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Fundamental Attribution Error as a Contribution in Motor Vehicle Accidents

In our time pressured society in North America, most people feel that they are on a treadmill running as quickly as they can to keep up with the demands placed on them (Lufkin, 2021). As a result, everyone has developed routines that are efficient and time saving to accomplish all the tasks they need to. Often flowing from this routinization are efficiencies that form short cuts, allowing us to accomplish more (Newkirk, 2014) This process applies not only to physical tasks but also to the demands we face with mental tasks. The concept of short cuts is widely recognized in psychology as being used and utilized by all and is named heuristics.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts used by people that allow them to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently by using readily available representations for making decisions, rather than carefully thinking through each step of a problem. This allows for generalizations that remove the need to go every repetitious detail in similar type situations speed up our ability to make quick judgements. An example of a heuristic used in the vocabulary, can be seen if we consider what class of words is more common: seven-letter English words of the form “_ _ _ _ _ n _” or the form “_ _ _ _ i n g”? In many cases people respond with the latter, because it is easier to bring words to mind with an “ing” ending like “jumping” than a “_n_” ending like “raisins”, even though an “ing” ending is an “_n_” ending (Hertwig & Todd, 2002). That happens because an “ing” ending brings to mind nearly every verb at the top of mind, whereas “_n_” requires more thinking. That’s how heuristics work, they make judgements based on the number of instances that can be recollected, or by how easily it is to mentally access those instances.

Unlike the example above, more often than not the short cut will work, thus enhancing our ability to accomplish more in a shorter time frame. As much as the author recognises the value in this process, the concern focuses on when the generalization is applied, and the result is incorrect, this concept is termed attribution error.  This paper is a brief examination of the effects of attribution error in the context of motor vehicle accidents. Without laying blame it is my hope to illustrate some of both conscious and unconscious reasons why the respective positions are taken and how they may be incorrect. It is my opinion that most insurance companies are willing to pay bonafide claims and as such I have no concerns with the companies themselves, rather it is my position that the process utilized when applied to persons involved in motor vehicle accidents is problematic in that when the attribution is wrong the impact on the claimant are horrendous. In fact, the mere use of heuristics leads to dissatisfaction which results in claims that are costly both from a time as well as a financial perspective. To make these observations I draw on both my own experience having conducted in excess of 4000 mediations, as well as references found in the literature in which these factors played a major role.

To highlight this concern, consider this fact that one of the salient and pivotal factors considered in personal injury mediations – the quantum of damage that has occurred to the vehicles involved (Law, 2018). Often this issue serves as a foundational underpinning structure to support or dispute the amount of injury likely to have been suffered by the claimant. The commencement of this dispute process begins with the initiation of a claim that crosses the adjuster’s desk. As is standard in all claims there is a completed appraisal form from the dealership or repair shop in which the amount of damage is detailed (, 2021). Occasionally, there may also be a police report and or an emergency response report which allude to damages in more generalized terms, such as minor damage or damages less than two thousand dollars. But provide very little other detail about the case.

Given that most adjusters are kept exceedingly busy by the number of claims (*) they must deal with, they like the rest of us utilize heuristics to decide on the amount of money they can allocate towards rehabilitating the claimant. To make this determination the adjuster needs to know the amount of injury suffered by the claimant in the accident. For the most part the adjuster is usually not a trained medical practitioner and the only information s/he has is the knowledge of the amount of damage that occurred to the vehicle, at the time of the claim. Even when their knowledge is enhanced at some later time by the two above mentioned reports and in some cases the hospital record, they are still forced to guestimate the potential amount of injury.  In order to make this assessment some will on the limited information hazard a guess while others may choose to refer to the Accident Injury Guidelines (Financial Services Commission of Ontario, 2014) which is a compendium that speaks in generalities to the relative time an injured party will take to recover and the associated costs of the rehabilitation.   Herein unfortunately, lies the potential for attribution error not just with respect to the degree of injury but also with respect to the underlying motivation. This in part can be attributed to the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational explanations for an individual’s behaviour while over-emphasizing the influence of personality-based explanations.

Compounding the issues related to the attribution are the following facts, even if the adjustor were in the medical profession, they would not have had the opportunity to personally assess the claimant. Moreover, the common approach to recovery is based on generalizations such that there are time frames by which it is common for the person to have recovered. This is based in part on medically documented case and in part on theories associated with muscle, tissue, and bone recovery. Problems associated with this approach include that as people, we are all individuals and thus do not necessarily respond to a general norm. Some people will recover faster while it will take others a longer time. Furthermore, these factors may be dependant on the type of car we drive and thus affect the shortcut or heuristic that people utilize when assessing damages and injury. that they have generally adopted even unconsciously into their thinking processes for speed and efficacy kicks in. Even though the guidelines acknowledge that a certain percentage of people will not recover in the accepted norm. This factor is seldom if ever considered.

 Hence what occurs, when we think of a person driving a Lexus, which is a high-end expensive car, is that we tend to attribute less sinister motivations to their claim, and we cast a less discerning eye on their alleged injuries. In fact, I would go so far as to say we have more anticipatory expectations attributed to these drivers unconsciously, due to the party’s stereotypic bias would have provided cues to do so. In contrast to this, when the driver of a low-cost car has an accident, we are more suspicious as to the motivations of the claimant and tend to look more intensely at the nature of their claim with respect to the injuries suffered this means that attribution bias occurs. This is often a position that is forced upon an insurance adjuster. Especially since all the adjuster is told is the amount of damage caused to a car, without additional explanations like the reasons the person initially purchased that car, and therefore that forces the adjuster to use a heuristic to determine the quantum of damage. 

It is my opinion that the use of heuristics and the subsequent attribution error are far too common in insurance claims. I have blatantly witnessed many such occurrences one example was in a recent case in which one sentence began: “there was $14,000 of damage to the claimant’s car,” and in another the Defense counsel’s brief read: “there was only $3,000 of damage in this minor accident.”  Developmentally this dispute begun when a busy insurance adjuster made a judgement as to the damages that were suffered based on a heuristic in large part because of the limited information they were given. Stemming from these beliefs is the potential for counsel to allocate differential values as their bottom line that may not correspond. Of significance is the fact that the disparity in the belief attributed to the injuries suffered often results in starting numbers minimize the potential for resolution. 

To better illustrate the influence of heuristics and attribution bias in insurance mediation, it is important to have a closer look at the entire concept of costs. It would not surprise anyone to know that a Mercedes costs more than a Kia. The focus needs to become what happens when both cars are in a similar accident with the same amount of force and are hit in the same general area. Clearly, if there is $10,000 in damage to the Mercedes, we may only be thinking in restoration terms of a partial bumper replacement and the associated labour and paint costs. In contrast to this, for the same amount we can get the better part if not all of the Kia repaired. One therefore needs to think through the equation as follows, should we be adjusting our thinking to suit the make and model of the car? It has not been my experience that this is a process that has been adhered to. 

The second consideration, with respect to this whole issue of damage, is that many high-end cars are built with structural reinforcement such that in an accident these parts cave in to protect the inhabitants of the car. Perhaps one might be familiar with the concept of a “crumple zone” as in the Volvo’s. Given the economics of cheaper cars, many of them are not built with this added safety factor. As such, when an accident occurs, the ensuing damage to the occupants is likely to be higher. From a strictly lack of protection perspective. Combining the “crumple zones” with the safety factor, it stands to reason that high end cars, by virtue of them crumpling would require more extensive restoration, which would be much more costly. This is the second factor that often fails to get acknowledged in motor vehicle accidents especially since it also impacts the degree of injury. 

Thirdly, again based on cost, the materials used without being classist or elitist, in high end cars tends to be superior to the materials used in low-cost economic vehicles. Whether it be the fact that it is simply dictated by economics, or the added trimmings in high end cars that cost more, the result is that these added features also provide more protection. Again, since the adjustor is not privy the reasons for the specific choice this will affect their view of how much injury was sustained and the motivation behind the claim. What and how would this adjustment be different if the adjuster was alerted to the fact for instance that one of the parties in a low-cost car had just purchased it for three months until their high end ordered vehicle was delivered after which they had no further use for it and would then give ownership of this cheap car to their 18-year-old teenager, or that they were raised with thrifty family values and did not buy into the one man upmanship and the commercialization of keeping up with the Jones hence the quality of the car was immaterial to them. Would that have changed the adjuster’s view? Would this have effected their opinion or suspicion around motivation and how they adjusted the claim? I believe it would. 


Financial Services Commission of Ontario. (2014). Minor Injury Guideline. Retrieved from on October 1, 2021. 

Hertwig, R., Todd, P.M. (2002). Encyclopedia of the Human Brain. Retrieved from on September 27, 2021

Law, H. (2018). How are damages calculated for a Motor Vehicle Accident? Heath Law LLP. Retrieved from September 29, 2021

Lufkin, B. (2021). Why do we buy into the ‘cult’ of overwork? Worklife, Retrieved from on September 29, 2021

Newkirk, A. (2014). The Interactions of Heuristics and Biases in the Making of Decisions. Expose Magazine. Retrieved from on September 29, 2021

ThinkInsurance, Ltd. (2021). What happens when your car is totaled in an accident? Is Your Car Totaled? How Much Will You Get From Insurance? Retrieved October 1, 2021, from 



Bruce Ally

Bruce Ally is the founder of A Place for Mediation. As a mediator in private practice he has conducted in excess of 4000 matters. He is an instructor in the Lawyer in Negotiation course at Osgood Hall Law School, and a facilitator in the Advanced Mediator Program and the Workplace… MORE >

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