Ultimate attribution error

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The self-serving bias describes the tendency to attribute positive outcomes to one’s own actions and traits, and negative outcomes to situational factors and luck. The ultimate attribution error is exactly that, but for groups. Positive in-group behaviors are attributed to qualities of the group, while positive out-group behavior is attributed to a variety of non-essential characteristics, from luck, to situation, to the positive actor being an exception to the group. Similarly, negative in-group behavior is explained away as situational or exceptional, while negative out-group behavior is deemed endemic to the group. The ultimate attribution error results from prejudice, but also creates more evidence for someone’s prejudice, contributing to a cycle of increasing prejudice. This bias has been shown across a variety of different ethnic, and religious groups. Interestingly, both males and females tend to attribute positive male outcome to internal traits, and positive female outcomes to choices and luck.

Hunter, Stringer, and Watson’s study asked Protestant and Catholic students to explain instances of violence committed by other Protestants and Catholics. Catholic students attributed the violence of Catholics to the situation, and the violence of Protestants to character traits. Protestant students’ attributions were the opposite.

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