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When people observe other’s behavior they often attribute that behavior to dispositional traits rather than situational factors (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2007). The tendency for people to overemphasize personality based explanations and underemphasize situational factors is known as the correspondent bias (Miyamoto & Kitayama 2002). Correspondent bias is also commonly known as the fundamental attribution error (Gawronski, 2003). Often times people are quick to judge other people’s behavior and attribute it to their personality rather than social forces. A common correspondent bias in our daily lives occurs when we are driving. A car cuts us off and more often than not we curse at the other driver. We think of them as inconsiderate, lousy drivers, and even as unpleasant people. However, it is important to note that the other driver’s action of cutting us off may be attributed to a situational factor. Perhaps the other driver was avoiding some sort of obstacle on the road or rushing to the hospital to welcome the birth of his child. Maybe the other driver is a single parent of four kids rushing to his job site because of fear of being late and losing his only means of income. These are all situational factors that may have led to the behavior of the other driver. Perhaps this kind of behavior is not typical of the driver; he is usually a safe driver.
Too often people attribute other people’s behavior as dispositional traits and their own behaviors as situational factors (Hansen, Kimble, & Biers, 2001). It is important to note that correspondent bias may be adjusted to accommodate situational factors. However, effectiveness of adjustment works best when the observer can imagine being in the actor’s shoes (Epley, Golovich, & Savitsky, 2002). We are more likely to attribute another person’s behavior on the situation if we ourselves have engaged in the same behavior. Another problem arises when people commit situational behaviors that we ourselves cannot relate to (Epley et al., 2002). For Example, in the Holocaust, many people will agree that they would never commit the horrible acts that were carried out against the Jews. Yet, the famous Milgram study demonstrates otherwise. Ordinary people will commit horrendous acts when they are under external social pressure like coercion (Epley et al., 2002).
Example - Research
As a concrete example of correspondent bias Hansen, Kimble and Biers (2001) investigated whether individuals make situational inferences about their own constrained behavior, as opposed to dispositional explanations for other people’s constrained behavior. The researchers hypothesized that participants would regard constrained behavior as more indicative of a confederate’s dispositions than of their own. Moreover it was expected that participants would judge confederates’ dispositions as correspondent to their assigned behavior, but they would rate their own dispositions as friendly regardless of the constraint. The method involved participants to be paired with the same sex confederate. They were randomly assigned one of two conditions; 1) act friendly or 2) act unfriendly toward their partner while getting acquainted. After the interaction, participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire based on their own behavior as well as the confederate’s behavior during their interactions. The operationalization of correspondent bias within the method was manipulating the behavior of the confederate as either friendly or unfriendly. The dependent measure was whether someone’s own behavior would be attributed to external factors and another’s behavior attributed to internal factors. Based on participant’s answers to the questionnaires, the results were consistent with the hypothesis. Situational or environmental factors played a more prominent role in participant’s attributions of their own behavior than the behavior of others, even though participants were aware that the confederate may have been assigned to the unfriendly condition. In addition, participants viewed constrained unfriendly behavior as being less indicative of their own dispositional characteristics than the dispositions of others. The implication of the research is that friendliness may invoke social desirability concerns. To account for this, future research must use the social desirability scale to determine whether “unfriendly” participants will attempt to present themselves more favorably than the “friendly” participants (because of social desirability) (Hansen et al., 2001).
Example - Real-life
One of the most horrifying acts of mass killing in the history of the world is the Holocaust. People often pose the question, “How could people commit such gruesome acts of torture and killing?” It is no surprise that the guards who committed such acts can be described as relentless, heartless, cruel, and even despicable (all internal dispositions). Nevertheless, it is important to note that “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive processes” (Berkowitz, 1999, p. 247). The Stanley Milgram Study reveals that the accomplices of the Holocaust may have solely followed orders even though it was in violation of their own morality. His study measured the willingness of participants to shock another person solely on an authority figure telling them to.
Participants were assigned to the role of either teacher or learner; the teacher was instructed to shock the learner whenever he made a mistake and increase the voltage with each occurring error. Although some of the participants felt uneasy about administering the shocks, more often than not, participants delivered the highest possible shock (even though they heard the painful cries of the learner begging them to stop). In fact, sixty five percent of participants delivered the maximum shock of 450 volts (Berkowitz, 1999). These ordinary people inflicted pain on others simply because the researcher (person of authority) told them to do so. Once again, the correspondence bias is the tendency for people to overestimate behavior as dispositional traits and underestimate behavior based on situational factors. The guards of the Holocaust may have killed their victims out of a sense of obligation from an authority figure and not from an aggressive disposition (Berkowitz, 1999). This is not to say that the guards were victims, but rather that situational factors such as obedience and coercion played a key role in the killing of millions of Jews. Furthermore, people have very few resources needed to resist situational factors when they are being coerced (Gawronski, 2003). It is important to consider that often times a person’s behavior, terrible as it might seem may be due to social and external pressures rather than dispositional characteristics. “When one probes behind actions, one normally finds not an evil individual viciously forwarding diabolical schemes but instead ordinary individuals who have done acts of evil because they were caught up in complex social forces” (Berkowitz, 1999, p. 247).
Aronson, Wilson, & Akert (2007). Social Psychology (6th edition). Pearson Prentice Hall, NJ.
Berkowitz, L. (1999). Evil is more than banal: Situationism and the concept of evil. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3(3), 246-253.
Epley, N., Savitsky, K., & Gilovich, T. (2002). Empathy neglect: Reconciling the spotlight effect and the correspondence bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(2), 300-312.
Gawronski, B. (2003). Implicational schemata and the correspondence bias: On the diagnostic value of situationally constrained behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(6), 1154-1171.
Hansen, E., Kimble, C., & Biers, D. (2001). Actors and observers: Divergent attributions of constrained unfriendly behavior. Social Behavior and Personality, 29(1), 87-104.
Miyamoto, Y., & Kitayama, S. (2002). Cultural variation in correspondence bias: The critical role of attitude diagnosticity of socially constrained behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1239-1248.
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