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expected goal simply because they’re not very unhappy
at this failure. And similarly, from this perspective, sev-
eral of the appraisals sometimes said to be necessary
for anger generate hostility primarily because these
interpretations are often exceedingly aversive. Some-
one’s deliberate attempt to keep a person from fulfilling
his or her desires is much more unpleasant than an acci-
dental interference with his or her goal attainment, and
thus, is much more apt to stimulate the person to
aggression. This analysis regards the frustration–
aggression hypothesis only as a special case of a much
more general proposition: Decidedly aversive occur-
rences are the fundamental generators of anger and the
instigation to aggression.
Leonard Berkowitz
See also Aggression; Anger
Further Readings
Anderson, C. A., Deuser, W. E., & DeNeve, K. M. (1995).
Hot temperatures, hostile affect, hostile cognition, and
arousal: Tests of a general model of affective aggression.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21, 434–448.
Berkowitz, L. (1989). Frustration–aggression hypothesis:
Examination and reformulation. Psychological Bulletin,
106, 59–73.
Berkowitz, L., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2004). Toward an under-
standing of the determinants of anger. Emotion, 4, 107–130.
Dill, J. C., & Anderson, C. A. (1995). Effects of frustration
justification on hostile aggression. Aggressive Behavior,
21, 359–369.
Ellsworth, P. C., & Scherer, K. R. (2003). Appraisal
processes in emotion. In R. J. Davidson, H. Goldsmith, &
K. R. Scherer (Eds.), Handbook of the affective sciences
(pp. 572–595). New York: Oxford University Press.
Geen, R. G. (1998). Aggression and antisocial behavior.
In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.),
The handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol. 2,
pp. 317–356). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION ERROR
Definition
The fundamental attribution error describes per-
ceivers’tendency to underestimate the impact of situa-
tional factors on human behavior and to overestimate
the impact of dispositional factors. For instance, people
often tend to believe that aggressive behavior is caused
by aggressive personality characteristics (dispositional
factor) even though aggressive behavior can also be
provoked by situational circumstances (situational
factor).
History
The term fundamental attribution error was created in
1977 by social psychologist Lee Ross. However,
research on the fundamental attribution error goes
back to the 1950s when social psychologists Fritz
Heider and Gustav Ichheiser started to investigate lay
perceivers’ understanding of the causes of human
behavior. Interest in the fundamental attribution error
experienced a peak in the 1970s and 1980s when a
general notion within social psychology was to dis-
cover shortcomings in human judgment.
Notwithstanding its widely accepted significance for
social psychology, the fundamental attribution error has
also been the subject of controversies regarding its gen-
eral nature. On the one hand, critics argued that the fun-
damental attribution error does not occur for everyone
under any circumstances, which challenges the ade-
quacy of the label fundamental. On the other hand, crit-
ics claimed that there is no unambiguous criterion that
could specify the real causes of human behavior, thus
challenging the adequacy of the term error. Irrespective
of these controversies, the fundamental attribution error
is generally regarded as a very important phenomenon
for social psychology, as it often leads to surprised
reactions to research findings demonstrating a strong
impact of situational factors on human behavior.
Evidence
From a general perspective, evidence for the funda-
mental attribution error comes from three different
lines of research. First, numerous studies have shown
that people tend to infer stable personality character-
istics from observed behavior even when this behavior
could also be due to situational factors. For example,
students may infer a high level of dispositional anxi-
ety from a fellow student’s nervous behavior during a
class presentation, even though such nervous behavior
may simply be the result of the anxiety-provoking sit-
uation. This tendency to draw correspondent disposi-
tional inferences from situationally constrained
behavior is usually called the correspondence bias. In
the present example, the fundamental attribution error
can contribute to the correspondence bias when
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perceivers do not believe that giving a class presenta-
tion is anxiety provoking. Thus, perceivers will infer
that the presenter must be an anxious person, even
though most people would show the same level of
behavioral anxiety during a class presentation.
A second line of research on the fundamental attri-
bution error is concerned with surprised reactions that
are often elicited by social psychological findings.
Consistent with social psychology’s notion that human
behavior is strongly influenced by situational factors,
several studies have shown that everyday people often
do not help other individuals in an emergency situation
when other people are present, that everyday people
are willing to administer life-threatening electric
shocks to other individuals upon request by an experi-
menter, and that everyday people engage in sadistic,
torturing behavior simply because they are assigned to
a superior social role. These findings have provoked
surprised reactions not only among lay people but also
among professional psychologists. One reason for
these reactions is that perceivers tend to underestimate
how simple changes in the situation can lead everyday
people to engage in immoral behavior.
A third line of research on the fundamental attribu-
tion error is concerned with cultural differences in lay
perceivers’ explanations of human behavior. A large
number of cross-cultural studies have shown that
people in Western societies tend to explain human
behavior in terms of stable personality characteristics,
whereas people in East Asian societies tend to explain
human behavior in terms of situational factors. For
example, a school massacre may be described in terms
of the abnormal personality of the perpetrator in
Western cultures, whereas the same massacre may be
described in terms of the perpetrator’s situation in
East Asian cultures. This difference is assumed to
have its roots in a more general difference between
Western and East Asian worldviews. Whereas Western
societies tend to stress the independence and unique-
ness of each individual (individualism), East Asian
cultures tend to stress the connectedness and the rela-
tion of the individual to the social context (collec-
tivism). This difference, in turn, leads to a stronger
focus on characteristics of the individual in Western
cultures and to a stronger focus on characteristics of
the individual’s situation in East Asian cultures.
Correspondence Bias
The fundamental attribution error is often associated
with another social psychological phenomenon: the
correspondence bias. The correspondence bias refers
to perceivers’ tendency to infer stable personality
characteristics from other people’s behavior even
when this behavior was caused by situational factors.
Originally, the terms fundamental attribution error
and correspondence bias were used interchangeably
to refer to one and the same phenomenon, namely,
perceivers’ tendency to underestimate the impact of
situational (relative to dispositional) factors on human
behavior. However, recent research has shown that the
correspondence bias can also be due to factors that do
not imply an underestimation of situational factors.
Rather, perceivers sometimes commit the correspon-
dence bias because they consider situational factors to
have a strong impact on human behavior. Drawing on
these findings, many researchers in the field now dis-
tinguish between the fundamental attribution error
and the correspondence bias, viewing them as two dif-
ferent (though sometimes related) phenomena.
Specifically, the term fundamental attribution error is
now used to describe people’s tendency to underesti-
mate the causal impact of situational factors on human
behavior and to overestimate the impact of disposi-
tional factors. In contrast, the term correspondence
bias is used to describe people’s tendency to infer sta-
ble personality characteristics from observed behavior
even when this behavior could also be due to situa-
tional factors (which may or may not be due to an
underestimation of situational factors).
Explanations
From a general perspective, explanations of the fun-
damental attribution error have focused on (a) cogni-
tive mechanisms, (b) motivational influences, and
(c) general worldviews.
With regard to cognitive mechanisms, it has been
argued that actors usually have a higher perceptual
salience than situations. As such, observed behavior
often forms a perceptual unit with the actor, but not
with the situation in which it occurs. This mechanism
leads to different outcomes for actors who generally
see the situation they are responding to but do not see
themselves engaging in a particular behavior. This
explanation is supported by research showing that
only observers tend to attribute a stronger impact to
dispositional as compared to situational factors,
whereas actors tend to attribute a stronger impact to
situational as compared to dispositional factors.
With regard to motivational influences, it has been
argued that the fundamental attribution error implies
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a general tendency to see human behavior as con-
trolled by the individual rather than by situational fac-
tors. Specifically, lack of personal control over one’s
actions would imply that individuals may not be
responsible for their actions, thus undermining the
social and legal basis of many modern societies. As
such, people are sometimes motivated to downplay
the impact of situational factors on human behavior to
protect the general notion of personal responsibility.
Finally, it has been argued that the fundamental
attribution error has its roots in an individualist world-
view that sees each individual as independent and
unique. This explanation is derived from cross-
cultural research, showing that people in collectivist
cultures attribute a stronger weight to situational fac-
tors than do people in individualist cultures.
Bertram Gawronski
See also Actor–Observer Asymmetries; Attributions;
Attribution Theory; Bystander Effect; Correspondence
Bias; Milgram’s Obedience to Authority Studies; Stanford
Prison Experiment
Further Readings
Gawronski, B. (2004). Theory-based bias correction in
dispositional inference: The fundamental attribution error
is dead, long live the correspondence bias. European
Review of Social Psychology, 15, 183–217.
Hamilton, D. L. (1998). Dispositional and attributional
inferences in person perception. In J. M. Darley &
J. Cooper (Eds.), Attribution and social interaction
(pp. 99–114). Washington, DC: American Psychological
Association.
Ross, L. D. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his
shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process.
In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social
psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173–220). New York: Academic
Press.
Ross, L. D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1991). The person and the
situation: Perspectives of social psychology. New York:
McGraw-Hill.
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