Attributional Bias in the Workplace: Self-Serving Bias and Fundamental Attribution Error

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  • 0:05 What We Perceive Is…
  • 1:30 Types of Bias
  • 2:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rob Wengrzyn

Rob has an MBA in management, a BS in marketing, and is a doctoral candidate in organizational theory and design.

At times, we all interpret individuals or situations with bias or errors. In this lesson, we will point out two aspects of attributional bias and how they can impact how you view or interpret either a person or a situation.

What We Perceive Is Not Always Right

Take a moment to think about yourself at the beach. The sun is warm and the water is nice, not a cloud in the sky. You look up and you see only a certain group of people, let's say teenagers, are in the water while everyone else is on the beach. You begin to think to yourself that those that are in the water like the water and those on the beach, well, they don't. You could even take this a step further and say that only teenagers like the water and those that are older or younger do not.

What you have just done is made an attributional bias, which is when individuals make an assumption about others without having all the data they need to be accurate. You made the assumptions of those that liked and did not like water based on what you observed. In reality, it could have been just chance that all teenagers were in the water or that maybe the beach had some type of rule that only teenagers could be in the water at that time. Regardless, you made an assumption based on only a small amount of data.

In the business environment, this is a challenge because we cannot have individuals making assumptions and then conducting business. This would lead to a great deal of confusion and miscommunication, which would impact how the company operates. It would also cause or support politics when individuals would take what they assumed and act on it without taking the time to think through the issue and get the real facts.

Types of Bias

When we look at this issue, we are really talking about two different types of bias errors. The first we will talk about is self-serving bias, where individuals attribute positive dealings to their own character and negative dealings to external factors. It's easy to see why this is viewed as self-serving.

For example, if someone takes their driving test and passes the first time, with self-serving bias, they would attribute that to their hard studying and their ability to drive. If, however, they fail their test, they will attribute that to the test being too hard or the traffic being heavy that day.

The other type of error is fundamental attribution error, and this is when an individual assigns blame or a cause of something to the person themselves and does not take into account external issues. If we see someone get into a car accident, fundamental attribution error would make us believe they were not paying attention to the road or that they were going too fast, when in reality any number of issues could have caused the accident.

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