What is Attribution Error?

Posted by on Jan 28, 2012 in ComLead

In Communication and Leadership, you learn about a lot of different theories. I guess at this point, it is safe to say I have a favorite. It was created by psychologist Fritz Heider. It helps to explain how people create understanding about the world around them

Now every person needs to make sense of their surroundings daily. This week I was in an aisle of a parking lot when someone reversed out of their spot as I was passing and accidentally hit my car. Let’s break this situation down.

Now Heider’s theory is complex, but the feature that I focus on the most is the difference between internal and external attributions. Essentially, an internal attribution is assigned to a person’s characteristics such as: personality, mood, attitudes. This means that I could explain the behavior of the person who hit my car was a result of them being thoughtless. External attributions explain behaviors by attributing them to the surrounding environment. Meaning, this person could have hit my car because the weather was bad and she didn’t see me in her rearview mirror. Maybe she was in a rush because she had a family emergency.

As people, we make decisions about interpersonal communication without even second guessing whether we perceive the encounter correctly. How many times have you been in a meeting and someone walks in late? We can either consider them lazy and inconsiderate (internal attribution) OR attribute it to another meeting running over (external attribution). Now, our feelings towards a person can change how we look at the situation, but we should check our attributions more.

If we look at how we are explaining our environment, we can make sure that our perception is fair, or try and reduce bias. After all, our first thoughts aren’t always the correct answers.

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