Thursday, 24 October 2013

Lessons from Psychology: Attribution

Once I signed in for the Social Psychology program I started feeling, I should have studied psychology much earlier. I would have caused less pain to others who came in contact with me and would have made more people happy.

The course made me aware about cause and effect relationship (causal relationship) between behavior and motives, values, feelings, situations etc. We behave in the manner we behave because of two sets of factors, I have learnt. I can not claim this to be perfect understanding, since I have not scored perfect 100 percent in the course, and to that extent the understanding is subject to correction by those who are Psychology professionals.

Human behavior can be attributed to factors which are internal to one-self like personality characteristics, beliefs and values; and the other set of factors which are external or situational. We have more control over internal factors and relatively less control over external factors.

In social psychology I learnt, attribution is the process of inferring the causes of events or behaviors. Attribution is something we all do every day, usually without any awareness of the underlying processes and biases that lead to our inferences. In course of a normal day we probably make numerous attributions about our own behavior as well as that of the people around us.

The studies provided me with the reasons why do we attribute certain behavior to internal characteristics while blaming external forces for others? Our biases play a major role when we attribute reasons for behaviors. The attributions we make every day are related to our feelings as well as how we think and relate to other people.

As we seek to explain the reasons and causes for our as well as others’ behaviors, we are prone to falling victim to a number of cognitive biases and errors. Our perceptions of events are often distorted by our past experiences, our expectations and our own needs.

Reflect on the following possible common types of errors we commit while attributing causes.

Can you recall the last time you received a good grade in an exam. Chances are that you attributed your success to internal factors, your expertise, your preparations etc. "I did well because I am smart" or "I did well because I studied and was well-prepared" are two common explanations you might use to justify your performance.

What happened when you received a poor grade, though? Social psychologists have found that in such situations, you are more likely to attribute your failure to external forces. "I failed because the teacher included tricky questions" or "The classroom was so hot that I couldn't concentrate" are examples of attributions one might come up with to explain poor performance. Notice that both of these explanations lay the blame on outside forces rather than accepting personal responsibility.

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the self-serving bias. So why are we more likely to attribute our success and positive behavior to our personal characteristics and blame outside variables for our failures or negative behaviors? Researchers believe that blaming external factors for failures and disappointments helps protect self-esteem.

Is it not that while we protect self esteem, we are ignoring need to improve? Looking for reasons beyond us, leads to thwarting our development, since we look for reasons beyond our control and ignore those which are within our control.

And what happens when it comes to other people’s failures or negative behavior? We tend to attribute causes to internal factors such as their personality characteristics and ignore or minimize impact of external variables. Psychologists refer to this tendency as the fundamental attribution error; even though situational variables are very likely to be present, we automatically attribute the cause to internal characteristics.

Both these, self serving bias and attribution errors can be viewed as subjective evaluation of reality. Such subjective evaluation is, most of the time, cause for strained relationships and bitterness. And that leads me to conclude that i must practice to be objective in evaluating reality.

I will make it a point to end each lesson with action areas for peace in immediate society and groups we normally be part of.

Comments and suggestions are welcome as usual.


  1. Very interesting, though one may read this and say - 'I knew this, already'.

    There is a subtle difference between knowing vs. knowing enough to correct it. Self awareness, just like discipline, is an amazing rare skill, if developed one can apply - Mahatma Gandhi (Be the change ...) and even Bhagavan Budhha (ભલા થાઓ ભલું કરો).

    Attribution seems to be the systematic lesson which may enable self awareness.

    1. You are absolutely right, Nilaybhai. Psychology is all about my behavior and who can be better placed to know me than myself.

      I will touch this topic also, psychologists call it "Hind sight bias". This is another normal phenomenon.

      On the lighter side, when psychologists try to test you through structured tools and give you their report, they will tell you what you have told them by way of responses to test.

      Very smart, this bunch. Typical "Consultants".

      But development (i mean improvement as well) starts with realisation/ awareness. First step to become a more socially acceptable human being is awareness about what is right and what is wrong and about where oneself stands on that continuum.

    2. Atulbhai, this is a wonderful way of sharing your learnings ...

      Interestingly, these distortions are introduced in the very early childhood, again from all that we perceived to be true. And unless we effortfully overcome these beliefs, they only grow thicker, painting our vision and limiting our sight!

      What I do is, whenever I face a conflict (explicit or implicit) which can contribute to my being judgemental about a given person, I immediately put myself in his/ her position. 99% answers appear that very moment. And if that 1% truly holds the blame, it becomes so minuscule on the scale that letting go comes effortlessly.

      I reiterate. You will enjoy reading the book that I had mentioned in my comment on your previous blog.