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Attribution Biases – How Do You See The World?

The Little Things That Annoy Us

I’m driving along a freeway and small drops of water start gathering on my windscreen. I look up to see a large four-wheel drive in front of me with its windscreen wipers on. At this point I don’t notice any other cars on the road using their windscreen wipers. I assume the driver of the four-wheel drive wanted to clean their windscreen. The water has sprayed my windscreen…Annoying… I’m in peak hour traffic. I am already feeling frustrated!
It causes a chain reaction and I have to then spray my windscreen and clean it. “Why don’t they get their windscreen wipers fixed?” I ask myself. “Maybe they do it on purpose to annoy others!” 
I immediately jump to the conclusion that it was an intentional act of the person in front of me – to annoy me!
I’m feeling frustrated, until I look around, open my eyes to what’s going on, and I realise it’s raining.
Despite the blue sky, there are a few clouds and above me, there’s a rain cloud. I hadn’t seen the rain clouds above me. I was too focused on what was in front of me – the traffic and wondering if I was going to make it to the appointment.
I instantly feel differently when I’ve seen the big picture. It’s raining. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way it is.
Our Attributions Matter
The attributions we make at difficult times in our lives matter. They affect how we feel in the moment, and they also impact the rest of our hour, day, week, and even our lives.
It’s very easy to jump into conclusions, to blame others around us for things that frustrate us or cause us an inconvenience.
Once we know the big picture however, it’s much easier to relax, let go, even forgive others, and forgive ourselves.
What is Attribution?
Attribution refers to the way in which we determine the cause of our own or others’ behaviour. We may attribute the cause of our own and others’ behaviour to:
–    Internal – based on the individual characteristics of the person
–    External – based on the situation or circumstance
We tend to feel more anger or frustration when we judge another person to be responsible for the behaviour or event, which negatively affects us.
We are less angry and frustrated when we decide that external circumstances are responsible for the behaviour or event.
I immediately calmed down when I saw the rain cloud and realised it was raining.
What Are Some Common Attribution Biases?

There are a number of common attribution biases. Here are a few.
•      Fundamental Attribution Bias – We tend to attribute the cause of others’ behaviour as the result of internal characteristics and our own behaviour as the result of our environment. (When we do this we tend to be more forgiving of our own behaviour than of others).
•      False Consensus Bias – We tend to assume that other people are similar to us in their thinking, feeling, and lifestyle. (When we do this we judge them according to our own yardstick and not their own. They may have had different intentions, based on different values and motivations, to the conclusion we drew).
•      Negative Impression Bias – We tend to over-emphasise negative information about others. (When we feel we are wronged we feel hurt. When we feel hurt we can exaggerate aspects of others we deem negative).
•      Confirmatory Bias – Once we have come to a conclusion about a person or event, we look for all the evidence that confirms our view, and we discredit all the evidence that doesn’t support our view. (When we do this we close our ears, our eyes, our hearts, and our minds to new information. We limit our experience of the person, the situation, and the world).
So How Do We Overcome Our Attribution Biases?
How do we ensure that we do not close our ears, our eyes, our hearts, and our minds to the world?
We can overcome our own and others’ attribution biases in a number of ways.
Following are a few of the ways I use to help my clients overcome their biases so they can take in new information and resolve their problems.
These steps are focused on how you can help others overcome their attribution biases. Of course you can use them yourselves too. I do!
7 Ways of Overcoming Attribution Bias: 
We can help others overcome their attribution biases through:
1.    Big Picture (helping others to see the big picture – that there is more to the situation than just us or them and more to life than the event or situation)
2.    Challenge the Initial Perspective (helping others to see that maybe there’s no one to blame, maybe it’s just the interaction of the people in the situation).
3.    Propose Other Scenarios (think of at least 2 other possibilities that may have led to the situation that the person has not yet considered).
4.    Educate People About Attribution Biases (let people know about the kinds of bias that may be affecting their thinking).
5.    Talk About Human Nature (Human beings are judging machines. That’s how we feel safe in the world. We label and box things and make quick conclusions about what is going on. Sometimes the conclusions we jump to are incorrect when we don’t have all the information available to us).
6.    Focus on Resolving the Issues Not Who is to Blame (Once people are in problem solving mode and focused on resolving the problem rather than working out who’s at fault, they are more likely to be able to resolve the issues).
7.    Talk About the Effect of Negative Emotions on the Body and Brain (Negative emotions lead us to think more narrowly, and inflexibly. They are also associated with the release of stress hormones, which damage the body’s vital organs over time).
Are you aware of the attributions you are naturally programmed to make? Which one of these 7 steps will you try next time you’re in peak hour traffic and someone cuts you off, or turns the windscreen wipers on?
Allred, K.G., Chiongbian, V. and Parlamis, J. (1997) Attributional biases in conflict: Accusers vs. the accused (Working paper).International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, Columbia University.
Lee, J. (2004) Overcoming Attribution Bias in Mediation: An NLP Perspective, 15 (1) Australian Dispute Resolution Journal, 48-58


Caryn Cridland

Caryn Cridland is the Founder of Mindful Mediation, a specialist workplace mediation and leadership development consultancy dedicated to resolving complex conflicts involving leaders and teams, as well as developing high performance teams and leaders. Caryn’s passion is turning leadership conflict into an opportunity for the growth and development of exceptional… MORE >

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