Leadership Wellbeing Career Progression Employee Development Diversity & Inclusion

What is attribution bias and what to do about it

Attribution bias refers to the errors we make when we try to find reasons for either our own behaviour or the behaviour of others and the fact that more often than not this means we favour men over women.

A good example of attribution bias emerged during the recent US election.

On August 6th, 2020, during the 2020 Presidential Election when Kamala Harris was campaigning to be named as Joe Biden’s Vice President, a dozen nationally prominent women leaders sent an open letter to US print and broadcast media asking them to not engage in stereotypically poor coverage of any female Vice-Presidential choice.

This was because stereotypical media coverage of women can affect election outcomes.

Specifically, they asked newspaper editors to avoid editorial:

  • That questions whether Harris is qualified to be a leader though her experience is equal to or exceeds that of other male candidates
  • That comments on whether or not Harris is liked as though this should be a consideration for a vice presidential candidate and given that the “likeability” of men is never considered a legitimate news story
  • That discusses Harris’ looks, weight, tone of voice, attractiveness and hair, as this leads to sexist news coverage unless the same analysis is applied to every candidate, including men, and even if these comments are just a side bar to the main story
  • That shows images of Harris displaying anger or strong emotion, even at injustice, as emotional outbursts can perpetuate racist stereotypes that suggest unfairly that women are too emotional or irrational in their leadership

Read the letter that supported Kamala Harris' Vice Presidential run here

There are many different types of common attribution bias

  • Fundamental attribution bias – We often attribute the cause of others’ behaviour as the result of internal characteristics and our own behaviour as the result of our environment. (When we do this, we tend to be more forgiving of our own behaviour than of others)
  • False consensus bias – We tend to assume that other people are similar to us in their thinking, feeling, and lifestyle. When we do this, we judge them according to our own standards and not their own. They may have had different intentions, based on different values and motivations, to the conclusion we drew.
  • Negative impression bias – We tend to over-emphasise negative information about other people. When we feel we are wronged and feel hurt we often exaggerate negative aspects in the behaviour of the person who has wronged us to support the view that we are wronged.
  • Confirmation bias – Once we have reached a conclusion about a person or event, we look for evidence that confirms our view, and we discredit all the evidence that doesn't support our view. When we do this, we close our minds to new information.
Overcoming attribution bias and helping others:
  1. Think of the big picture - there is often more to a situation than just ‘us’ or ‘them’ and more to life than the event or situation.
  2. Challenge the initial perspective or the immediate reaction - help others to see that maybe there is no one to blame, and therefore no one should feel wronged – or perhaps the issue is in the interaction of all the people in the situation.
  3. Propose other scenarios - think of at least two other possibilities that may have led to the situation that the person has not yet considered.
  4. Talk about human nature - Human beings are judgemental – it helps us to feel safe in our immediate world. We label and box things and make quick conclusions about what is around us, and especially about anything that is new or different from us. Sometimes the conclusions we jump to are incorrect when we don’t have all the information available to us.
  5. Focus on resolving the issues not who is to blame - once people are in problem solving mode and focused on resolving the problem rather than working out who’s at fault, they are more likely to be able to resolve the issues.
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