Situational and dispositional factors in explaining behavior.
People generally explain behavior through situational or dispositional factors. Studies have found that we tend to attribute dispositional factors when explaining other people’s behavior but we understand our own behavior through situational explanations, which is known as the actor-observer effect. The overemphasis on dispositional factors (and underemphasis on situational ones) when explaining other people’s behavior is known as the fundamental attribution error.
Michael Storms conducted a series of experiments in 1975 with the intention of examining the actor-observer effect. In Storms’ first experiment, his specific aim was to test this effect, which he did throgh a laboratory experimental method.
Storms created an artificial setting and allocated participants into two different roles; actors and observers. Four unacquainted research participants, two playing the role of observers and two playing the role of conversational actors arranged in a seating pattern so that Observer B was facing actor B and actor A was opposite to observer A, and the actors and observers sat side by side to each other. Two cameras filmed the responses of the actors separately.
The two actors engaged in a five-minute conversation and the observers focused their attention on the actor they were facing. Both the actors and observers rated the actors’ behavior and were asked to indicate the degree to which the actors’ behavior was determined by their personal characteristics and/or by the situation.
Storms found that the observers placed greater importance on the dispositional factors when explaining the actions of the actor they were watching whereas the actors emphasized situational factors when evaluating their own behavior. As hypothesized by Storms, the findings were consistent to the actor-observer effect.
For his second experiment, Storms aimed to find out the effects of manipulating the salience (the attentional selection) after the event has transpired but prior to observers & actors making attributions Storms employed a laboratory method for this experiment as well. The experiment was essentially a replication of his first one, except videotapes were shown before attributions were made. Instead of experiencing what had happened live, participants watched the opposite visual perspective (Observer A = Actor B). Storms found that reversed-perspective viewers no longer exhibited the actor-observer effect. Actors made dispositional attributions, observers situational.
The experiment demonstrated the power of perceptual salience in the attribution process and that if we manipulate the attention of the actors to become self-aware; they place more importance on internal factors.
Another study related to attribution is Heider and Simmel’s study conducted in 1944 of attribution and geometric shapes. This study also used a laboratory experimental method. Participants were shown an animated cartoon of three geometric shapes (a large triangle, a small triangle and a circle) moving around and in and out of a square. They were asked to describe what they saw. Heider and Simmel found that the participants attributed the “behavior” of the shapes to dispositional factors, as if they had human intentions, although they were lifeless objects. Many participants explained the behavior of the shapes as if the two triangles were men fighting over a woman (symbolized by the circle). The large triangle was seen as an aggressive bully whereas the small triangle was seen as a modest hero. The circle was seen as shy. The findings indicate that there is a strong tendency to link behavior with personality and intentions, even when the behavior being observed is that of inanimate objects.
The tendency to overestimate dispositional factors and underestimate situational ones when explaining the behavior of others is knowns as the fundamental attribution error. This attribution error was studied by Ross et al. in 1977 through an experiment which replicated a game show setting. The method employed was laboratory. To conduct the study, participants were recruited and they signed consent forms. After this, the participants were assigned roles of a game show host, contestants, and audience members randomly. The participants were then ordered to role-play a game. The game was followed by the audience members ranking the intelligence of each actor (hosts and contestants). The study ended with the debriefing of each participants.
Ross et al found that participants consistently ranked the host as the smartest, even when they knew the situation was staged. The participants underestimated situational factors and overestimated dispositional factors, as hypothesized by the researchers. This experiment supports the theory of the fundamental attribution error and can be related to the actor-observer effect as well.