Social psychologists have developed names for a host of biases in the ways people perceive behaviour. The fundamental attribution error is not only one of the most famous of these biases, but apparently one of the most frequently misunderstood. Many laypeople confuse the fundamental attribution error with distinctly different phenomena, such as the self-serving attribution bias. Such confusion is not limited to laypeople, however. A recent article by a sociologist making a misguided attempt to apply a sociological/social psychological analysis to the popular TV show Game of Thrones illustrates the same confusion, and perhaps illustrates a deeper confusion among those who would attempt to deny the importance of human individuality in the name of social science.
I have previously written about the fundamental attribution error in a pair of articles in which I argued that, despite the importance that some people claim for it, it is actually highly overrated. Even though its name is well-known, a lot of people seem to be confused about what this phenomenon is supposed to be, perhaps because it is a counter-intuitive concept. Hence, I will start with some definitions and distinctions. The fundamental attribution error was defined by psychologist Lee Ross as a tendency for people, when making attributions about the causes of behaviour "to underestimate the impact of situational factors and to overestimate the role of dispositional factors in controlling behaviour" (Reeder, 1982). In plainer language, this means that even when someone has very little choice in how they behave because they were pressured into doing something by external environmental demands (i.e., situational factors controlled their behaviour), other people will tend to assume that they behaved the way they did because of their own attributes, such as their personality, attitudes, and desires (i.e., dispositional factors). This phenomenon, which is supposed to be a ubiquitous and pervasive error, is said to occur because laypeople have causal theories of behaviour in which they believe that “situational factors have little impact on human behaviour” (Gawronski, 2004). That is, people supposedly underestimate the “power of the situation” because they are “intuitive dispositionalists” who mistakenly think that people act consistently with their personalities. Got all that?
At this point, some readers may object that what I have described is not the fundamental attribution error and that I don’t know what I am talking about. (Oh, ye of little faith!) Instead, they might think that the fundamental attribution error is something like the following:
We also have a bias for the individual as the locus of agency in interpreting our own everyday life and the behavior of others. We tend to seek internal, psychological explanations for the behavior of those around us while making situational excuses for our own. This is such a common way of looking at the world that social psychologists have a word for it: the fundamental attribution error.When someone wrongs us, we tend to think they are evil, misguided or selfish: a personalized explanation. But when we misbehave, we are better at recognizing the external pressures on us that shape our actions: a situational understanding. If you snap at a coworker, for example, you may rationalize your behavior by remembering that you had difficulty sleeping last night and had financial struggles this month. You’re not evil, just stressed! The coworker who snaps at you, however, is more likely to be interpreted as a jerk, without going through the same kind of rationalization. This is convenient for our peace of mind, and fits with our domain of knowledge, too. We know what pressures us, but not necessarily others.
This is a quote from an article by sociologist, Zeynep Tufekci, with the modest and unassuming title, “TheReal Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones.” Like much else in her article, this explanation of the supposed fundamental attribution error is horribly garbled and inaccurate, and is part of an agenda to interpret this TV show through a situationist, sociological lens to promote her own theories. What Tufekci describes is not the fundamental attribution error at all but what social psychologists call the actor-observer asymmetry (AKA actor-observer bias). There are two main accounts of this latter phenomenon. In the strong or general account, people routinely explain their own behaviour in situational terms and other people’s behaviour in dispositional terms, regardless of whether the behaviour is good or bad. Social psychologists have claimed that the general version of the actor-observer asymmetry is a robust and pervasive effect. This is supposed to occur because people have different perspectives depending on whether they are actors (i.e. doing something) or observing another’s behaviour. That is, when performing an action, people are supposed to be more aware of how their environment affects their behaviour, whereas when they are observing an action, they are more focused on the person doing the action than their environment (Malle, 2006). However, there is another more limited version of this phenomenon, in which the way people judge their own vs. another’s behaviour depends on whether the outcome was favourable or unfavourable. Specifically, actors attribute their failures or negative behaviours to environmental, situational factors, and their successes or positive behaviours to their own personal characteristics. On the other hand, when observing others, they either do not show this bias or show the opposite effect: attribute other people’s successes to the environment (e.g., luck) and failures to their personal characteristics. This phenomenon is also known as the self-serving bias in attribution (self-serving bias for short).
Although the fundamental attribution error and these two versions of the actor-observer asymmetry might seem similar, there are nevertheless important conceptual differences between them. First, advocates of the theory of situationism, like Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett, have claimed that the fundamental attribution error occurs because people believe that situational factors have little impact on human behaviour, that is, that people simply do not understand the “power of the situation” because they prefer to explain behaviour in dispositional terms. Furthermore, this is supposed to be an error because situational factors are the central causes of behaviour while dispositions or personality traits are of little importance. On the other hand, the actor-observer asymmetry suggests that people do accept that situational factors influence their behaviour, at least when considering their own actions in the general account, or when it suits them in the self-serving account. Furthermore, if the self-serving account is correct, invoking situational causes is not necessarily a sign that one has grasped the true causes of behaviour, but that one is attempting to look at things in whatever way allows one to feel better about oneself. Hence, there seems to be a contradiction between what these alleged phenomena imply. Hence, it may be helpful to consider the current evidence for each of them.
First, let’s get the fundamental attribution error out of the way. I have criticised this at length elsewhere (here and here), so I will deal with it briefly by summarising the conclusion of a review (Gawronski, 2004) that I did not have a chance to cover in my previous articles. According to this review, although there is evidence that people do draw dispositional inferences from situationally constrained behaviour (which the author refers to as correspondence bias), there is no evidence that laypeople have causal theories in which “situational factors have little impact on human behaviour.” Hence, the author proclaimed that “the fundamental attribution error is dead.” Instead, the author argues that it is not that people underestimate the importance of situational causes in general, but that they sometimes misunderstand which specific situational factors may be acting on a person.
What about the actor-observer asymmetry? Regarding the general version of this phenomenon, the author (Malle, 2006) of a review of more than 170 studies spanning 35 years found that the mean effect size was indistinguishable from zero and concluded that “The actor–observer hypothesis appears to be a widely held yet false belief.” Additionally, he noted that “actors and observers do not notably differ in their person and situation explanations” of behaviour. On the other hand, the self-serving bias fared better, as there was evidence that this effect replicated across studies. Specifically, the expected actor-observer asymmetry occurred for negative events (i.e., people explained own failures situationally and another’s failure dispositionally), whereas the reverse occurred for positive events (i.e., people explained own successes dispositionally and another’s success situationally). Hence, the actor-observer asymmetry is not a general phenomenon, but does occur under certain circumstances, depending on the evaluation of what is being explained. Additionally, this effect is a fairly modest one, that is, one might say that people tend to engage in this bias some of them time, but not consistently and constantly.
Why the confusion?
Why do so many people confuse the fundamental attribution error with the actor-observer asymmetry? I’m not altogether sure, but I suspect it might be because the fundamental attribution error is a counter-intuitive, even weird idea that does not match people’s everyday experience, while the self-serving version of the actor-observer asymmetry is easier to relate to. Specifically, even though some social psychologists have claimed that most people are “intuitive dispositionalists” who mistakenly believe that “situational factors have little impact on human behaviour,” there is actual a lack of evidence that this is even true; on the contrary, there is evidence that most people accept an interactionist view, in which both situations and personality traits influence behaviour (Newman & Bakina, 2009). By the way, the interactionist view was endorsed by the eminent psychologists Kurt Lewin in 1938, and also happens to be in line with the empirical evidence. On the other hand, the idea that people tend to be self-serving and believe whatever happens to make them feel better is more intuitive and easier to understand as it matches people’s common experience.
Situations, dispositions: which face is more important?
One noted critic of the fundamental attribution error (Funder, 2001) argued that the really, really fundamental attribution error is committed by psychologists, and not by laypeople: believing that the causes of behaviour are simple and easily dichotomized. More specifically, proponents of situationism have tried to advance the fundamental attribution error as a phenomenon that illustrates their dichotomous theories that behaviour is really controlled by external situational factors vs. internal dispositional ones. Returning to Zeynep Tufekci’s article, it seems that she has tried to apply a similar dichotomous theory to pop culture in her Game of Thrones article, in which she attempts to apply a situational vs. dispositional analysis first to the TV show and then to society at large. This irked me, because it seemed to reflect an attempt to deny the importance of individuality in society, which has long been a theme of situationist discourse in social psychology.
Was Storytelling in Game of Thrones, Sociological, Psychological, or a Mix of Both?
Tufekci’s article makes several claims that she thinks explain why season eight of the show was unsatisfactory to many fans. She argues that the show switched from what she calls sociological storytelling to psychological storytelling. As she explains, the former involves “structural storytelling” in which “characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.” Psychological storytelling, on the other hand, which is apparently the norm for most TV shows, focuses on “overly personal” stories about individuals and their distinctive personalities. She seems to imply that this switch began with season eight because the show ran ahead of the George R.R. Martin novels, which focused on sociological stories, and the show’s producers did not understand how to continue doing sociological story-telling and switched to the more familiar mode of psychological story-telling instead. (Actually, the show had completely ran ahead of the books by the beginning of season six, but Tufekci’s article does not acknowledge this). Apparently, “the psychological/internal genre leaves us unable to understand and react to social change.”
Tufekci argues that characters in sociological storytelling still “have personal stories and agency,” but “are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them,” and act according to incentives that “come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.” However, despite her assertion that characters have their own agency, she goes on to argue that a character’s choices are basically driven by situational factors and implies that individuality is not that important:
“The hallmark of sociological storytelling is if it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of character, not just the main hero/heroine, and imagine ourselves making similar choices. ‘Yeah, I can see myself doing that under such circumstances’ is a way into a broader, deeper understanding.”
Note that she says any character, no matter how depraved or shocking their behaviour, which seems to imply that people and characters are basically interchangeable. If it were true that people make similar choices based only on circumstances, then this would imply that a person’s values, desires, and inclinations, indeed their personality, is of no real importance. Using some salient examples from the show, if viewers can put themselves in the place of any character and imagine themselves behaving the same way under the circumstances, this would mean that, on the one hand, they could see themselves being treacherous and opportunistic if they were in the place of someone like Petyr Baelish, yet also imagine that they would be honourable to a fault, even if it meant their own downfall, in the shoes of someone like Ned Stark. This does not make any sense. The meaning of honour is that a person does not betray their friends when it happens to suit their incentives. In fact, it means making hard choices, even when it would be convenient to put personal interests first. Arguing that viewers can imagine that they would act willy-nilly depending on the whims of circumstances would mean that they lack a concept of having personal values that guide a character’s behaviour.
Tufekci particularly criticizes how the show handled the character arc of Daenerys Targaryen, especially her murderous turn in episode 7. She argues that this started out as a story of the corruption of power, and if it had been done sociologically, it would have provided an interesting study of “a leader who starts in opposition with the best of intentions, … and ends up acting brutally and turning into a tyrant if they take power.” Her argument is that Dany’s downfall was originally set up to illustrate how she became corrupted by external forces provided her with ruinous incentives, “and season by season, we have witnessed her, however reluctantly, being shaped by the tools that were available to her and that she embraced: war, dragons, fire.” Then, unfortunately, her storyline in season eight went from an interesting sociological one to being ruined by this psychological storytelling that the producers seem to favour.
It’s not my intention to defend season eight or the handling of Daenerys’ storyline. (People could be arguing about this for years to come.) What I want to point out instead is that the distinction that Tufekci makes between sociological and psychological story-telling rests on a false dichotomy and that she twists the facts to fit her pet theory. Even a casual inspection of the plots from the early seasons of the show illustrates that Dany was portrayed as having striking psychological characteristics that foreshadowed exactly her later descent into genocide and tyranny, quite apart from any external sociological forces that may have shaped her decisions.
Consider an important scene from season two, episode 3 (Garden of Bones). (See the relevant clip here.)
Dany and her retinue are at the gates of the city of Qarth seeking admission. She states frankly, that her people have no food and water, and will all die if not admitted. The person whom she needs to convince to let her in, requests to see her dragons, as some of his colleagues doubt they even exist. Even though this is a simple and reasonable request that she could easily accommodate, she refuses and is denied admittance. She then makes the following remarkable statement, that explicitly foreshadows what she will do in season eight: “When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who wronged me! We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground!”
So, even though she is in a weak, vulnerable position, she refuses to use the only bargaining chip she has, and instead makes threats that she cannot yet carry out. Hence, even at this early stage, when she has quite limited power and her dragons are only babies, she demonstrates grandiosity, entitlement, and vindictiveness, even hints of madness. Is this an example of sociological storytelling? What incentives exactly did Dany have to behave in such an irrational and potentially suicidal manner? How many viewers think they would act the same way under these circumstances? Despite Tufekci’s argument that Dany was gradually corrupted by external forces and incentives, her own peculiar personality is clearly an important factor in explaining her behaviour, as she acts in a way that is clearly contrary to the “incentives” afforded by the situation.
Tufekci’s argument about the supposed distinction between sociological and psychological storytelling, with the psychological mode being the dominant but misleading one, while the sociological mode tells the real story, mirrors the distinction made by situationists between situational and dispositional accounts of behaviour. Both Tufekci’s argument and the situationist argument misrepresent their subject matter and both present a lopsided view of things that tries to deny the importance of human individuality. This is not to say that sociological factors are not important in good storytelling or in real life. An alternative to the view that sees personality dispositions and situational influences on behaviour as opposing forces, is that a person’s circumstances can reveal what their personality is really like. For example, facing danger provides a test of whether one will be cowardly or courageous, treacherous or loyal, depending on one’s individual strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. Similarly, when at its best, Game of Thrones was able to tell stories in which interesting characters faced trying circumstances that required them to make difficult choices, and these choices revealed their true selves. Tufekci argued that being given power corrupts even well-meaning leaders, but an alternative view is that power provides a test of the strength of a person’s character, that is, whether one has the capacity to act with moral integrity or whether one sees power as a path to self-aggrandizement. This question of choice was actually raised in the final episode of season eight in a scene in which Tyrion asks Jon Snow whether he would have acted the same way as Daenerys if he had opportunity to do so. (See this clip.)
Tyrion reminds him that he has ridden on a dragon’s back, that he had that power, and asks him if he would have burned a city down? This question brings into focus the crucial importance of personal responsibility and choice. Situationist accounts of behavior tend to downplay personal responsibility and imply that people are controlled by external forces, which also seems to be Tufekci’s argument. This is a disempowering view of human nature and one that is based on discredited ideas, like the fundamental attribution error.
Tufekci argues that sociological storytelling is important because “the dominance of the psychological and hero/antihero narrative” may also be “the reason we are having such a difficult time dealing with the current historic technology transition.” She goes on to talk about the need to change the structures, incentives and forces that shape how people and their companies behave, rather than trying to “dethrone antiheros and replace them with good people.” This is all very well, but is worthwhile to remember that structural changes to society are often brought about by individuals who have the vision and the means to do so. For example, I noted in a previous post on American presidents that individual personality traits were substantially related to a president’s effectiveness while in office. I agree with her that it is important for society to build good institutions and provide incentives for people to behave well. But let’s not overlook the importance of individuals in shaping society.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
 Tufekci also complains that the scriptwriters explain Daenerys’ destructive choices in terms of “genetic determinism,” because the other characters note that madness runs in Dany’s family, as if this is a radical departure from the show’s previous sociological emphasis. On the contrary, from season 1, one of the show’s recurring themes was that incest has negative consequences for the children of such unions, which includes Daenerys and her family, with its long history of inbreeding. Hence, so-called “genetic determinism,” or at least recognition that heredity matters, has been an integral component of the storylines, even when it was supposed to be a “sociological” show.
Funder, D. C. (2001). The Really, Really Fundamental Attribution Error. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 21–23.
Gawronski, B. (2004). Theory-based bias correction in dispositional inference: The fundamental attribution error is dead, long live the correspondence bias. European Review of Social Psychology, 15(1), 183–217. https://doi.org/10.1080/10463280440000026
Malle, B. F. (2006). The actor-observer asymmetry in attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), 895–919. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.895
Newman, L. S., & Bakina, D. A. (2009). Do people resist social‐psychological perspectives on wrongdoing? Reactions to dispositional, situational, and interactionist explanations. Social Influence, 4(4), 256–273. https://doi.org/10.1080/15534510802674292
Reeder, G. D. (1982). Let’s give the fundamental attribution error another chance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(2), 341–344. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2061