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STANFORD - If a store clerk mistakenly gave your best friend an extra $5 in change, would your friend return it or keep it? What would Bill Clinton do, or Anita Hill, or you?

If you think you can answer these questions accurately, you are making several "attribution" errors - mistakes humans repeatedly make in attributing a cause to the behavior of people in the news, their friends, their enemies and even themselves, says Lee Ross, a Stanford University social psychologist.

In experiments with colleagues, Ross finds people believe they can predict others' behavior at better-than-chance levels, even in the absence of key details about the situation. They are overconfident, for instance, in predicting whether or not a college roommate will turn in the $5 or comb his or her hair before having a picture taken. People also are overconfident in predicting their own behavior in a future situation.

The fundamental mistake people make is to underestimate the power of the situation to influence behavior, and to overestimate the power of personality traits or past behavior, Ross said.

A second mistake is the failure to recognize that similar situations are construed differently by different people. An example is the different ways in which the supporters of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill construed their behavior, Ross said.

Hill's and Thomas' testimonies also "illustrate the profound way in which people feel they are telling the truth, not in a literal sense, but in giving a view they believe is closer to how things are than if they gave the literal truth," Ross said.

What Ross called the "less-than-candid" testimony by Thomas probably reflected the judge's feelings that his reported behavior with Hill was "being taken out of context; he was not guilty of X, Y or Z, and he was not going to be condemned for behavior taken out of context," Ross said.

Hill's account of her immediate reactions may not have been candid either but reflective of how she construed the situation "in the light of new insights and anger," he said. "That's not to say [his behavior] had not been aversive to her; it's just that I think it's likely that it became much more aversive and inappropriate to her later."

Research on inference shows why it is so easy to lead people into error. In experiments where Ross and colleagues provided sketchy details of situations, their test subjects eagerly made up missing details and assumed those details were the right ones, he said.

Even when they were asked to offer alternative scenarios to the first one they developed, people tended to vary the scenario little. Only those who were able to imagine quite different scenarios appropriately lowered their confidence in their predictions of how others would react to the same description of the situation.

The lesson for people who want to improve their judgment is to practice "attributional charity," Ross said. Be skeptical of stories about heinous behavior, imagine alternative accounts and withhold initial judgments, particularly when the report is of extraordinary behavior by whole groups of people.

Parties to a war or riot are not likely to be either "heroic freedom-fighters or psychopaths," he said, "because most people in the world are neither."

People may be unwilling to consider more than one alternative explanation of someone else's behavior, Ross said, "because they pay a political price. We social psychologists are often seen as wishy-washy politically and less certain than advocates of causes would like us to be."

In this culture, he said, many people also are afraid that acknowledging the power of situations will undermine efforts to hold individuals responsible for their behavior.

"We all wrestle with that," Ross said. "The tension is there, but one way it gets handled, to some extent, is to realize that people need to responsibly choose the situations they put themselves in."

Uncharitable attributions encourage social conflict, often making it impossible for adversaries to reach agreements even when they all would be better off, said Ross, who is also a member of the Stanford Center for the Study of Conflict Resolution. The congressional inquisitors of Hill and Thomas, for instance, were "determined to make someone a monster and someone a saint," Ross said, which interfered with "making psychological sense of the story."

"I think it's likely there was no monster, there was no saint. These were ordinary people in a particular situation," he said, and their behavior does not even seem extraordinary if one asks a typical social psychologist's question: "What is likely to be the most extreme behavior of an individual over a long period of time and many varied situations?"

A summary of the last 50 years of research and theory on the role of the person and the situation is provided by Ross and Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan in a 1992 McGraw-Hill paperback, The Person and the Situation.



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