250 words DQ

Chapter 4:

Attitudes, Attributions, and Behavior

Two women in work clothing sit on chairs facing each other and shake hands.

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Learning Objectives

By the end of the chapter you should be able to:

Define attitude, and differentiate between implicit

and explicit attitudes

Describe when behaviors and attitudes are likely

to match

Explain the theory of planned behavior

Describe cognitive dissonance theory and

insufficient justification

Describe self-perception theory

Define an attribution, and differentiate internal

and external attributions

Define the fundamental attribution error

Explain how explanatory style works, and differentiate between optimistic and pessimistic explanatory style

Describe the hostile attribution of intent

Differentiate the false consensus effect and false uniqueness effect

Explain the illusion of transparency and spotlight effect

Chapter Outline

4.1 Attitudes

4.2 Behavior and Attitudes

Theory of Planned Behavior

Behavior and Attitude Mismatch

What Is My Attitude?

4.3 Explaining the Behavior of Others

4.4 Fundamental Attribution Error

4.5 Explanations and Our Behavior

Optimistic and Pessimistic Explanatory Styles

A Hostile World

Just Like Everybody Else

What Do Others See?

Chapter Summary

* * *

If you have ever tried online dating, you are in good company. A study by Match.com reported that 40 million people visited or used an online dating site in the previous year, with an annual revenue of 1.9 billion dollars (Laird, 2012). Most online dating sites involve profiles, where potential daters post information about themselves. Others then access that information and decide whether they would like to communicate with or date the person profiled. People often share their likes or dislikes in their profiles, and potential online dates look at those attitudes and form their own attitudes about the person. In meeting new people, online or face to face, and in interacting with those we know, we are constantly trying to understand the motivations behind people's actions—we make attributions for behavior. In this chapter we look at both of these phenomena, attitudes and attributions, and how they interact with our behavior.

4.1 Attitudes

From the time you wake up in the morning to the moment your head hits the pillow at the end of the day, you encounter objects, people, animals, actions, and situations that require a response. As you face all these things, you must make quick evaluations so you know how to react. For example, if you evaluate the neighbor as mean and cream as good, you would avoid interacting with the neighbor and put cream in your coffee. Attitudes are evaluations. These evaluations are based on our reactions—both in terms of how we feel and what we think—to some attitude or object. The objects of our attitudes/evaluations can be physical objects, other people or groups of people, abstract or concrete ideas, animals, behaviors, or even some aspect of ourselves (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). An online dater might have an attitude about his online date, as well as about her dislike of football, her love of cats, and her identity as a runner. The woman, football, cats, and running are all attitude objects. Your neighbor and cream are also attitude objects.

Expand Your Knowledge: Pew Global

Attitudes Project

If you would like to investigate a wide variety of attitudes from around the world, take a look at the Pew Global Attitudes Project website at http://pewglobal.org/. Reports on a variety of surveys are also available.

Attitudes have long been considered important to social psychology (Allport, 1935). Throughout the years, social psychologists have found the subject of attitudes a fruitful area of research (Crano & Prislin, 2006). The evaluations we make have two measures: strength and valence. Attitudes may be very strong or very weak. In terms of valence, we may have attitudes that are on the positive side of the spectrum (you like cats) or negative side of the spectrum (you hate elephants). Putting together strength and valence, you might have a fairly weak positive attitude toward cats and a very strong negative attitude toward elephants. There is also a body of work on ambivalent attitudes—attitudes that are simultaneously positive and negative (Armitage & Conner, 2000; van Harreveld, van der Plight, de Vries, Wenneker, & Verhue, 2004).

When most of us think of attitudes, we probably think of how we feel about objects, people, or groups, but researchers have found that consciously known and reported attitudes are only part of the attitude picture (Nosek & Smyth, 2007; Payne, Burkley, & Stokes, 2008). The attitudes we report, those that rely on our knowledge and beliefs about an attitude object, are called explicit attitudes. Implicit attitudes—attitudes that we are unaware we hold—are based on the automatic, unconscious reactions we have toward an attitude object.

We learn implicit and explicit attitudes either through symbolic representations of or through encounters with attitude objects. Explicit attitudes are based in language, logic, or some other symbolic representation. Because of this, we can develop explicit attitudes relatively quickly through simple communication. For example, if someone told you about a particular group you had not known about before (e.g., pygmies) and shared with you how much he or she liked this group, you might form a positive explicit attitude toward the group. Implicit attitudes are learned as we encounter the attitude object. For example, if you always encountered representations of a particular group (pictures of pygmies) that were positive, you might develop a positive implicit attitude toward them (Olson & Fazio, 2006; Rydell & McConnell, 2006; Strack & Deutsch, 2004; Wilson, Lindsey, & Schooler, 2000). This difference in the processing of implicit and explicit attitudes allows for people to hold opposite explicit and implicit attitudes. If people logically believe that a social group is good and report a positive explicit attitude but society has a negative view of the group and that has been communicated with individuals, they might hold a negative implicit attitude.

Implicit attitudes are frequently communicated by society. The particular social environment and culture people are exposed to has a large impact on their implicit attitudes (Shepherd, 2011). If representations of a particular racial or ethnic group in the media are always paired with violence or poverty, individuals in that society tend to hold negative implicit attitudes toward these groups. Because implicit attitudes are associations that occur outside of conscious awareness, they are not subject to logic. For example, if you found out that a new friend is in a bowling league, you would know logically that your friend may or may not have a number of qualities that you associate with people in bowling leagues. Your explicit attitude toward this person would, at least for a while, still rely on what you know about your friend rather than her membership in this group. Your implicit attitude would, however, not be ruled by logic but would automatically assign the stereotypical characteristics of people in bowling leagues to your friend (Ranganath & Nosek, 2008).

Figure 4.1: Implicit association task

Figure showing a possible task on an IAT. The figure contains two illustrations. One displays a computer screen with the word "joy" in the middle. The upper left portion of the screen instructs the test taker to "press 'e' for Good" and the upper right portion of the screen instructs the test taker to "press 'i' for Bad." An arrow points to the second portion of the figure, which also shows a computer screen. In this illustration, a picture of an older man's face is in the middle of the screen. The upper left corner instructs the test taker to "press 'e' for Good" and the upper right instructs the test taker to "press 'i' for Bad."

An IAT might first prime you for "good" words, and then ask you to match older faces with "good" words.

Based on Project Implicit® (2011). Four-category race-gender IAT. Retrieved from https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit

Photo credit: Amos Morgan/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Expand Your Knowledge: Implicit Association Test

Information about implicit attitudes and the opportunity to take a variety of implicit association tests can be found at the Project Implicit website, http://www.projectimplicit.net/. You can read research papers, take an Implicit Association Test, and participate in ongoing research. Most of the research studies take about 10 to 15 minutes, and participants must register before taking part in research. Participants are provided with a summary of their own results at the end of their participation. If you want to see what your scores might be but do not want to be part of a research study or register, you can take a demo test.

To assess implicit attitudes, researchers need to measure our automatic reactions—reactions we are not even aware of. Psychologists developed a test to look at implicit attitudes called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) (Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998; Schnabel, Asendorpf, & Greenwald, 2008). The IAT measures implicit attitudes by evaluating reaction times. Test-takers match characteristics that are flashed in the center of a computer screen to a category of words in the upper corners of the screen (see Figure 4.1). For example, if "good" is in the left corner and "bad" in the right, a word like "joy" should be matched to the left corner and "evil" to the right. Attitude objects are placed in the same corners as those words, and respondents need to quickly match to words for the good and bad categories and words or faces associated with that attitude object. For a test looking at implicit attitudes toward older adults, "old" might be assigned to the left corner and "young" to the right. The respondent would need to quickly switch from a word (joy) to a face (older adult) and match each with the correct corner (left).

A person who has a negative implicit attitude toward older adults should take longer to match the picture of an older person with the left "good" corner than to the right "bad" corner. This delay in matching an older person with a corner that also contains the category "good" provides evidence of a negative implicit attitude toward older adults.

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

Can someone have an attitude toward a color? A day of the week? Their right big toe? A concept like justice?

How is it possible to have a mismatch between an explicit attitude and implicit attitude?

4.2 Behavior and Attitudes

Our attitudes involve evaluations of other people, behaviors, and objects. Logically, these evaluations should affect how we behave toward these attitude objects (Allport, 1935; Droba, 1933). For example, if you have a favorable attitude toward exercise, you should be more likely to engage in physical activities than if you had a negative attitude. LaPiere (1934) was one of the first to investigate the relation of attitudes to behaviors. In the 1930s, LaPiere traveled around the United States with some of his Chinese friends. In that time, many Americans held negative attitudes toward the Chinese, and LaPiere and his friends were concerned about the service they might get as they traveled. Despite this fear, they were treated well in all but one location. LaPiere was curious about this reaction, so several months later he sent questionnaires to the places he and his friends had visited, as well as a number of hotels and restaurants they had not visited. Almost universally, these businesses reported they would not serve someone who was Chinese. The negative attitude was present but, happily, LaPiere and his friends found that behavior did not match these attitudes.

Since the 1930s, a great deal of work has been done to sort out this problem. Researchers have identified factors that can strengthen and weaken the ability of attitudes to predict behaviors. Attitudes that are particularly accessible are more likely to determine our behavior (Fazio, 2000). Generally, if people respond quickly in reporting their attitudes, these attitudes are highly accessible. If you respond quickly that you hate blind dates, you are unlikely to find yourself on one. When relatively narrow attitudes are assessed, then relatively narrow behavior also needs to be assessed, but when broader attitudes are assessed, broad behaviors must be assessed as well (Weigel & Newman, 1976). For example, if you were asked about your attitude toward sports, your answer may not match well with your attendance or lack thereof at the local high school football game. If we asked about your attitude toward the local high school football team, we may have better luck predicting if we will see you at a game. Another factor is whether the behavior is easy or difficult to perform (Wallace, Paulson, Lord, & Bond, 2005). One might have a negative attitude toward smoking but continue to smoke because quitting is difficult. The social pressure one has to join in or avoid a behavior is also important. If a person feels a strong social pressure to engage in a behavior (wearing a seat belt), that person may engage in the behavior despite a negative attitude (Wallace et al., 2005).

Explicit attitudes can predict consciously controlled behaviors, but implicit attitudes are the best predictors of nonverbal behaviors. Those with a negative implicit attitude toward people of a particular racial group tend to show nonverbal behaviors that indicate dislike for a member of the group with which they are interacting, even when their verbal behavior is friendly and welcoming (Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2002). Therefore, negative implicit attitudes can have an unconscious, adverse effect on our interactions. In a study of physicians, those with negative implicit attitudes toward Black patients had more negative interactions with Black patients. The clinicians tended to dominate the conversation, and the patients showed less confidence in and were less trusting of the physician (Cooper et al., 2012).

In contrast, consciously controlled, deliberate behaviors are evidence of explicit attitudes (Jellison, McConnell, & Gabriel, 2004; McConnell & Leibold, 2001; Rydell & McConnell, 2006). Because implicit attitudes are less consciously controlled, they are better at predicting behavior in situations where the ego is depleted and behavior is more instinctual. For example, if you have a negative explicit attitude about the healthiness of chocolate, when you are trying to eat healthy and have not already exerted self-control, you would choose to eat fruit over chocolate. However, when you are tired, you might automatically reach for the chocolate bar in the checkout lane, following your positive implicit attitude toward chocolate (Friese, Hofmann, & Wanke, 2008).

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

Has attitude research been a topic only recently for social psychology?

What makes explicit attitudes more likely to match with behaviors?

Theory of Planned Behavior

Behaviors may be difficult to predict from attitudes alone. The theory of planned behavior combines several factors to provide for better prediction (see Figure 4.2). According to this theory, if we want to predict both intent to behave and actual behavior, we need to know three things: (1) attitude toward that specific behavior, (2) subjective norms related to that behavior, and (3) perceived behavioral control (Ajzen, 1991). Subjective norms involve people's beliefs about how other people in their environment perceive their behavior. For example, you might believe that people in your social circle (friends, relatives) think healthy eating is a good idea, but yoga is silly. Perceived behavior control is your belief that you can engage in the behavior. For example, you might think that eating a healthy diet is a lot of trouble, but going to yoga class is easily accomplished. In this example, your perceived behavioral control would be high for yoga but low for healthy eating. If someone has a positive attitude, positive subjective norms, and high perceived behavioral control, we can predict with some accuracy their intentions to engage in that behavior and their eventual behavior. You might join a yoga program if you have a positive attitude toward yoga, if people in your environment think it is a good idea, and if you foresee no problems in getting to the studio for classes.

Figure 4.2: The theory of planned behavior

Flow chart showing the theory of planned behavior. On the right are three circles stacked vertically. The first is labeled "attitude toward the behavior," the second "subjective norm," and the third "perceived behavioral control." Double-sided arrows point between the first and second circles, the second and third circles, and the first and third circles. To the right of the "subjective norm" circle is a circle labeled "intention." Arrows point from all three of the first circles towards this "intention" circle. To the right of the "intention" circle is a circle labeled "behavior." An arrow points from the "intention" circle towards the "behavior" circle. A dashed arrow points from the "perceived behavioral control" circle towards this "behavior" circle.

The theory of planned behavior relies on several factors for predicting behavior.

Reprinted from Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 179–211. Copyright © 1991, with permission from Elsevier.

The theory of planned behavior is an extension of an earlier theory called the theory of reasoned action. The theory of reasoned action, developed by Ajzen and Fishbein (1972), predicted behaviors using just attitudes and subjective norms. Ajzen (1991) later added the element of perceived behavioral control to provide better prediction of behavior. This addition created better forecasts about behavior.

Some behaviors are difficult to control. For example, many people find quitting smoking a very difficult thing to do. Taking into account the amount of control people have for such behaviors is helpful to predicting behavior. For behaviors like quitting smoking, where a perceived lack of control interferes with actually engaging in the behavior, assessing smoker's beliefs about their control makes predicting smoking cessation more reliable (Madden, Ellen, & Ajzen, 1992). Since the addition of perceived behavior of control to the model, the theory of planned behavior has been used to help explain an extremely wide variety of behaviors, from smoking cessation (Norman, Conner, & Bell, 1999), to using dental floss (Rise, Astrom, & Sutton, 1998), to composting (Kaiser, Wolfing, & Fuhrer, 1999). Evaluating these behaviors through meta-analysis, Armitage and Connor (2001) found that this model can accurately predict behavior, and that attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control are all important to accurate prediction.

This theory does not predict behavior perfectly; there are a few factors that may make it more or less likely to lead to accurate predictions. Habitual behaviors, such as driving a car to work instead of taking the bus, may not be well-predicted by the model. However, habit may undergo a change if circumstances change, such as when bus tickets become cheap and a bus stop comes to one's street (Bamberg, Ajzen, & Schmidt, 2003; Verplanken, Aarts, van Knippenberg, & van Knippenberg, 1994). The theory of planned behavior also assumes that people make rational decisions about their actions. This may be true some of the time, but at the moment of decision, one's good intentions may not be enough to deter behavior. In one study of risky sexual behavior, anticipated emotions that would occur after sex, such as regret, were a strong predictor of actual sexual behavior (Richard, van der Plight, & de Vries, 1996). For some decisions, emotions may rule the day. Overall, the theory of planned behavior does a better job of predicting behavior over which individuals have some control. The theory also is more accurate when people are in the process of actually making decisions, rather than relying on habits or other mindless behaviors to determine their actions (Manstead, 2011).

An older man rests his head on his arms and stares at a bowl full of cigarette butts.


Edward, a longtime smoker, wants to stop smoking, but has doubts that he will be able to do so. According to the theory of planned behavior, these doubts might inhibit his actual behavior of quitting.

The theory of planned behavior may be particularly helpful to those who want to encourage people to engage in healthy behaviors by determining what might be standing in the way of the healthy behavior. As noted previously, research using the model has been done on a number of health-related behaviors. Other researchers have investigated exercise (Spink, Wilson, & Bostick, 2012), fruit and vegetable consumption (Kothe, Mullan, & Butow, 2012), screening programs (Cooke & French, 2008), and risky drinking behavior (Collins, Witkiewitz, & Larimer, 2011). If an individual believes eating lots of vegetables is a good idea (positive attitude) and those in his or her environment also think so (subjective norm), but this individual feels unable to buy or prepare vegetables, an intervention might be targeted at the element of perceived behavioral control— the individual's belief in the inability to attain and prepare enough veggies. An information campaign might be launched that gives hints where to find reasonably priced vegetables and provides recipes for cooking vegetables. On the other hand, if people did not see the value in eating vegetables (negative attitude), but others in their environment were encouraging them to eat vegetables (subjective norm) and vegetables were easy to find and prepare (perceived behavioral control), a campaign to change attitudes might be launched.

Test Yourself

Click on the question below to reveal the answer.

What are the three components of the theory of planned behavior?

Behavior and Attitude Mismatch

Imagine you have agreed to be part of a research study. You come to the study and are asked to do two boring, repetitive tasks for an hour. As you finish, the researcher looks distressed; there was supposed to be another student coming to introduce the tasks you just completed to the next participant. The researcher tells you that the next participant is supposed to be told that these tedious tasks you just completed are fun and interesting, with the goal of measuring how expectations influence performance. The researcher asks if you might be willing to help him out and tell the next participant that what you just did was fun. He is willing to pay you $1 for your effort. You agree and tell the next participant that the task was interesting and exciting. Afterward, you are asked how interesting the tasks you just did were and whether you'd be willing to participate in similar types of studies in the future. How would you have answered? Would your answer be different if the researcher had given you $20?

A group of male college students faced exactly this situation in a study by Festinger and Carlsmith (1959). In their study, one third of participants received $1 to tell the next participant that the study they were about to participate in was fun and interesting, another third received $20 to do so, and the final third, the control group, was not asked to say anything to a future participant and was not given any money. Unbeknownst to the participants, the hesitant request was part of the experiment and the other participant was working for the experimenter. What the researchers were really interested in was whether the different amounts of pay would affect how participants felt about the study. According to Table 4.1, which group thought the research was most interesting when later asked? Who was most interested in participating in similar studies in the future?

Table 4.1: Results from Festinger and Carlsmith's (1959) study of cognitive dissonance

Interview Question Experimental Condition

$1 Group $20 Group Control Group

Were the tasks interesting and enjoyable? (rated from –5, extremely dull and boring, to +5, extremely interesting and enjoyable) +1.35 –0.05 –0.45

Would you have any desire to participate in another similar experiment? (rated from –5, definitely dislike to participate, to +5, definitely like to participate) +1.20 –0.25 –0.62

From Festinger, L. & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cogintive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203-210. doi: 10.1037/h0041593.

As you can see, the participants who received $1 seemed to like the study best. Festinger and Carlsmith proposed that those participants who received $1 for lying to another person felt they had insufficient justification for doing so. In other words, these participants lied for a very small amount of money and could not explain (justify) what they did by the monetary reward. These participants were faced with two things: knowledge that the research was boring (the researchers had deliberately made it mind-numbingly tedious) and a behavior that involved telling someone else it was interesting. The gap between what they believed and what they did created a type of tension known as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable because it indicates an inconsistency in what people think or feel and do. People are motivated to reduce this tension. The participants could not go back in time and change what they had done, so their only option was to change how they felt about the study. In the $20 condition, there was also a gap between what they did and how they truly felt, but these people did not experience any tension. They had sufficient justification for what they did: $20. The people in the $20 condition later reported that the study was boring because they had no need to justify what they did. When the discomfort of cognitive dissonance is felt, it results in an attitude change to reduce tension.

Cognitive dissonance can be reduced without changing one's attitude. For example, if you decided you needed to be on a diet but then went to a dinner and had chocolate mousse, you could change your attitude toward the diet (maybe you do not really need to diet), but you could also reduce that tension by doing other things.

Expand Your Knowledge: Attitude and Behavior Mismatch

Do your attitudes and behaviors always match? If you are similar to most people, you see distracted driving as dangerous, but also engage in the behavior.

A post on this issue can be found here. The author describes a study in California in which almost 60% of participants listed talking on the phone as a serious distraction for drivers while almost 46% admitted to making a driving mistake while talking on the phone.

One option would be to minimize the importance of one of the elements (Festinger, 1957). You could say that dieting is not that important to you or that chocolate mousse is not a big deal. Another option would be to reduce your perceived choice (Beauvois & Joule, 1999; Wicklund & Brehm, 1976). You might tell yourself it would have been rude if you had not eaten your host's dessert. You might also add thoughts that support or explain your behavior. You could tell yourself that chocolate mousse is healthy; after all, chocolate contains flavonoids that are good for your health.

The principle of cognitive dissonance can be helpful in understanding or promoting behavior change. Researchers have found that differences between attitudes about dating aggression and behaviors resulted in a decrease in dating aggression over time (Schumacher, 2004). In a study involving high school students at risk for eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, researchers induced behavior change by creating dissonance (Stice, Rohde, Gau, & Shaw, 2009). The students were part of a program where they were asked to engage in behaviors that went against their unhealthy attitudes toward their bodies and food. For example, they were asked to write a letter to a young girl about the dangers of the thinness ideal, to share what they like about themselves, and to practice what they would say to others to challenge the thinness ideal. This intervention decreased risk factors in the participants for an eating disorder.

Cognitive dissonance has different manifestations across cultures (Hoshino-Browne et al., 2005). Individuals in independent cultures like the United States are more concerned about their own individual identity and attributes. Therefore, internal consistency is the primary goal for someone in an independent culture. For example, if Alice had a positive attitude toward children and disliked her neighbor's 4-year-old, she would know these two things were inconsistent. Even if she never told anyone of about her dislike of the child, she would still feel guilty because her attitudes and feelings were inconsistent. Individuals in interdependent cultures, like that found in Japan, are more concerned about how they fit with the expectations of others—in particular, others that are part of their own group. The approval of others is, therefore, of great importance.

For interdependent cultures, internal consistency is not as important as consistency between attitudes or behaviors, especially when others are going to be appraised of one's behavior. In a study by Shinobu Kitayama and colleagues (Kitayama, Snibbe, Markus, & Suzuki, 2004), Japanese and American college students were asked to make judgments that revealed the amount of cognitive dissonance they felt. The Japanese college students showed greater dissonance when they were aware of potential public scrutiny of their choices. When there was no potential of others being made aware of their choices, dissonance did not appear to come into play. When this study was done on American college students, the results showed that the potential for public scrutiny did not matter. Because the American students were attempting to be internally consistent, they showed a similar degree of dissonance in both situations. The amount of dissonance the American students showed was not as high as that shown by the Japanese students who thought their choices would be public, but was higher than that of the Japanese students who believed others would not know of their choices.

Test Yourself

Click on the question below to reveal the answer.

Why did the $1 group in Festinger and Carlsmith's study say they enjoyed the boring study while the $20 group did not?

Social Psychology in Depth: Cognitive Dissonance, Children, and Monkeys

Where does cognitive dissonance come from? In investigating the origins of cognitive dissonance social psychologists investigate whether children feel cognitive dissonance, or if it develops later in life. We may also want to know if cognitive dissonance occurs in nonhuman primates, or if it is unique to humans. This would help us understand the potential evolutionary origin of the phenomenon.

Egan, Sanatos, & Bloom (2007) investigated cognitive dissonance in children and in monkeys. For both populations, they created cognitive dissonance by having the child or monkey make a choice between two alternatives, two different stickers for the children or two different M&M candies for the monkeys. Frequently, when faced with two equally good options, we will reduce our cognitive dissonance by increasing our liking of our chosen option, and decreasing our liking of the option we did not choose.

In this study, the participants made an initial choice and were then asked to make a second choice. The second choice included the option not chosen on the first trial and a new option. Presumably, if cognitive dissonance was at play, the participants would have decreased their liking of their un-chosen option and be less likely to choose that option in the second trial. For example, if children originally rated stickers with a flower, a bird, and a rainbow equally, they might initially be asked if they wanted the flower or the bird sticker more. Having chosen the flower, they would then be asked to choose between the bird (the option not chosen in the previous trial) and the rainbow. If cognitive dissonance is in play, they should choose the rainbow. The initial choice would have created cognitive dissonance, leading the children to discount their liking of the bird sticker to reduce that dissonance. Even though the participants initially liked all three options equally, the results showed that after making a choice, they were less likely to choose the option they had not chosen on the first trial. The authors proposed that due to the fact this effect is found among young children (4-year-olds) and monkeys, cognitive dissonance may be impacting us before we have much experience in making choices; language and socialization may not be necessary precursors to cognitive dissonance.

What Is my Attitude?

If attitudes help determine our behaviors, do behaviors ever help us define our attitudes? If you were wondering about your attitude toward sushi, one place you could look to determine your attitude is your behavior. If you have chosen sushi restaurants over those that do not serve sushi and order sushi when you get the chance, you are likely to conclude that you have a positive attitude toward sushi. If you have spent a lot of time making fun of people who eat sushi, you might conclude, looking at these actions, that your attitude toward sushi is negative. This sense that we can figure out our attitudes by looking at our behaviors is the basis of self-perception theory (Bem, 1967). Self-perception theory explains how we might form or enhance particular attitudes, while cognitive dissonance theory explains how our attitudes change.

A young adult male lays on a couch and holds a television remote control.


An example of self-perception theory is when you assume that you don't like the news just because you repeatedly change the channel when a news report comes on TV.

To evaluate the extent to which our actions influence our attitudes, Zak, Gold, Ryckman, & Lenney (1998) asked 64 dating couples to come to their lab. Each member of the couple was asked to provide information on how much they trusted their partner. The couples were separated and told one of three things. The first third of participants were told that their partner would be dancing with a research assistant to a Debbie Gibson or Madonna song. These participants were asked if that was okay with them—if they trusted their partner to dance with someone else. The next third of participants were told they would be dancing with a research assistant to a Debbie Gibson or Madonna song. The researchers told them that their partner had been asked if that was all right, and their partner had said yes, they trusted their significant other. The final third of participants, the control group, were told that their partner would be listening to music.

The researchers wanted to measure whether acting in a trusting manner, that is, telling the researcher that they trusted their partner to dance with someone else, would increase trust. When the researchers assessed levels of trust at the end of the study, they found that both the participants who acted in a trusting way and those who were trusted showed an increase in trust when compared to the control group. The biggest change, however, was with the participants who acted in a trusting matter. The act of trusting, it seems, increases trust.

Behavior can be affected in more subtle ways by our self-observations, such as with our relationship to certain colors. The color black is often associated with bad things. This fact is evident in our language. For example, people might be blacklisted or blackmailed, or their reputation might be blackened. Even dark colored chocolate cake is called devil's food cake. Would members of sports teams in black uniforms therefore observe themselves in that bad color and be more willing to engage in aggressive behavior? Frank and Gilovich (1988) investigated whether what we are wearing has an impact on our actions. They found that individuals who donned black were more willing to engage in aggression, measured by their choice of aggressive games over nonaggressive games, than those who were asked to wear white. National Hockey League teams wearing black were more aggressive on the rink than those wearing other colors; that is, members of teams wearing black spent more time in the penalty box than teams wearing other colors. A similar result was found in online gaming with people whose avatars were wearing black (Yee & Bailenson, 2009).

Test Yourself

Click on the question below to reveal the answer.

Of self-perception theory and cognitive dissonance theory, which is more focused on attitude change rather than attitude formation?

4.3 Explaining the Behavior of Others

Our daily lives present us with situations where we need to explain the behaviors of others. At work, you might want to know if your boss intended her behavior as encouragement to pursue a raise or as a clue that your job might be in danger. Attributing your friend's late-night phone call to concern will affect the relationship differently than attributing it to rudeness. Attributions are also involved in deciding the proper punishment of a misbehaving child or a criminal. Attributions—our explanations of the behavior of others and ourselves—have been of interest to psychologists for a long time. In 1958, Fritz Heider wrote a book on how we make judgments about one another. According to Heider, and others who came after him, we generally explain others' behavior as due either to something internal to the person or to something external to the person.

Imagine you are sitting in a coffee shop waiting for a date you met online. Your date is late. If you decide that your date is inconsiderate, you have made an internal attribution for your date's behavior. When you make an internal attribution, you blame personality, attitudes, or some other dispositional factor for the action. If, on the other hand, you think your date is late because of the traffic or some emergency at work, you have made an external attribution. When you make an external attribution, you attribute situational factors for the action. We do find differences in the patterns of attributions in different cultures. Generally, individuals from more independent cultures make more internal attributions while those in more interdependent cultures make more external attributions (Triandis, 2001). For example, in the United States, salespeople tend to attribute their performance to internal factors—their sales are due to their hard work and wonderful people skills. In more interdependent cultures, such as that found in India, attributions tend to be more external—their sales are due to a good customer base (DeCarlo, Agarwal, & Vyas, 2007).

Attributions can make a difference in how we treat people and deal with societal problems. For example, how crime is attributed can impact how we handle criminals. If a society and the people within that society believe that criminals engage in crime because it was their choice or because they have no morals, then that society will lock up its criminals and try to prevent them from ever getting out to offend again. On the other hand, a society that believes that lack of job opportunities, racism, or peer pressure is primarily to blame for criminal behavior is likely to offer rehabilitation and education to criminals as well as work to eradicate societal ills (Templeton & Hartnagel, 2012; Unnever, Cullen, & Jones, 2008).

4.4 Fundamental Attribution Error

Daily life offers many opportunities to make attributions. When a neighbor fails to greet or wave at you while passing in the hallway or street, you might declare your neighbor rude and unfriendly. Blaming a behavior on a dispositional factor, like rudeness, may not be accurate. Your neighbor might not have seen you because of the large bag of groceries you were holding, or been distracted by a fight she just had with her child. When people attribute behavior to dispositional factors when there are clear situational factors at work, they are engaging in correspondence bias, also known as the fundamental attribution error (Gilbert & Malone, 1995; Gilbert, Pelham, & Krull, 1988; Jones & Harris, 1967; Ross, Amabile, & Steinmetz, 1977). See Figure 4.3 for an example.

Figure 4.3: The fundamental attribution error

Flow chart showing how attributions can lead to the fundamental attribution error. The illustration first shows the silhouette of a woman sitting at a restaurant alone with the text "James is running late to his first date with Beth. An arrow points from this image to a box labeled "Beth's attributions." Two arrows point from this box towards to new boxes, one labeled "situational" and one labeled "dispositional". Text under the situational box reads "His babysitter may be late or there may be traffic on the freeway." Text under the dispositional box reads "He's inconsiderate and doesn't manage his time well." An arrow flows from the dispositional box to a box with arrow text reading "has the possibility of leading to" and the new box is labeled "fundamental attribution error." This final box contains the text "ignoring clear situational factors and only attributing behavior to dispositional factors."

Often when we attribute behavior to dispositional factors, we engage in the fundamental attribution error.

Based on Wade, C., & Tavris, C. (2004). Interactive lectures. In Psychology, Media and Research Update (7th ed., Chapter 8). Retrieved from http://wps.prenhall.com/hss_wade_psychology_7_mru/21/5605/1434950.cw/content/index.html.

In Ross, Amabile, and Steinmetz's (1977) study on the subject, participants were randomly assigned the role of questioner or contestant in a quiz game. The questioners came up with questions from their own storehouse of esoteric knowledge. Depending on the background of the questioners, they might develop questions on geography or cars or breeds of cows or any number of other odd topics. Contestants completed the quiz and rated the general knowledge of the questioner. Given the freedom of the questioner to develop difficult questions from any realm, most contestants did not do very well. When rating the general knowledge of the questioner, they overestimated that knowledge. The contestants overestimated the effect of dispositional factors (knowledge) and underestimated the effect of the situation (freedom to ask any question).

Various factors make the fundamental attribution error more likely. People make the fundamental attribution error more when they are happy versus when they are sad. Because happy people process less information from their environment, they tend to make quick and easy decisions about the cause of the behavior of others (Forgas, 1998). The attributions people make with the fundamental attribution error grow more situational over time. When making an immediate attribution, we tend to show the bias toward dispositional attributions predicted by the fundamental attribution error. When time has passed, our judgments take the situation into account to a greater degree (Burger & Pavelich, 1994; Truchot, Maure, & Patte, 2003). Over time, then, the power of the fundamental attribution error diminishes. The likelihood of making the fundamental attribution error also diminishes from young adulthood to middle age. After middle age, the likelihood of making the error begins to increase again (Follett & Hess, 2002).

Fundamental Attribution Error

The nature of the fundamental attribution error.

Critical Thinking Questions

Why do people assume that hosts are smarter than contestants?

How have you seen the fundamental attribution error play out in your own life?

There are certainly times when behavior is due to rudeness, so your decision that your neighbor is inconsiderate could be appropriate. The fundamental attribution error is an error because we make these kinds of decisions about someone's disposition even when clear situational factors are at work. But you don't make this error, do you? Most people believe themselves to be less vulnerable to the fundamental attribution error than others, even though we are generally similar to others like us in our tendency to make the error (Van Boven, Kamada, & Gilovich, 1999; Van Boven, White, Kamada, & Gilovich, 2003).

One context where the fundamental attribution error is particularly likely is in communication using a computer. Messages in one's email inbox provide few cues as to the situation of the writer. Without these cues, it is easy to misjudge details about the sender and the message. For example, if you received a message with a number of misspellings and grammar mistakes, it is likely you would judge the writer of that message as not very intelligent or competent. Without knowing the writer was pressed for time, distracted by a crying child, and dealing with a faulty computer keyboard, you may judge that dispositional, rather than situational, factors were at work (Cramton, 2001). It is only when we are made aware of some of these situational forces that we change our judgments. One study found that when people are told that the sender of an email is from a different culture, the email recipients are less harsh in their dispositional judgments for language errors like misspellings, although dispositional judgments are still made for etiquette errors (Vignovic & Thompson, 2010).

With a name like fundamental attribution error, one would assume that this error is common in all people in all cultures. Not so. When comparing European Americans, researchers have found that East Asians are more aware of situational constraints on behavior.

When situations are powerful or easily recognized, East Asians are more likely to attribute behavior to those situational factors (Choi, Nisbett, & Norenzayan, 1999; Miyamoto & Kitayama, 2002; Morris & Peng, 1994). When research participants were told that the person whose behavior they were evaluating had no choice in his behavior, and simply followed the directions of the experimenter, Korean participants were more likely to take into account the situational constraints on the person, whereas American participants largely ignored the situational factors (Choi & Nisbett, 1998). For example, someone raised in an East Asian culture might say that a person is rude because his parents never taught him manners rather than rude because it is part of his nature. East Asians also think more holistically about the person (Choi, Nisbett, & Norenzayan, 1999). Even if someone's behavior is blamed on internal factors, these internal factors are explained situationally. Although the phenomenon came to be known as the fundamental attribution error because so many researchers found similar results over a number of years (Jones, 1998), it turns out the fundamental attribution error is not as fundamental as we thought.

A man holds up his hands in frustration while driving his car.


When a driver assumes the person who cut him off is inconsiderate and incompetent, even though they may have had to switch lanes to avoid an accident, it is an example of the fundamental attribution error.

A related concept to the fundamental attribution error is the actor-observer bias. The fundamental attribution error suggests that as observers, people discount situational factors and overestimate dispositional factors. The actor-observer bias expands this tendency to explain our own behavior as actors. Actors tend to make more situational attributions for behavior (Jones & Nisbett, 1972). The situationally based explanations for our own behavior are stronger when we are explaining negative rather than positive events (Green & McClearn, 2010). When explaining positive events, like doing well on a test, the self-serving bias leads us to account for our behavior using more dispositional explanations, such as our own intelligence.

Recent research has called into question the traditional formulation of the actor-observer bias. In a meta-analysis, Bertram Malle (2006) found that actors are not more likely to make situational inference, and observers are not more likely to make dispositional inferences. Actors and observers do, however, explain behaviors differently. Malle and colleagues (Malle, Knobe, & Nelson, 2007) proposed an asymmetry in explanations based in different desires and different knowledge. Actors know the reasons behind a decision and are motivated to present themselves as rational people. Imagine Jill cleaned out the work refrigerator and in the process threw out several people's lunches. She would describe her action as due to the boss's request to clean the refrigerator, the lack of clear markings on containers about who they belonged to, and her overall helpfulness in keeping the office clean.

Observers can only guess at the reasons for a behavior and must instead rely on their general knowledge of situations and their ability to mentally simulate the thought process of the actor.

Observers have no particular need to present the actor in a positive light. Jill's coworkers might explain her actions as irrational, making the argument that the refrigerator did not need to be cleaned and Jill should not throw out things that do not belong to her. The coworkers would describe Jill's actions as due to her rude and inconsiderate nature. Observers are more likely to distance themselves from an actor's actions by making note of a belief or motive rather than just the reason itself. Jill might say, "The food in the refrigerator was old; that's why I threw it out." A coworker would say, "Jill believed the food in the refrigerator was old; that's why she threw it out." Malle and colleagues' explanations for differences between actors and observers provide a more nuanced approach to these differences and help explain inconsistencies in past research.

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

Someone cuts in line in front of you at the grocery store. Describe some internal attributions for that behavior. Describe some external attributions for that behavior.

Which of these people may have made the fundamental attribution error?

Janelle believes the clown she hired for her son's birthday party is a happy and joyful person.

Kim attributes the store clerk's rude behavior toward her to the crankiness of the customer in front of her.

Ted attributes his friend's service at the soup kitchen to his kind and giving nature, not a requirement of the social work major his friend is pursuing.

4.5 Explanations and our Behavior

As we make attributions day after day, we may develop patterns for making these judgments. These patterns then influence how we approach others and react to events. Two of the major patterns investigated by researchers are those surrounding whether we explain events in an optimistic or pessimistic way and the extent to which we expect hostility from others in our interactions. The attributions we make are influenced by our need to fit in with others but also by our need to differentiate and stand out from the crowd. However, we tend to overestimate the amount we stand out and are noticed by others. The behaviors we engage in are influenced by these various patterns of attributions.

Optimistic and Pessimistic Explanatory Styles

Every day we interpret the actions of others and the events that occur. As we do so, we may fall into a certain pattern of explanation. One pattern of attributions is optimistic and leads us to expect positive outcomes from our interactions. Another pattern is more pessimistic and leads us to expect negative outcomes from our interactions. Consider how you would explain these two events: your date complimenting you on your appearance and your inability to find a job. According to researchers, you have three decisions to make as you interpret those events (Seligman & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1987; Seligman & Schulman, 1986). When you are explaining a compliment you receive, you could assume the other person was just having a good day and complimented everyone. On the other hand, you could assume that the compliment was prompted by your own appearance. In this case you are attributing the compliment to either an external cause, something about the other person or the circumstance, or an internal cause, something about you. Your second choice involves whether you consider the compliment to be an event that will likely never or rarely happen again, like a free makeover you just had, or something that will always be around, your attractive face. In this case, you are making an attribution that is either unstable, meaning that the cause is there rarely or only some of the time, or stable, meaning that the cause is always there. You need to decide whether the compliment just applies to your present appearance at the mall where you got the makeover, or whether you will likely get compliments in all situations in your life. In this case you are making a decision of whether the cause is specific, applying only in this particular situation, or global, applying to all situations. Putting this all together: When you decide on the cause for a behavior or event, you decide whether it is external or internal, unstable or stable, and specific or global.

People tend to have relatively stable patterns in making such decisions. These patterns characterize a person's explanatory style. If you received a compliment, what kind of attribution do you think would make you feel the best? If you consider the cause of the compliment to be internal (something about you), stable (something that will always be there), and global (something that will be found in all situations), you are likely to feel better about yourself.

Would the same be true in explaining long-term unemployment? If you think about a negative event like long-term unemployment, an explanation that will make you feel best about yourself is one that says the cause is external (something about the job market), unstable (a job market that will change), and specific (applies only to the job market).

People with an optimistic explanatory style show exactly this pattern. Someone who is optimistic will explain positive events as internal, stable, and global. Negative events, on the other hand, will be explained as external, unstable, and specific.

Individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style have exactly the opposite pattern. Pessimistic people generally blame themselves for negative events and believe those events are typical of what is likely to happen in many aspects of their lives. They also tend to imagine such events continuing in the future. Optimistic people generally blame outside influences for negative events and interpret these events as temporary. See Figure 4.4 for examples of how optimists and pessimists may respond to certain events.

Figure 4.4: Explanatory style

Box showing optimistic and pessimistic explanatory style for a bad event (rear ending another car) and a good event (getting a work promotion).

Optimistic people see bad events in the same way as pessimistic people see good events. Conversely, pessimistic people see bad events in the same way as optimistic people see good events.

Optimistic explanatory style is related to more positive well-being in both younger and older adults (Forgeard & Seligman, 2012; Mohanty & Begum, 2012). Individuals with optimistic explanatory styles are more likely to persist in the face of failure. This can be seen in the case of sales agents. Sales agents experience a lot of failure, as the majority of their potential clients say no to their product. Researchers assessed the explanatory style of beginning life insurance agents using a questionnaire and followed them to see how much life insurance they would sell and how long they would remain in their jobs (Seligman & Schulman, 1986). Those agents who were most optimistic sold the most insurance. At the end of the first year, those who were the most optimistic were twice as likely to still be selling insurance.

In contrast, individuals with a pessimistic explanatory style are more likely to get sick when they encounter stressful events (Bennett & Elliott, 2005; Jackson, Sellers, & Peterson, 2002). Pessimistic explanatory styles have been linked to depression and suicide (Hirsch, Wolford, LaLonde, Brunk, & Parker-Morris, 2009; Peterson & Seligman, 1984). When people with negative explanatory styles encounter a bad event, like losing a job, they are likely to explain it as due to something about them, such as having unmarketable skills—something that will always be there, such as no one will ever hire someone with their skills, and something that is global, such as that all of their skills are useless. These explanations lead to a state of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness occurs when we have acquired through our experiences a sense that no matter what we do, our actions will not have a positive impact on negative experiences (Seligman & Maier, 1967). When a job loss is explained as internal, stable, and global, it is unlikely anything the person does will change the situation; so giving up is the most rational response to the problem.

Expand Your Knowledge: Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman, a prominent researcher in the area of explanatory style, has a website dedicated to his research. The website is primarily focused on his work on positive psychology, but some references to work on explanatory style and learned helplessness are provided.

Seligman's website: http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/index.html.

Opportunities to participate in Seligman's ongoing research are available. Seligman is known for his work on explanatory style, so there may be some related to the material within the text. Seligman also does research in the area of positive psychology, studying human flourishing.

Negative explanatory styles are linked to poorer academic performance (Peterson & Barrett, 1987). Researchers found that first-year university students who interpreted negative events as internal, stable, and global received lower grades. These lower grades seemed to be due to a reluctance to seek help when struggling (why do so if you believe your poor performance is due to your lack of intelligence?) and a lack of academic goal setting. Similarly, college students with a pessimistic explanatory style were less likely to actively deal with their symptoms when they got ill, prolonging or exacerbating their illnesses (Lin & Peterson, 1990).

Pessimism does not always link to poor performance. In a longitudinal study of law students, researchers assessed explanatory style with a survey at the beginning of law school and revisited the students throughout their time in school (Satterfield, Monahan, & Seligman, 1997). The students with a more pessimistic style at the beginning of school ended up with higher grade point averages and did better in publishing in law journals. The difference may come from the fact that the law students had already proven to be resilient in the face of problems, given their ability to get into law school, as well as a profession that rewards skepticism and cautious decision making.

Social Psychology in Depth: Attribution, Story, and Depression

A male psychologist watches as a young boy takes a thematic apperception test.

Lewis J Merrim/Photo Researchers/Getty Images

As part of their study, Peterson and Ulrey gave participants Thematic Apperception Tests. Subjects were given an ambiguous scene and asked to describe what was happening in the scene.

Our explanations for behavior influence how we feel about ourselves. Adler, Kissel, and McAdams (2006) interviewed adults within the community, asking them to tell about eight different episodes in their life (e.g., childhood memory, high point, low point) as well as themes they saw in their life and how they would divide their life into chapters. When the researchers looked at attributions made in the stories, they found that when individuals explained negative events in their stories as stable and global, they were more likely to report symptoms of depression in a depression scale. Keep in mind that these were attributions that appeared spontaneously and were not solicited by the researchers through a questionnaire or direct questions.

Depression was also related to contamination sequences in stories. A contamination sequence occurs when a story begins well but is ruined or spoiled by negative events. For example, someone might tell a story about a fun day at the beach that was spoiled by a fight and ended in a car ride home in stony silence. The presence of these types of stories independently predicted depression, apart from attributional style.

Other evidence linking stories with attributional style and depression was found by Peterson and Ulrey (1994). In their study, they showed people pictures of ambiguous scenes and asked them to describe what was happening in the picture. The researchers then analyzed the stories that were told. They found that individuals who used a negative attributional style to tell stories explaining the events were at greater risk for depression. We may often think of depression as simply feeling bad about oneself and the world, but these studies reveal that depression is related to the way we view and describe the world around us.

Test Yourself

For each of the following indicate whether the explanation is internal or external, stable or unstable, global or specific. Click on each explanation below to reveal the answer.

Karen blames her own stupidity for her bad grade on the history test. For all of her classes she says that any studying she does goes to waste because she never does any better.

Andrew believes his disastrous date on Friday night was due to a cold he is developing that made him a bad conversation partner. Once he recovers he's certain future dates will go better. His cold might also be to blame for a fight he had with his roommate in the morning and the bad day at work he had on Friday.

Jeremy blames his bad day at work on his computer losing the project he worked so hard on. Fortunately, all his other work is going well, and the technology department promised to have his computer fixed tomorrow.

Shawna celebrates her new job. She believes her great interviewing skills landed her the job, skills she has honed over the years and uses in all kinds of situations.

A Hostile World

Some individuals view the world as a hostile place. In making judgments about the actions of others, we can decide that others engaged in those actions to deliberately harm us. People who chronically make these kinds of judgments have a hostile attribution of intent, sometimes called hostile attribution bias (de Castro, Veerman, Koops, Bosch, & Monshouwer, 2002). If you believe someone has deliberately stepped on your toes or cut in front of you in line, your reaction is likely to be different than if you believe these actions were unintentional. Hostile attribution of intent does tend to lead to more aggressive behavior, at least in children, where this has been studied the most (de Castro et al., 2002). One source of these attributions may be peer interactions or interactions in the home. Freeman and colleagues (Freeman, Hadwin, & Halligan, 2011) conducted a study in which kids in their early teenage years communicated with hostile or non-hostile teens in an online chat room. Some of the teens from this chat room explained behavior of others in a hostile way, but for others the explanations were more benign. For example, when explaining why a group of unknown kids stood up when approached, some said it was a desire to defend territory, a hostile attribution. For others a more nonthreatening explanation was given—that the kids were going to give a greeting. The teens that interacted with more hostile peers were more likely to make hostile attributions.

For children, a rejection by their peers can activate the hostile attribution of intent and lead to aggressive action. Kids who thought others rejected a personal profile they posted online believed that others had more hostile intent toward them and were angrier and more aggressive toward the rejecters (Reijntjes et al., 2011). Family also plays a role. Negative interactions within the home are related to more hostile attributions (Bickett, Milich, & Brown, 1996; Gomez & Gomez, 2000). For example, parents who reported using harsh discipline tactics had children with more hostile interaction goals and more aggressive behavior (Heidgerken, Hughes, Cavell, & Willson, 2004). Children's exposure to violent video games also increases hostile attributions, both immediately after they play and over time (Hasan, Bégue, Scharkow, & Bushman, 2013).

Test Yourself

Click on the question below to reveal the answer.

Given the factors that contribute to and are related to a hostile attribution of intent, describe a person who is likely to show a hostile attribution of intent.

Just Like Everybody Else

As we observe others, we look for clues concerning what they think or feel. One way in which we fill in the gaps of our knowledge is to overestimate the extent to which people have similar interests and preferences, a phenomenon called the false consensus effect. For example, we assume that our friend will love going to our favorite coffee shop; we love the place, surely our friend will as well!

When research participants were asked about something they liked, such as movies or particular types of music, and then asked to estimate the degree to which others like those things, they tended to overestimate the extent to which their own preferences are shared by other people (Gilovich, 1990; Ross, Greene, & House, 1977). False consensus is stronger for our likes than our dislikes (Gershoff, Mukherjee, & Mukhopadhyay, 2008). We more easily come up with reasons for liking what we like, so we may overestimate how common those opinions are (Mullen et al., 1985). We engage in the false consensus effect for a wide variety of opinions, from favorite ice cream sundae toppings or movie posters (Gershoff et al., 2008) to favorite celebrities (Bui, 2012), from sexual behavior (Whitley, 1998) to illegal drug use among both college students and elite athletes (Dunn, Thomas, Swift, & Burns, 2012; Wolfson, 2000).

False consensus comes, in part, from selective exposure to others that are like us and agree with us (Whitley, 1998). Online groups are one way people connect with others who are like-minded. Being part of one of these groups may increase false consensus by giving one a feeling that there are many people who share one's opinions, even though there may be few in the general population (Wojcieszak, 2008, 2011). When trying to estimate how many other people share our opinions, instances where we remember others agreeing with us (e.g., I like cats too!) more easily come to mind and may therefore lead us to overestimate how many others do agree (Marks & Miller, 1987; Mullen et al., 1985). Another source of our overestimations comes from our desire to see ourselves as part of the group (Marks & Miller, 1987; Sherman, Presson, & Chassin, 1984). People who have a greater need to belong show a greater tendency toward false consensus (Morrison & Matthes, 2011). In a desire to see our behavior as normal, we may overestimate the extent to which others are engaging in that behavior. For example, college women who were sexually experienced gave higher, and less accurate, assessments of peer sexual behavior; the further their own behavior was from the norm, the higher their estimates of their peers' behavior (Whitley, 1998).

False consensus may lead us to make judgments about others that can create later problems. For example, not knowing if your online date likes the singer Beyoncé or not, you may simply assume he or she does because you do. This can make additional conversations and face-to-face meetings problematic when one's illusions about the other person's thoughts and attitudes are revealed (Bridges, 2012; Finkel, Eastwick, Karney, Reis, & Sprecher, 2012). Even more serious, false consensus has been shown to lead to inaccurate judgments about HIV risk in intimate relationships (Harman, O'Grady, & Wilson, 2009). If judgments based on false consensus translate into risky behavior, severe consequences can result.

In contrast, we also have behaviors or beliefs that we view as unique. The tendency for people to underestimate the extent to which their opinions or behaviors are shared by others is the uniqueness bias, or the false uniqueness effect. This underestimation usually involves beliefs or behaviors that are desirable or a source of pride. When we perceive our attributes to be more unique than they really are, we make ourselves feel even better about our rare and wonderful qualities. For example, if you give blood on a regular basis, you may underestimate the number of people who also give blood so that you feel particularly virtuous (Allison, Messick, & Goethals, 1989; Goethals, 1986; Monin & Norton, 2003).

Test Yourself

Click on the question below to reveal the answer.

When are we likely to find the greatest false consensus?

What do Others See?

When people feel a strong emotion, they often overestimate others' ability to discern that emotion. For example, if your new romantic interest baked you terrible-tasting cookies, your feeling of disgust as you ate them might not be as clear to your date as you think it is (Gilovich, Savitsky, & Medvec, 1998; Holder & Hawkins, 2007). This tendency to believe that our thoughts or feelings can be more clearly seen by others than they actually are is called the illusion of transparency. If you have ever been surprised that a family member did not know you were upset or that your boss did not notice how hard you worked, blame the illusion of transparency (Gilovich & Savitsky, 1999). Because we believe those we are closest to can read us well, or at least better than others can, we are more likely to have an illusion of transparency among those we know well, such as a friend or romantic partner (Kudo, 2007). This principle also applies to our beliefs about our ability to lie. People generally believe that their lies are easier to spot than they actually are (Gilovich, Savitsky, & Medvec, 1998; Rai, Mitchell, & Faelling, 2012). In truth, the emotions or behaviors that we thought were so apparent to others are not so clear.

Evidence for the illusion of transparency has proven helpful to those who suffer from speech anxiety. Although most people who suffer from speech anxiety believe their anxiety is evident to the audience, most people listening to a speech are unaware of the extent of the anxiety the speaker suffers. After realizing this, those high in speech anxiety gave better speeches (Savitsky & Gilovich, 2003). The vicious cycle of being anxious, believing others know we are anxious, and therefore becoming more anxious can be broken by knowledge of this illusion.

Aerial view of a large group of people standing around one man and pointing and looking at him. The man looks up at the camera.

Hans Neleman/Getty Images

Sometimes you might feel that everyone notices your behaviors or appearance, when in reality, most people aren't paying attention. This is called the spotlight effect.

Along with our illusion of transparency comes a sense that others are aware of our triumphs and our trials. This tendency to believe that others notice our behaviors and appearance to a greater extent than they actually do is known as the spotlight effect. Imagine you arrange to meet a new friend at a restaurant. When you get to the restaurant, you realize you have a spot of spaghetti sauce on your sleeve. Although you believe your friend will quickly zero in on the spilled sauce, the likelihood is that person is too focused on making a good impression to notice such a small spot.

In one study of the spotlight effect, college students were asked to don a T-shirt with a depiction of Barry Manilow on the front. Manilow is a singer-songwriter who is well known but not very popular with college students. The Manilow T-shirt was chosen because college students reported that they would be embarrassed to be known as a Manilow fan. After the students had put on the shirt, they were brought to a room where other students were working, staying there briefly before leaving again. After leaving the room, the students were asked how many of the other students noticed their T-shirt. The T-shirt wearers believed, on average, that about 45% of the people in the room would notice their Manilow shirt. The other students were also asked if they noticed the Manilow shirt. Of the students in the room, on average, just over 20% of the students actually did notice (Gilovich, Medvic, & Savitsky, 2000).

Along with this sense that we are noticed, we generally believe that others judge us more harshly than they actually do. For example, if you accidentally set off an alarm by taking the fire exit as you left a university library, you might assume everyone thinks you are stupid. While there may be a few who think so, the vast majority of students are much less harsh in their judgments and are likely to be sympathetic to your plight (Savitsky, Epley, & Gilovich, 2001). Embarrassment caused by the behavior of a friend or relative is also often more acutely felt than is necessary. When someone we are known to be associated with makes a blunder, others generally do not connect that action with us, contrary to what we might think (Fortune & Newby-Clark, 2008). Just because your brother picks his nose in public does not mean that others think you are disgusting by association.

Test Yourself

Click on each question below to reveal the answer.

Why is the illusion of transparency called an illusion?

If you dropped your books all over the sidewalk, what would the spotlight effect predict you would feel and others would notice?


Our lives are full of things that demand explanation. People form attitudes by evaluating the things and objects in their environment. Although we may not always be aware of the attitudes we hold, they may still affect our behavior. These attitudes can be helpful in predicting our behavior, although many other factors come into play. Our attitudes can change because of our behavior (as in cognitive dissonance theory), or be formed because of our behavior (as in self-perception theory). As we make judgments, our attributions tend to follow certain patterns. Those patterns can be fairly common across a culture, as is so with the fundamental attribution error, or be based on our experiences in life, as is so with the hostile attribution of intent.

Chapter Summary

Definition of Attitudes

Attitudes involve an evaluation of an entity or behavior. Attitudes can be placed on a continuum from weak to strong, and on a continuum from positive to negative. When people report on an attitude, they are describing an attitude that they are consciously aware of, called an explicit attitude. Attitudes that emerge from automatic processes are implicit attitudes. Implicit attitudes can be assessed with the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

Behavior and Attitudes

Attitudes and behaviors are often misaligned. We are more likely to see an agreement between attitude and behavior when the attitude is accessible and it matches the behavior in level of specificity, the behavior is easy to perform, and social pressures support an alignment. The theory of planned behavior allows for the prediction of behaviors from attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control. Cognitive dissonance theory proposes that when our attitudes and behaviors do not match up and we have insufficient justification, we are likely to change our attitude. Self-perception theory involves figuring out our attitudes from observing our own behavior.

Explaining the Behavior of Others

When making attributions, we attempt to explain the behavior of others. Internal attributions involve attributing an action to something internal to the person, such as personality. When we make external attributions, on the other hand, we attribute actions to something outside the person, such as current circumstances. When we make internal attributions despite plausible external causes we are making the fundamental attribution error. The actor-observer bias adds the idea that as actors we point to situational factors in our behavior.

Explanations and Our Behavior

Our habitual patterns of making attributions can vary in terms of whether we make an internal versus external, a stable versus unstable, and a global versus specific attribution. When we make internal, stable, and global attributions for positive things, and external, unstable, and specific attributions for negative things, we are showing an optimistic explanatory style. Pessimistic explanatory styles are directly opposite optimistic styles. Patterns of attributions can also involve how much hostility one expects from others and therefore sees in actions, known as hostile attribution of intent. At times we overestimate the extent to which our attributions or abilities are shared, engaging in false consensus. At times we overestimate how rare our abilities or beliefs are, engaging in false uniqueness. With an illusion of transparency we think that when others look at us they see more than they actually do.

Critical Thinking Questions

How might making the fundamental attribution error affect your relationships? Are there times when the effect might be positive and times when the effect might be negative?

Within your own cultural tradition, is the fundamental attribution error common?

An optimistic explanatory style was represented as generally positive for well-being and persistence. When might an optimistic explanatory style be detrimental to a person?

The text points out one positive to knowing about the illusion of transparency, lower speech anxiety. What might be some negative effects of knowing about the illusion? In other words, why might it be good for us to believe others see more than they actually do?

If implicit attitudes are something we are not even aware of, do they matter?

What other influences on attitudes and behaviors might researchers study?

If you were to add a factor to the theory of planned behavior, what might it be? What additional variable might be added to better predict behavior?

Have you ever had an experience where your attitudes and actions did not match? Did you do any of the things suggested to reduce cognitive dissonance?

Key Terms

Click on each key term to reveal the definition.

actor-observer bias



cognitive dissonance

explanatory style

explicit attitudes

external attribution

false consensus effect

false uniqueness effect

fundamental attribution error

hostile attribution of intent

illusion of transparency

implicit attitudes

insufficient justification

internal attribution

learned helplessness

optimistic explanatory style

perceived behavior control

pessimistic explanatory style

self-perception theory

spotlight effect

subjective norms

theory of planned behavior