In my social psychology college course, I gave a journal assignment to promote understanding of the fundamental attribution error (FAE). The FAE is the common tendency to underestimate situational factors and overestimate dispositional factors when explaining behavior. The assignment had students consider situational as well as dispositional attributions for other people's negative behaviors.
By encouraging students to consider situational attributions, I hoped to help them reduce misperceptions that sometimes lead to conflict or retaliation in response to negative behaviors (Sadler, Lineberger, Correll, & Park, 2005). Teaching students how to reduce the FAE may also lead to greater compassion and willingness to assist those in need (Gilovich & Eibach, 2001; Myers, 2008).
Description of the Assignment
The assignment began with multiple-choice items testing understanding of the FAE in applied contexts. For example, items asked students how situational factors might help explain certain outcomes (e.g., homelessness, racial differences in academic test scores). Students also had to generate their own examples of problems that might be caused by situational factors. For an updated copy of the assignment, click the desired version below:
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The heart of the assignment was a journal in which students recorded five instances of others' negative behavior toward them (over about 10 days). These were "cases in which someone behaves negatively or aggressively toward you or otherwise mistreats you in some way." For each behavior, the student listed three possible causes: two situational and one personality.
To help students take the exercise seriously, I described avoiding the FAE as a "challenge." I also stated that each of us (including myself) need to be open to the possibility of our own biases in order to reduce them, even though people commit the FAE to different degrees. Finally, I advised students to beware the "above average effect" or thinking that only other people are susceptible to the FAE.
Some students who hold strong dispositional views (e.g., that terrorists are evil) might object to the idea that highly negative behaviors can have situational causes. To minimize this possibility, I made clear that situational factors do not "excuse" terrorism, and that the best way to understand and prevent terrorism is by considering all its possible causes. I also emphasized that after the exercise, students did not need to change their beliefs about what truly led to the behavior.
Student Performance and Evaluation
The assignment was worth 20 points out of 450 for the semester, and the average score across two classes (N = 59 students) was 95%, based on answers to multiple-choice and open-ended items about the FAE and accurate completion of the journal.
The negative behaviors that students listed were rudeness (e.g., by friends, relatives, romantic partners, coworkers, salespeople); others not doing something they "should" (e.g., chores); drivers' behaviors that put the student at risk; being discriminated against; and physical aggression. Some of the situational explanations that students gave for these behaviors included traumatic childhood incidents, peer pressure, culture, upbringing, road conditions, mechanical breakdowns, and the student contributing to the negative behavior.
As part of the assignment, students responded to the six items below on a 7-point scale in which 1 = "not at all" and 7 = "a great degree" (all averages exceeded the 4.0 midpoint, ps < .001).
|Item|| Mean Rating |
|Openness to your own FAE||6.1|
|Desire to improve your explanations||6.0|
|Can now consider possible situational factors when someone acts negatively or aggressively against you||5.9|
|Assignment made you more reflective in explaining others' negative behaviors||5.8|
|Less judgmental (i.e., less likely to judge the other person negatively)||5.3|
|Less upset or defensive in response to someone's negative behavior toward you||5.0|
Although students did not submit these ratings anonymously, the averages were within 0.2 scale point of anonymous ratings gathered as part of a study I conducted on this assignment (presented at the 2008 Teaching Institute of the Association for Psychological Science and Society for the Teaching of Psychology). In this study, my social psychology students (N = 61) reported more openness to their own bias (M = 6.0) and more peaceful reactions to aggressive behavior (M = 5.5) than did general social science students who received less FAE instruction and no assignment (Ms = 5.4 and 4.9, respectively), ps < .01.
Students had the chance to further describe their thoughts on the assignment in an optional ungraded essay (worth no points). In all, 22 (37%) of 59 students wrote positive essays, and 1 student objected to explaining terrorism with situational factors. Here are several representative responses (with minor typographic errors corrected):
"I have noticed a drastic change in my thinking... today after class I was driving... and was cut off. Normally, I would step on the gas at an opportune moment; I would return the favor. But today, I thought of the FAE... I let it go. I also felt less stress, and I am sure that is healthy."
"At the beginning of class, I will admit I was really closed minded. When I heard the reason homeless people are homeless wasn't because they were lazy, I laughed... I have noticed many examples in the past few weeks [in which I am] committing the FAE; then I am able to correct it."
"It is so much easier and almost pleasing to blame an individual, especially when you are the 'victim'... [Now] I am far more aware."
"I think this type of exercise is important because it forces us to practice our sociologist muscles and see things from the point-of-view of another person."
"I think it has helped me to become more compassionate and self-aware. Recognizing the FAE allows me not to take it personally when someone cuts me off on the highway, or get under my skin... Life is complicated for everyone!"
"This particular assignment has really caused me to look inward at my own actions, and outward at other people's actions... If anything, this worksheet has helped me admit that I do commit the FAE, and it gave me ways to reduce [it] in my everyday life."
"I think all of my friends know about the FAE because I've taught them about it. At first, when I told them about the FAE, most of my friends said, 'Wow, [student's name], I think you've been thinking about school way too much!' But now I think they like 'calling each other out' when someone commits the FAE. It's fun to watch!"
"I liked this assignment a lot because now I will probably always try my best not to commit the FAE, making me a more understanding person... Thank you for assigning this to the class. I know that I will use it later in life time and time again."
This assignment can be adapted for use in any course that addresses social issues or interpersonal communication, and a number of variations are possible. For example, instructors might assign semester-long journals with in-class discussions or reflection papers. Likewise, the assignment might be combined with classroom or workshop activities such as having students recall or role-play negative behaviors and then brainstorm in small groups about possible situational causes. Other possibilities would be to add a discussion on cross-cultural differences in how people explain behavior (for example, the finding that people in Asia tend to be less prone to commit the FAE), or to develop variations that examine other common biases in judgment and decision making (e.g., self-enhancement, egocentric biases, overconfidence).
Many students clearly absorbed the FAE concept in personally meaningful ways and began to form new attributional habits to avoid the error. In addition, the assignment seems to have helped students reduce personal conflicts and improve social interactions, and it provided students (and some of their friends) with attributional tools for addressing conflicts and social issues beyond the semester.
Gilovich, T., & Eibach, R. (2001). The fundamental attribution error where it really counts. Psychological Inquiry, 12, 23-26.
Myers, D. G. (2008). Social psychology (9th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
Sadler, M. S., Lineberger, M., Correll, J., & Park, B. (2005). Emotions, attributions, and policy endorsements in response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27, 249-258.