Douglas S. Krull
Northern Kentucky University
On Partitioning the Fundamental Attribution Error:
Dispositionalism and the Correspondence Bias
We often speculate about why things happen. Suppose we learn that a prestigious law firm hired a new attorney and within 3 years he is a partner in the firm. We might wonder why he was promoted so quickly. Is he incredibly talented? Is he the favorite nephew of the senior partner? Suppose we hear of an airplane crash. We might wonder about the cause. Did the engines fail? Was it the pilot's fault? Suppose we meet a colleague in another department and he seems grumpy. We might wonder why he acted that way. Is he a grumpy person? Is he just having a bad day?
Such questions are ubiquitous, and, moreover, they are important. As Gilbert and Malone (1995) pointed out, the consequences of misunderstanding the behavior of others can be quite serious: Guilty people are set free, innocent people are jailed, poor political candidates are elected, people who thought they knew their dates are raped by them, wars are started, relationships are ended. It is difficult to overestimate the problems that can occur because we misunderstand the traits of other people and the causes of their behaviors.
The question of how people understand and explain the behavior of other people is the domain of attribution theory. An attribution is an explanation or a judgment about the cause of some event. More specifically, the subset of attribution theory discussed in this chapter primarily deals with how people make judgments about a particular type of event—the behavior of others. 1
This chapter compares and contrasts two aspects of what is often called the fundamental attribution error. Dispositionalism is the tendency to prefer dispositional attributions over situational attributions. Correspondence bias is the tendency to infer that dispositions correspond to behavior. It is suggested here that, although dispositionalism and correspondence bias are related phenomena, they are not identical, and a consideration of the differences and similarities may help clarify extant research and inform subsequent research efforts. This chapter also points out that, although the tendency to prefer dispositional attributions exists under some conditions, the tendency to prefer situational attributions exists under other conditions. Moreover, it is suggested that the tendency to infer that dispositions correspond to behavior is only one side of the coin because people also tend to infer that situations correspond to behavior. Thus, both correspondence bias and situational correspondence can be thought of as subsets of the more general tendency to draw correspondent inferences.
Contemporary attribution theory draws its ideas from many sources. Kelley's Covariation Principle can be found in the ideas of many writers, including Mill (1872/1973). Indeed, Hewstone (1990) indicated that White (1989) traced the covariation principle back to William of Ockham, who wrote during the 14th century. Hilton and Slugoski's (1986) Abnormal Conditions Focus Model makes use of Hart and Honore's (1961) insights about commonsense knowledge. Automaticity in impression formation, a cornerstone of many modern attribution theories, draws from both Icheiser's (1943) discussion of unconscious processes of interpretation and Michotte's (1946/1963) view that causality can be experienced immediately and directly. A consideration of the many individuals and ideas that have shaped contemporary attribution theory is beyond the scope of this chapter. 2 Therefore, this consideration of the past of attribution theory begins with Heider.
Heider is regarded as the father of attribution theory (Jones, 1985) and with good reason. Heider's (1944, 1958) insights laid the foundation for much of the research and theory in attribution. Consider three of Heider's ideas that have contributed to attribution theory. First, Heider suggested that when people view behavior, they want to understand the stable causes of the behavior so they can predict future behavior. He wrote: