Human behavior can be understood as issuing from “internal” factors or personal characteristics–such as motives, intentions, or personality traits–and from “external” factors–such as the physical or social environment and other factors deemed out of one’s personal control. Self-serving creatures that we are, we tend to attribute our own successes to our intelligence, knowledge, skill, perseverance, and other positive personal traits. Our failures are blamed on bad luck, sabotage by others, a lost lucky charm, and other such things. These attribution biases are referred to as the dispositional attribution bias and the situational attribution bias. They are applied in reverse when we try to explain the actions of others. Others succeed because they’re lucky or have connections and they fail because they’re stupid, wicked, or lazy.
We may tend to attribute the behaviors of others to their intentions because it is cognitively easier to do so. We often have no idea about the situational factors that might influence another person or cause them to do what they do. We can usually easily imagine, however, a personal motive or personality trait that could account for most human actions. We usually have little difficulty in seeing when situational factors are at play in affecting our own behavior. In fact, people tend to over-emphasize the role of the situation in their own behaviors and under-emphasize the role of their own personal motives or personality traits. Social psychologists refer to this tendency as the actor-observer bias.
One lesson here is that we should be careful when interpreting the behavior of others. What might appear to be laziness, dishonesty, or stupidity might be better explained by situational factors of which we are ignorant. Another lesson is that we might be giving ourselves more credit for our actions than we deserve. The situation may have driven us more than we admit. Maybe we “just did what anybody would do in that situation” or maybe we were just lucky. We may want to follow the classical Greek maxim “know thyself,” but modern neuroscience has awakened us to the fact that much of our thinking goes on at the unconscious level and we often don’t know what is really motivating us to do what we do or think what we think.
Something similar to the self-serving attribution of positive traits to explain our own behavior and negative traits to explain the behavior of others occurs with regard to beliefs.
- The 12 cognitive biases that prevent you from being rational (illuminutti.com)
- The 12 cognitive biases that prevent you from being rational (richarddawkins.net)
- The Fundamental Attributional Error: (acommondilemma.wordpress.com)
- The Self-Serving Bias – Definition, Research, and Antidotes (psychologytoday.com)
- Your Brain Is Flawed — 12 Scientific Reasons Human Beings Are Wildly Irrational (alternet.org)
- Big Five personality traits, paragraph development (bryanechang.wordpress.com)