Attribution Errors

My last couple of posts have been drawn from brief essays I wrote for a social psychology class I took last semester. When Laina Eartharcher shared the second one on her blog Laina’s Collection, she commented that “What I get out of this is that we’re not as “weird” or “disordered as much of the medical profession makes us out to be. Maybe we’re just more aware of it, and it might be heightened for us through our wiring, but it might not be so “wrong” after all.”

It turns out that’s exactly what I wanted to get across by posting some of my thoughts from that class. 🙂 I had that experience all the way through, in fact: I’d read some section of the textbook and think, “Ok, so everyone (in aggregate, at least) has this experience. So why is it so pathologized in autistics?”

Consider how we interpret and explain other people’s behavior; this is often wrapped up in the so-called “theory of mind” that autistic people supposedly lack (but don’t really). The way it is presented, autistics have difficulty taking the perspectives of others, and understanding what is going on inside their heads. However, people make decisions all the time when interpreting others’ words or behavior, and they don’t always get it right; one prominent example in our textbook was of a man misinterpreting a woman’s friendliness for flirtation. In order to interpret the meaning of behavior, we need to attribute it to something, and in this case the friendly smile is misattributed to sexual interest.

Our attributions are also affected by how much we know about what the person in question is going through. Let’s say someone gets impatient while waiting in line, and snaps at the person ahead of him. If you know he’s been under a lot of stress and is maybe on a tight schedule, you might be more understanding and cut him some slack. This is called a situational attribution; you are attributing his crankiness to his external situation. If, however, you don’t know this person at all, you might be more inclined to assume he’s just a nasty person with a bad attitude. This is called a dispositional attribution; you are attributing his snappishness to his personality, or disposition. We assume his hostility is due to his personal traits rather than adverse circumstances.

With me so far? These two things combine into the idea of the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to downplay the effects of circumstances and instead attribute behavior to personal traits…when it comes to other people. When we justify our own behavior, though, we tend to point to the situation for an explanation. So if someone else is late, they’re lazy and inconsiderate. If we ourselves are late, we were held up in traffic, or had a last-minute emergency that we couldn’t avoid. (But of course, if we do something noble and good, that’s all us, and not circumstantial at all. 😉

There are several potential reasons for this fundamental attribution error, not least of which is the fact that we have a lot more knowledge about our own circumstances than those of other people, so we can put our own behavior into context more easily. Plus we want to feel good about ourselves, so if we make a mistake we look for external reasons why we might have slipped up. There are cultural influences, too; individualistic cultures like the US are more likely to attribute things to a person’s individual traits. But they all add up to a tendency to interpret other people’s behavior differently than we want our own behavior to be interpreted.

It also means that, by ignoring situational influences, people misinterpret others’ intentions all the time. So why are autistics particularly singled out for having “theory of mind” deficits when we have trouble with social interpretation?

In the end, this relates back to what Damian Milton calls the “double empathy problem.” In this way of thinking about it, social communication “issues are not due to autistic cognition alone, but a breakdown in reciprocity and mutual understanding that can happen between people with very differing ways of experiencing the world.” Of course, when you’re autistic, and interacting primarily with people who do not share your way of experiencing the world, things like misinterpretations and misattributions may indeed be more frequent. But that’s not an autistic deficit, that’s a deficit of mutual understanding.

So yes, in addition to finding social psychology fascinating, I went through the entire class thinking, “Hey, that’s a thing autistics get accused of “struggling with” all the time, but in reality the human as a social animal is just…kinda bizarre.” At least we have people out there studying these things to try to make sense of them! 😉

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5 thoughts on “Attribution Errors

  1. I think, if I may, that the cultural aspect is key. I know that when I deal with Americans in particular, there is a certain edge that is rarely found in other cultures. They tend to build a wall around them and everything that comes in (noise, touch, word) is taken immediately as a threat rather than let’s say, someone loosing its balance, dropping something unintentionally, etc… In most cultures, the person who makes the “mistake” is given time to apologise (oh sorry! je m’excuse! sumimasen! ana assif! etc.) before the other person has time to react negatively (and the person may not react negatively at all actually). This in no way diminishes the idea of situational/dispositional attribution (that was hard to write!). And yet, I think there is too much thinking here. Sometimes interactions are simple and go no further that what they are. The issue is to be kind no matter what. That is my (as usual) naive and well-intentioned take on it all… (smiles) Kenza.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Kenza. 🙂 Culture definitely plays a role, and there have also been challenges to the concept of the fundamental attribution error (and a related idea called correspondence bias, which is when we infer things about another person’s innate traits based on behavior that could easily have been situationally-influenced). And I agree that it’s important to be kind; I actually find it helpful to learn about these kinds of biases as a reality check on my own thinking about other people, to see if I am being as fair to them as I would want other people to be toward me.

      The main reason I wrote about attribution errors was just to point out that misinterpretations and misattributions happen all the time, to pretty much everyone. There’s a whole body of research (with the usual competing and conflicting theories, of course) around why and how they happen. So it doesn’t help to imply that autistic people are the only ones to struggle with this.

      Liked by 1 person

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