought the questioners were smarter. The great majority of par-
ticipants failed to account for the situation.
The quiz show phenomenon occurs in many social situations. The relationship
between doctor and patient or teacher and student can be understood via this effect.
When we deal with people in positions of high status or authority who appear to have
all the answers, we attribute their behavior to positive internal characteristics such as
knowledge and intelligence. Such an attribution enhances their power over us.

Why We Make the Fundamental Attribution Error
Why do we err in favor of internal attributions? Several explanations have been offered
for the fundamental attribution error, but two seem to be most useful: a focus on per-
sonal responsibility and the salience of behavior. Western culture emphasizes the
importance of individual personal responsibility (Gilbert & Malone, 1995); we expect
individuals to take responsibility for their behavior. We expect to be in control of our
fates”our behavior”and we expect others to have control as well. We tend to look
down on those who make excuses for their behavior. It is not surprising, therefore, that
we perceive internal rather than external causes to be primary in explaining behavior
(Forgas, Furnham, & Frey, 1990).
The second reason for the prevalence of the fundamental attribution error is the
salience of behavior. In social situations as in all perception situations, our senses and
attention are directed outward. The “actor” becomes the focus of our attention. His
or her behavior is more prominent than the less commanding background or environ-
ment. The actor becomes the “¬gure” (focus in the foreground) and the situation, the
“ground” (the total background) in a complex ¬gure-ground relationship. A well-estab-
lished maxim of perceptual psychology is that the ¬gure stands out against the ground
and thus commands our attention.
The perceiver tends to be “engulfed by the behavior,” not the surrounding circum-
stances (Heider, 1958). If a person is behaving maliciously, we conclude that he or she
is a nasty person. Factors that might have brought on this nastiness are not easily avail-
able or accessible to us, so it is easy, even natural, to disregard or slight them. Thus, we
readily fall into the fundamental attribution error.
Chapter 3 Social Perception: Understanding Other People 83

Correcting the Fundamental Attribution Error
So, are we helpless to resist this common misattribution of causality? Not necessarily. As
you probably already know from your own experience, the fundamental attribution error
does not always occur. There are circumstances that increase or decrease the chances of
making this mistake. For example, you are less likely to make the error if you become
more aware of information external to another person that is relevant to explaining
the causes for his or her behavior. However, even under these circumstances, the error
does not disappear; it simply becomes weaker. Although the error is strong and occurs
in many situations, it can be lessened when you have full information about a personʼs
reason for doing something and are motivated to make a careful analysis.

The Actor-Observer Bias
Actors prefer external attributions for their own behavior, especially if the outcomes
are bad, whereas observers tend to make internal attributions for the same behavior.
actor-observer bias
The actor-observer bias is especially strong when we are trying to explain negative
An attribution bias showing
behaviors, whether our own or that of others. This bias alerts us to the importance of
that we prefer external
perspective when considering attributional errors, because differing perspectives affect
attributions for our own
the varied constructions of reality that people produce.
behavior, especially if
A simple experiment you can do yourself demonstrates the prevalence of the actor- outcomes are negative,
observer bias (Fiske & Taylor, 1984). Using a list of adjectives such as those shown in whereas observers tend to
make internal attributions for
Table 3.1, rate a friend on the adjectives listed and then rate yourself. If you are like
the same behavior performed
most people, you will have given your friend higher ratings than you gave yourself.
by others.
Why these results? It is likely that you see your friendʼs behavior as relatively con-
sistent across situations, whereas you see your own behavior as more variable. You prob-
ably were more likely to choose the 0 category for yourself, showing that sometimes

Table 3.1 Self-Test Demonstrating the Actor-Observer Bias

Rating Scale

“2 Absolutely does not describe
“1 Typically does not describe
0 Sometimes describes, sometimes does not
+1 Often describes
+2 Absolutely describes

Friend Self

Social Psychology

you see yourself as aggressive, thoughtful, or warm and other times not. It depends
on the situation. We see other peopleʼs behavior as more stable and less dependent on
situational factors.
The crucial role of perspective in social perception situations can be seen in a
creative experiment in which the perspectives of both observer and actor were altered
(Storms, 1973). Using videotape equipment, the researcher had the actor view his own
behavior from the perspective of an observer. That is, he showed the actor a videotape
of himself as seen by somebody else. He also had the observer take the actorʼs perspec-
tive by showing the observer a videotape of how the world looked from the point of
view of the actor. That is, the observer saw a videotape of herself as seen by the actor,
the person she was watching.
When both observers and actors took these new perspectives, their attributional
analyses changed. Observers who took the visual perspective of the actors made fewer
person attributions and more situational ones. They began to see the world as the actors
saw it. When the actors took the perspective of the observers, they began to make fewer
situational attributions and more personal ones. Both observers and actors got to see
themselves as others saw them”always an instructive, if precarious, exercise. In this
case, it provided insight into the process of causal analysis.

The False Consensus Bias
When we analyze the behavior of others, we often ¬nd ourselves asking, What would
I have done? This is our search for consensus information (What do other people do?)
when we lack such information. In doing this, we often overestimate the frequency and
false consensus bias popularity of our own views of the world (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977). The false
The tendency to believe consensus bias is simply the tendency to believe that everyone else shares our own
that our own feelings and feelings and behavior (Harvey & Weary, 1981). We tend to believe that others hold
behavior are shared by
similar political opinions, ¬nd the same movies amusing, and think that baseball is the
everyone else.
distinctive American game.
The false consensus bias may be an attempt to protect our self-esteem by assum-
ing that our opinions are correct and are shared by most others (Zuckerman, Mann, &
Bernieri, 1982). That is, the attribution that other people share our opinions serves as an
af¬rmation and a con¬rmation of the correctness of our views. However, this overesti-
mation of the trustworthiness of our own ideas can be a signi¬cant hindrance to rational
thinking, and if people operate under the false assumption that their beliefs are widely
held, the false consensus bias can serve as a justi¬cation for imposing oneʼs beliefs on
others (Fiske & Taylor, 1991).

Constructing an Impression of Others
After attributions are made, we are still left with determining what processes perceiv-
ers use to get a whole picture of other individuals. We know that automatic processing
of social information is widely used. We also know how people make attributions and
what their biases are in making those attributions. Letʼs see how they might put all this
social in¬‚uence together in a coherent picture.

The Signi¬cance of First Impressions
How many times have you met someone about whom you formed an immediate nega-
tive or positive impression? How did that ¬rst impression in¬‚uence your subsequent
Chapter 3 Social Perception: Understanding Other People 85

interactions with that person? First impressions can be powerful in¬‚uences on our per-
primacy effect The
ceptions of others. Researchers have consistently demonstrated a primacy effect in
observation that information
the impression-formation process, which is the tendency of early information to play a
encountered early in the
powerful role in our eventual impression of an individual.
impression formation process
Furthermore, ¬rst impressions can, in turn, bias the interpretation of later infor-
plays a powerful role in our
mation. This was shown in a study in which individuals watched a person take an eventual impression of an
examination (Jones, Rock, Shaver, Goethals, & Ward, 1968). Some of the observers individual.


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