Hostile Attribution Bias

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While driving home one day, Tim sees a car swerving from one lane to another. As Tim draws closer to the car, he decides to merge away. He curses at the reckless driver and continues on his way home. What Tim did not know is that inside the other car there was a woman in labor and the other driver was swerving through traffic in order to arrive at the hospital as quickly as possible. What just occurred is an example of a hostile attribution bias. Just like Tim, many people would also make this same assumption and would react in the same manner. Hostile attribution bias is one type of aggression that can be explained by the C.N.A. model, which examines two techniques that can be used to prevent such an event.

Robert A. Barron and Deborah R. Richardson (1994) define Hostile Attribution bias as a tendency to perceive hostile intent on the part of others, even when it is really lacking. Look back at the example where "Tim" perceived that the other driver was intentionally driving recklessly and he became hostile. Hostile attribution bias can lead to aggression by the process of the reactive response to provocation theory. When being reactive, the person believes that they are responding to provocation by the other person. The person will become aggressive to a provocation that only he perceived. A recent study was conducted to show how men can perceive a friendly or platonic encounter with a female and make the assumption that there was a sexual or romantic basis for the encounter. When a woman approached them and initiated contact, an assumption was made that they were looking for more than “small talk”. Their perception was incorrect, as the women were only being sociable, and when this mistaken attribute of intent resulted in rejected sexual advances, the men became angered. It was also proven that the manner in which the woman was dressed played no role in the man's mistaken attribution. (Farris 2010).

Hostile attribution bias leads to aggression by the Cognitive Neo-association Model of aggression which states that: frustration or aversive stimuli instigate aggressive reactions by creating negative affects. The interpretation of the persons affect by telling the person to fight or flight. All will depend on how the person has perceived the affect as negative (the person would flee) or positive (the person is angry and looking for confrontation) (Barron & Richardson 1994 “29”). In the previous example about the driver; the stimuli was the other driver, which evoke his aggression. His negative affect was his malignant perception of the other driver. Tim’s response was to flee (flight) because he decided to merge away from the car. In the Dodge study it was show that juveniles had a tendency to become angry but did not act out there aggression to others (Dodge 1900). Just because they did not act out the incident does not meant that they didn’t remain hostile.

Now that we know that hostile attribution bias can lead to aggression lets look at two different ways that we can prevent hostile attribution bias to prevent/reduce aggression. First, we should help individuals change their trait when it comes to attribution. Traits are characteristics that we have since birth. If we can find a way to make alterations to those traits we can help develop a rational person. Then he/she won’t assume the worst, next time he/she bumps into someone. Secondly, to teach individuals that fighting is not always the answer. That just because they can fight doesn’t mean we have to (Hostile attribution, n.d., para 1). Many people feel that when provoked you should act out.. Have they not heard; “turn the other cheek”, or “be the bigger person”. Sancilio, Plumert and Hartup conducted a study that measured the hostile attribution bias that a child would have to a friend vs. a non friend. The child’s reactive responds were mildly different to either person. They didn’t give their friends the benefit of doubt or shrug off provocations from them. Like presumed to the “not friends” they tended to be aggressive (Sancilio 1989). In this case study we can see that children can aggress against friends and strangers. It all depends on the person’s perception.

In conclusion Hostile Attributional Bias is the perception of a hostile intent of another person when there really isn’t one. Hostile Attributional Bias does lead to aggression by the reactive reaction response and by the definition of the C.N.A. model of aggression. In example of the males’ misconception the woman’s intent for a conversation was seen as a sexual invitation. Two different preventing techniques that we can use are: to manipulate a trait that helps alter perception and to teach the idea that fighting is not always the answer to confrontation.

Example / Application - Real-life

A recent report on CNN spoke about teachers in Arizona being discriminated against because of their foreign accent. The Arizona education board is re-examining these teachers to see if they're adequate to teach the English language because they don’t want students to learn incorrect pronunciations - which could affect their comprehension of reading and writing the English language. The belief is that teachers with “faulty English” will not be able to properly teach students. Arizona also just passed a law related to illegal immigration. This problem can be seen from two different perspectives, the teachers’ and the Education board's. The teachers' believe that the government is discriminating against foreign teachers. The educational board claims that they are only improving education standards and have no issue with a teacher's accent - the issue is competency. In this incident it will be hard to address the prevention of hostile attribution bias. (Teachers 2010).

Example / Application - Columbine

In 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold committed an infamous mass murder at their high school (Columbine). They arrived heavily armed and began selectively and randomly shooting students and faculty before finally killing themselves. One of the factors cited as motivating Harris and Klebold to commit these acts was that both students were bullied by their peers. Early media accounts portrayed a situation where two "misfit" students were driven by the mistreatment of their peers into committing mass murder. It was reasonable to portray hostile attribution bias as one of the motivating factors behind Harris and Klebold's rampage but in recent news it was shown that both students were also bullies themselves. They were also severely depressed, which was the main motivator for their actions. Hostile attribution bias did not play a major role in the motivation to kill but it came into play when Harris and Klebold selectively shot some individuals and spared others. It was more of a psychological problem that led them to such horrible acts. To go out in a killing spree was not the correct answer. We could have worked on approaching the situation differently. To explain to students that just because you can become aggressive does not mean that you have to (Toppo 2009).


Barron, R. & Richardson D. (1994). Human Aggression. New York: Plenum press.

Dodge k., Prince, J. & Newman, J. (1990). Hostile attribution biases in severely aggressive adolescents. Journal of abnormal psychology, 99(4), 385-392.doi: 10.1037/0021-843x.99.

Farris, C., Treat, T., & Viken, R. (2010). Alcohol alters men's perceptual and decisional processing of women's sexual interest. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 119(2), 427-432. doi:10.1037/a0019343.

Hostile attribution (n.d) May 13, 2010, from

Sancilio, M., Plumert J., & Hartup, W. (1989) Friendship and aggression as determinants of conflict outcomes in middle childhood. Developmental psychology, 25(5), 812-819, doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.25.5.812

Teachers with accents (May 24, 2010). Teachers with accents under fire. May 24, 2010, from:

Toppo, Greg (2009). 10 years later the real story behind columbine. May 12, 2010, from

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