Sociocultural level of analysis – why do people do what they do?

Have you ever stood waiting for a friend who is late, and wondered where they have got to?  “Maybe they are stuck in traffic?” “Maybe they forgot?” “Ah, not again, they are always late – hopeless!”

If you have engaged in this thought process, and of course all of us have, then you are attributing a cause to an event: traffic jam, forgetfulness of your friend, or your friend’s disposition – s/he is always late. This is the basis for the attribution theory – the theory that it is human nature to try to explain why things happen, and why people act as they do, even when there is no obvious cause. The theory comes out of the work of Fritz Heider in The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations (1958).

The problem is that, as we try to explain the reasons and causes for behaviors, we are prone to falling victim to a number of cognitive biases and errors. Our perceptions of events are often distorted by our experiences or our expectations. For an example of how we attribute explanations to the most random occurrences And please see  Heider and Simmel’s original geometrical figures video from 1944, about attributing intention to what is really random behaviour. What story do you make up to explain the behaviour of the figures?

A few of the most common types of errors in attribution include:

Fundamental attribution error

We have a strong tendency to attribute the behaviour of others to dispositional rather than situational factors, that is, to character and especially character flaws rather than the system in which these people are acting. This tendency is so strong that it is “fundamental” to human nature.

Example: “He is late because it is in his nature to be late – he is hopeless at time-keeping.”

Self-Serving Bias

We are more likely to attribute our success to our personal characteristics and blame outside variables for our failures. This is especially true if we are brought up in a rather individualistic culture like the USA where we are taught from a young age to be proud of our achievements and we regard our personal individual success as vital for our self-esteem.

Example: “I passed that test because I am really clever” or “I failed that test because the teacher didn’t explain things properly”.  This serves to protect our self-esteem.

Modesty Bias

Some research suggests that people who are from a collectivist culture, such as the Japanese culture (and this is a precise example of stereotyping, I know) tend to have a modesty bias when making attributions. That is, they tend to attribute their successes to situational factors rather than to personal attributes, and, when they fail, they blame themselves for not trying hard enough. 😳

Example: “I was very lucky to pass my driving test – I didn’t really deserve to” or “I’m not surprised that I lost that tennis match, I am a really bad player.”


Tips for learning about attribution theory and attribution errors:

  • Understand that the main principle behind this is the actor/observer effect. This is the principle by which we operate, without realising, in a way that differentiates between why we do something and why others do it – even when it is the same action!
  • After reading about the theory and the errors, always try and think of an example from your own life, and from your other subjects, such as TOK or History, for example.


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