Biases in the Attribution Process

Adapted from Mowday, R.T. Beliefs about the Causes of Behavior: The Motivational Implications of Attribution Processes.  In R.M. Steers and R.T. Mowday (Eds.) Motivation and Work Behavior, 1987.


Fundamental Attribution Error
: The tendency to attribute your own behavior to your environment and attribute other’s behavior to dispositional characteristics – the person (also referred to as actor/observer bias). We tend to underemphasize the role of environmental factors in causing the behavior of others and thus are more likely to make attributions to personal characteristics as the cause of behavior. When it comes to our own behavior we are generally more aware of the environmental constraints we face and give these factors greater emphasis than personal characteristics.

Ego-Defensive Bias: The tendency of people to readily accept credit for their successes (person attribution) and blame their failures on someone or something else (environment attribution). This is one of the most robust findings in attribution research (also referred to as self-serving bias). For example, high-performing employees may be more likely to believe their success was due to skill and ability, while low-performing employees may blame their failure on the lack of proper tools, poor supervision, or a host of other environmental factors.

Ego-Centric Bias: The tendency for people to believe that the attitudes that they hold are appropriate in the situation and thus must be widely shared by others (also referred to as false-consensus bias). For example, if you are committed to your organization you are less likely to believe that others quit their job because they are dissatisfied.