Attribution Biases

Human mind operates by two different systems of thought. System 1 is quick, easy, and automatic— using a process that one might call “intuitive.” Determining which of two objects is more distant, detecting anger in a face, adding 2 + 1 + 2, and understanding a simple sentence are the kinds of automatic activities engaged by this system. In contrast, System 2 is slow and controlled and requires attention and effort—using a process that feels more reasoned. Looking for a specific face in a crowd, park- ing in a narrow space, counting the number of letters on a page, figuring out how a magic trick works, and filling out taxes are the kinds of activities that require your focused and undivided attention. According to Kahneman, Systems 1 and 2 are both active when people are awake. System 1 runs automatically and guides us until it runs into difficulty, as when something unexpected happens. At that point the more effortful System 2 is activated.

When the theories of attribution were first proposed, they were represented by elaborate flowcharts, formulas, and diagrams, leading many social psychologists to wonder: Do people really analyze behavior in the way that one might expect of scientists, or computers? Do people have the time, the motivation, or the cog- nitive capacity for such elaborate System 1 processes? The answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no. As social perceivers, we are limited in our ability to process all relevant information, or we lack the kinds of training needed to employ fully the principles of attribution theory. More important, we often don’t bother to think carefully about the attributions we make. With so much to explain and not enough time in a day, people take mental shortcuts, cross their fingers, hope for the best, and get on with life. The problem is that speed brings bias and perhaps even a loss of accuracy. In this section, we examine some of these shortcuts and their consequences.

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