Social Cognition

Attribution

Attribution theory explores how individuals attribute, or explain, the causes of their own and others’ behaviors.

Learning Objectives

Compare the various types, models, and errors of attribution

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Attribution theory attempts to explain the processes by which individuals explain, or attribute, the causes of behavior and events.
  • Attributions are classified as either internal or external. Internal attributions include dispositional or personality -based explanations; external attributions emphasize situational factors.
  • Individuals are susceptible to bias and error when making attributions about themselves and others. A few examples of this include the fundamental attribution error, the self-serving bias, the actor-observer bias, and the just-world hypothesis.
  • The fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to over-value internal (personality-based) explanations and under-value external (situational) explanations for another person’s behavior.
  • The self-serving bias refers to the tendency to attribute internal factors for success and external factors for failure, particularly when someone is explaining their own behavior.
  • People from individualist cultures are more inclined to make the fundamental attribution error and demonstrate the self-serving bias than are people from collectivist cultures.

Key Terms

  • attribution: The process by which individuals explain the cause of behavior and events.
  • locus of control: The extent to which individuals believe they can control events affecting them.
  • fundamental attribution error: The tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations and under-value situational explanations for another person’s behavior.

One of the central concerns of social psychology is understanding the ways in which people explain, or “attribute,” events and behavior. “Attribution theory” is an umbrella term for various models that attempt to understand this process.

Explanatory and Interpersonal Attribution

In our attempts to make sense of the world around us, we tend to look for reasons and causes behind events and situations. To do this, we make either explanatory or interpersonal attributions.

An explanatory attribution is an attempt to understand the world and seek reasons for a particular event. People with an optimistic explanatory style attribute positive events to global, stable, internal causes and negative events to specific, unstable, external causes. The inverse is true for those with a pessimistic explanatory style: they attribute negative events to global, stable, internal causes and positive events to specific, unstable, external causes.

An interpersonal attribution is an attempt to explain the reasons for an event based on an interaction between two or more individuals. When explaining negative situations, for instance, individuals tend to explain the event by attributing fault to the other person, such as by concluding that they must have a certain negative personality trait or must have been in a bad mood.

Internal and External Attribution

Attributions can also be classified as either internal or external. Internal attributions emphasize dispositional or personality-based explanations, while external attributions emphasize situational factors. For example, when a person aces a test, an internal attribution might be the conclusion that she must be very smart. An external attribution for the same outcome might be that she must have received extra help before the test or that the test was too easy.

Attribution Models

There are multiple models that attempt to explain the kinds of attributions  we use. Two of the most well-known models are the covariation model and the three-dimensional model.

Covariation Model of Attribution

The covariation principle states that people attribute behavior to the factors that covary with that behavior. This means that the “causes” they identify are present when the behavior occurs and absent when it does not. This theory assumes that people make causal attributions in a rational, logical fashion and will assign the cause of an action to the factor that seems most closely associated with it.

According to this theory, there are three types of information an individual will consider when making an attribution:

  1. consensus, or how other people in the same situation behave;
  2. distinctive information, or how the individual responds to a different stimulus; and
  3. consistency, or how frequently the individual’s behavior can be observed with a similar stimulus but in a different situation.

Based on these three pieces of information, observers will make a decision as to whether the individual’s behavior is either internal or external. For example, if your friend raves about a film, you may consider his response compared to other people’s response (consensus), whether your friend raves about other films (distinctive), and whether he always raves about this film (consistency). If other people love the film, your friend does not tend to rave about films, and he consistently praises this film, you might make the external attribution that the film must in fact be good. If no one else loves the film, your friend always raves about films, and he does not consistently praise this particular film, you might make the internal attribution that there must be something specific to your friend that made him enjoy and rave about the film.

Three-Dimensional Model of Attribution

This model suggests that a person’s attributions and perceptions about their own success and failure determines the amount of effort the person will put forth in similar situations in the future. When attributions lead to positive feelings and high expectations of future success, the person will likely be more willing to approach similar tasks in the future. Similarly, attributions that produce negative feelings and low expectations for future success will make the individual less willing to put forth effort toward similar tasks in the future.

There are three components of attributions under this model.

  1. Locus of control . Someone’s locus of control can be either internal or external. An individual with an internal locus of control sees people as active participants in the world, capable of influencing what happens to them. Someone with an external locus of control sees the world as happening to people, outside of their control.
  2. Stability. This refers to whether someone’s attribution is stable (lasting) or unstable (changeable) over time.
  3. Controllability. This is the extent to which a cause is able or unable to be controlled. For example, level of effort put forth may be controllable, while raw talent or ability is not.

Attribution Biases and Errors

People are susceptible to bias and error when making attributions about themselves and others. A few common such biases include the fundamental attribution error, the self-serving bias, the actor-observer bias, and the just-world hypothesis.

Fundamental Attribution Error

According to social psychologists, people tend to overemphasize internal factors as explanations for the behavior of other people and do the opposite when explaining our own behavior. That is to say, we tend to assume that the behavior of another person is due to a trait of that person, underestimating the role of context. For example, when a student fails to turn in his or her homework, a teacher may assume the student is lazy rather than attributing the behavior to external contextual factors such as having a particularly busy schedule that week. This perspective is called the fundamental attribution error and may result from our attempt to simplify the processing of complex information.

The fundamental attribution error is so powerful that people often overlook even obvious situational influences on behavior. This can contribute to prejudice and stereotyping and lead to conflict.

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Fundamental attribution error: The fundamental attribution error explains why when someone cuts us off we assume he or she is bad-natured, but when we cut someone off we believe it is because the situation required it.

Self-Serving Bias

Self-serving bias is the tendency of individuals to make internal attributions when their actions have a positive outcome but external attributions when their actions have a negative outcome. This bias lets us continue to see ourselves in a favorable light and protects our self-esteem; we take credit for our successes and pin our failures on other factors. For example, if an individual gets promoted, he may attribute it to his performance; if he fails to get the promotion, he may attribute it to his supervisor possibly having a grudge against him.

Actor-Observer Bias

The actor-observer bias explains the phenomenon of attributing other people’s behavior to internal factors while attributing our own behavior to external or situational forces, also known as the fundamental attribution error (Jones & Nisbett, 1971; Nisbett, Caputo, Legant, & Marecek, 1973; Choi & Nisbett, 1998). When we are actors of behavior, we have more information about the situation to help us form an explanation, but when we are merely observers, we have less information; therefore, we tend to default to the assumption that others’ actions are based on internal factors rather than the situation.

Just-World Hypothesis

One consequence of Westerners’ tendency to provide internal explanations for others’ behavior is victim-blaming (Jost & Major, 2001). When bad things happen to people, others tend to assume that those people somehow are responsible for their own fate. A common view in the United States is the just-world hypothesis, which is the belief that people get the outcomes they deserve (Lerner & Miller, 1978). In order to maintain the belief that the world is a fair place, people tend to think that good people experience positive outcomes and bad people experience negative outcomes (Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004; Jost & Major, 2001). This worldview allows us to feel that the world is predictable and that we have some control over our life outcomes (Jost et al., 2004; Jost & Major, 2001).

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Trayvon Martin: Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American youth, was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a white volunteer neighborhood watchman, in 2012. His death sparked a heated debate around the country about the effects of racism in the United States. Social psychologists theorize about how different cognitive biases influence different people’s perspectives on Martin’s death.

Cultural Factors

Research shows that culture affects how people make attributions. Individualist cultures value personal goals and independence. Collectivist cultures see individuals as members of a group and tend to value conformity, mutual support, and interdependence. People from individualist cultures are more inclined to make the fundamental attribution error and demonstrate self-serving bias than people from collectivist cultures. This is thought to be because individualists tend to attribute behavior to internal factors (the individual), while collectivists tend to attribute behavior to external factors (the group and world).

Attitudes

In psychological terms, attitude is our positive or negative evaluation of a person, an idea, or an object.

Learning Objectives

Discuss influences on and motivators of attitude

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Attitude is our evaluation of a person, an idea, or an object. Typically, attitudes are positive or negative and involve affective, behavioral, and cognitive components.
  • Psychologists believe that there are both explicit (or deliberately formed) and implicit (or subconsciously formed) attitudes; people are often unaware of their implicit attitudes.
  • Attitude serves a variety of functions, including utilitarian, knowledge, ego-defensive, and value-expression functions. Their formation is influenced by learning, personal experience, and observation.
  • Cognitive dissonance takes place when one’s actions and beliefs do not fit together, usually resulting in a change of behavior or beliefs to relieve the dissonance.
  • Persuasion is an active method of influence that attempts to guide people toward adopting an attitude, idea, or behavior; it is also the process of changing one’s own attitude toward something based on some kind of communication.

Key Terms

  • cognitive dissonance: A conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistencies between one’s beliefs and one’s actions or other beliefs.
  • attitude: A positive or negative evaluation of people, objects, events, or ideas in one’s environment.
  • overt: Open and not secret nor concealed.

Attitude is our evaluation of a person, an idea, or an object. Typically, attitudes are favorable or unfavorable, or positive or negative (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). They can also be defined as a learned habit for responding to social stimuli. Attitudes reflect more than just positive or negative evaluations: they include other characteristics, such as importance, certainty, accessibility, and associated knowledge. Attitudes are important in the study of
social psychology because they influence the amount of attention and the type of judgment an individual
may give to a specific subject.

Components of Attitudes

Attitudes are thought to have three components: an affective component (feelings), a behavioral component (the effect of the attitude on behavior), and a cognitive component (belief and knowledge) (Rosenberg & Hovland, 1960). For example, you may hold a positive attitude toward recycling. This attitude should result in positive feelings toward recycling (such as, “It makes me feel good to recycle,” or “I enjoy knowing that I make a small difference in reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills”). This attitude should then be reflected in behavior: you actually recycle as often as you can. Finally, this attitude will be reflected in favorable thoughts (for example, “Recycling is good for the environment,” or “Recycling is the responsible thing to do”).

Because people are influenced by different situations, however, general attitudes are not always a good predictor of behavior. For a variety of reasons, an individual may value the environment and not recycle a can on a particular day. Attitudes that are well remembered and central to our self-concept, however, are more likely to lead to certain behaviors. Measures of general attitudes can be used to predict behavior patterns over time, even if they cannot be used to predict specific behaviors. It is well accepted that attitudes can affect behaviors, and behaviors can affect attitudes, depending on the situation.

Explicit vs. Implicit Attitudes

Psychologists believe that attitudes can be either explicit (deliberately formed) or implicit (unconsciously formed). People may not be aware of their implicit attitudes, so they must be measured using sophisticated methods that can access unconscious thoughts and feelings, such as response times to stimuli. Explicit attitudes are deliberately formed attitudes that an individual is aware of having, and they can be measured by self-report and questionnaires.

Attitude Function

Researchers attempt to understand the function of attitudes by considering how they affect individuals. There are four primary categories that explain the function of attitudes:

  • Utilitarian attitudes provide an individual with general tendencies, such as whether to approach or avoid a person, place, or thing.
  • Knowledge-related attitudes help us organize and interpret new information.
  • Ego-defensive attitudes help people protect their self-esteem.
  • Value-expressive attitudes express central values or beliefs.

Attitude Formation

There are several factors that affect the ways in which our attitudes are formed. Some researchers believe that learning can account for the attitudes an individual holds. The formation of many attitudes is believed to happen due to conditioning or social learning, and attitudes in general are expected to change with experience. An example of this can be seen with the mere-exposure effect, which describes how an individual will develop positive attitudes toward something or someone simply due to repeated exposure.

Cognitive Dissonance and Attitude Change

In psychology, “cognitive dissonance” describes the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. Leon Festinger proposed the cognitive-dissonance theory (1957), which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior. According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. For example, if you believe smoking is bad for your health but you continue to smoke, you experience conflict between your belief and your behavior. Since the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it and achieve consonance (agreement).

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Smoking and cognitive dissonance: Smokers often experience cognitive dissonance: they know that smoking is harmful to their health, but they continue to do it anyway. Most smokers alleviate their psychological discomfort by adjusting their attitudes toward smoking, toward their health, or both, by saying things such as, “I know plenty of 70-year-olds that smoke and they’re doing just fine,” or “I’m bound to die anyway, might as well enjoy it.”

When we experience cognitive dissonance, we are motivated to decrease it because it is psychologically, physically, and mentally uncomfortable. We can reduce cognitive dissonance by bringing our cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors in line—that is, making them harmonious. This can be done in different ways, such as:

  • changing our discrepant behavior (e.g., stop smoking);
  • changing our cognitions through rationalization or denial (e.g., telling ourselves that health risks can be reduced by smoking filtered cigarettes);
  • adding a new cognition (e.g., “Smoking suppresses my appetite so I don’t become overweight, which is good for my health”).

Persuasion and Attitude Change

Persuasion is an active method of influence that attempts to guide people toward adopting an attitude, idea, or behavior; it is also the process of changing one’s own attitude toward something based on some kind of communication. Much of the persuasion we experience comes from outside forces. Numerous variables have been found to influence the persuasion process and are normally presented in four major categories:

  • aspects of the communicator (the credibility, expertise, trustworthiness, and attractiveness of the persuasive source);
  • aspects of the message (such as logic, emotion, and informational content);
  • aspects of the audience (such as demographics, personality traits, and preferences);
  • aspects of the channel (the means by which the message is conveyed, such as radio, TV, print, or face-to-face).

The dual-process model is one of the most notable models of persuasion. It maintains that the persuasive process is mediated by two separate “routes.” The central route of persuasion requires the audience to evaluate the merits of a message, and it is likely to be used when an individual is highly motivated. The peripheral route does not involve critically analyzing (or elaborating on) the message. It is a mental shortcut which accepts or rejects a message based on external cues, such as attractiveness or perceived credibility, rather than critical thought. It is likely to be used in low-motivation conditions.

Prejudice

In psychology, “prejudice” refers to a usually (but not always) negative evaluation of another person or group based on their perceived characteristics.

Learning Objectives

Assess the origins and impacts of prejudice

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • ” Prejudice ” refers to preconceived, usually unfavorable, judgments toward people based on their gender, social class, age, disability, religion, sexuality, or other personal characteristics.
  • Prejudice is a belief and not a behavior; although prejudice may lead to discrimination, the two are separate concepts.
  • Researchers have found that ingroup favoritism, or preference for members of the group one belongs to, can occur even when the group had no prior social meaning.
  • The outgroup homogeneity effect is the perception that members of an outgroup are more similar, mentally or physically, than members of the ingroup.
  • Social dominance theory states that society can be viewed as a series of group-based hierarchies. When in competition for scarce resources such as housing or employment, dominant groups create prejudiced “legitimizing myths” to provide moral and intellectual justification for their dominant position.
  • Intergroup contact reduces prejudice by (1) enhancing knowledge about the outgroup, (2) reducing anxiety about intergroup contact, and (3) increasing empathy and perspective taking.

Key Terms

  • outgroup: A group of people who do not belong to one’s own social group.
  • prejudice: An adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand and without knowledge of the facts.
  • heuristic: Experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery that give a solution that is not guaranteed to be optimal.
  • ingroup: The social group that one belongs to.

Prejudice: Ingroups and Outgroups

Prejudice is a baseless and usually negative attitude toward members of a group. Common features of prejudice include negative feelings, stereotyped beliefs, and a tendency to discriminate against members of the group. The word is often used to refer to preconceived, usually unfavorable, judgments toward people based on their gender, social class, age, disability, religion, sexuality, or other personal characteristics. In psychology, “prejudice” refers to a positive or negative evaluation of another person based on their group membership. It is also important to remember that prejudice is a belief and not a behavior. Although prejudice may lead to discrimination, the two are separate concepts.

Negative prejudice is rarely seen in response to one’s own group, or ingroup. This is thought to be because individuals tend to have more knowledge about members of their own group, so they do not have to rely on heuristics to make judgments about them. Heuristics are simple guidelines that people use to make decisions, come to judgements, and solve problems, typically when facing incomplete information. Heuristics are along the same lines as rules of thumb, stereotypes, educated guesses, intuitive judgements, and profiling. While these internal guidelines tend to work well, they can sometimes lead to systematic errors in judgement or cognitive biases. Therefore, when evaluating members from other groups, or outgroups, individuals may have access to limited information and refer to predetermined ideas to make predictions about behavior.

Motivations Underlying Prejudice

Ingroup Favoritism

Researchers have found that ingroup favoritism, or preference for members of the group one belongs to, can occur even when the group had no prior social meaning. Experiments have shown that when participants were assigned to groups based on something as trivial as a coin toss, those participants exhibited ingroup favoritism, giving preferential treatment to members of their own group.

Outgroup Homogeneity

The outgroup homogeneity effect is the perception that members of an outgroup are more similar than members of the ingroup. This can range from physical to mental characteristics. This kind of prejudice can be seen in times of war or conflict, when each group dehumanizes their enemy.

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Prejudice and propaganda: Elements of prejudice can often be seen in propaganda. This image emphasizes the individuality of the ingroup (America) and the homogeneity of the outgroup (Slavik communists), demonstrating the principle of outgroup homogeneity.

Another example of this phenomenon was noted in a study in which researchers asked 90 sorority members to judge the degree of within-group similarity for their own group and two other groups. It was found that every participant judged their own sorority members to be significantly more dissimilar than the members of the other groups.

The Justification-Suppression Model

The justification-suppression model of prejudice explains that people face a conflict between the desire to express prejudice and the desire to maintain a positive self-concept. This conflict causes people to search for justification for disliking an outgroup and to use that justification to avoid negative self-concept when they express their disdain.

Realistic Conflict Theory

The realistic conflict theory (RCT) states that competition between limited resources leads to increased negative prejudices and discrimination. Research has shown this to be the case, even when the resource in question is insignificant—such as a cheap plastic trinket. However, research has shown that the hostilities created in this situation can be lessened once groups are forced to cooperate to achieve a common goal.

The Robbers Cave experiment by Muzafer Sherif is one of the most widely known demonstrations of RCT. In this study, researchers posed as camp personnel, observing 22 eleven- and twelve-year-old boys who had never previously met and had similar backgrounds. First, the boys were divided into two groups upon arrival, based on similarities. Then, the groups were entered in competition with one another in various camp games for prizes, which caused both groups to develop negative attitudes and behaviors towards the outgroup. In the final stage, tensions between the groups were reduced through teamwork-driven tasks that required intergroup cooperation.

Social Dominance Theory

This theory states that society can be viewed as a series of group-based hierarchies. When in competition for scarce resources, such as housing or employment, dominant groups create prejudiced “legitimizing myths” to provide moral and intellectual justification for their dominant position over other groups. This helps to validate their claim over the limited resources.

Reducing Prejudice

Research indicates that most prejudicial attitudes and biases are culturally learned and not innate, meaning these beliefs can also be unlearned. In a meta-analysis of 515 studies on prejudice, three important mediating factors were found to reduce prejudice. All factors rely on intergroup contact, or the intermingling of two groups. This contact (1) enhances knowledge about the outgroup, (2) reduces anxiety about intergroup contact, and (3) increases empathy and perspective taking.