If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Attribution theory - Attribution error and culture

Attribution theory explores how we understand behavior, often attributing others' actions to internal factors, a bias known as the "Fundamental Attribution Error". We tend to blame our own actions on external circumstances, a phenomenon called the "Actor-Observer Bias". These biases vary across individualistic and collectivist cultures, affecting how we interpret success and failure. Created by Arshya Vahabzadeh.

Want to join the conversation?

  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user ff142
    Maybe the difference in attribution patterns is caused by an emphasis on modesty in many Asian cultures. If they're successful they're expected to be modest and not boast about it, if they fail they're expected to take responsibility rather than blame others, at least outwardly. So maybe it's just differences in cultural norms rather than differences between "collectivist" and "individualist" cultures. I never liked the labels "collectivist" and "individualist" because every culture is individualist in some ways and collectivist in some ways. For example many North American high school students say they did drugs because their peers did it, but few high school students in Asia do that. In some aspects North America is more collectivist than Asia, and in some aspects Asia is more collectivist than North America. So I wouldn't say one geographic area is more "collectivist" than another. Maybe cultural norms that were different from one's own were misinterpreted as being "collectivist".
    (24 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • starky ultimate style avatar for user ♪♫  Viola  ♫♪
      Yes, I think that modesty affects our attribution patterns as well. So I think what you mean to say is that our attribution patterns are learned not intrinsic, which I would agree with. That would explain why Arshya (the video maker) mentioned that these patterns are an over generalization. Because not every one is raised the same way in a society. But in general Eastern folks are raised to be more modest and thus they do foster a more collectivist society.

      But what I have to say is that your example with the teens does not illustrate the concept of collectivism, it illustrates conformity. Acknowledging the efforts of the people around you and acting upon consultation with others (collectivism) is different from imitating your peers to fit in and feel accepted (conformity). Also, teens conform all over the world, to different degrees--in Asia, and the West.
      (10 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Bita Naimi
    How is actor-observer bias different than self-serving bias? Is the component about the self the same?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Ted
      Self-serving bias only pertains to you, self. Example: I got A+ on psychology because I am smart. But, I got C- on biology because the teacher is crap.
      You don't talk about other people.

      Actor-observer bias is when you start talking about other people's behaviour due to disposition or situation.
      Example: My friend failed his test. It's probably because he didn't study. I also did terribly on the test, but that was because I had other things to do!
      (17 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Dominic Choo
    Hi so I'm lucky enough to be able to use another source of MCAT review material (princeton) but I've run into the problem of it being slightly inconsistent with the KA videos. This video says that the actor observer bias and self serving bias (place more emphasis on internal for success and external for failures) is more prevalent in individualistic societies like the US rather than collectivist societies in Asia (KA further says collectivist societies place more emphasis on internal for failures and external for successes). However, in the most recent edition of the Psych/Soc book from Princeton, it says (pg 132) individualistic societies place more emphasis on internal attributes for both success and failure while in collectivist societies place empahasis on external attributions. thoughts?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • starky seedling style avatar for user Jenny Kim
    I still don't get fundamental attribution error and actor-observer bias, can anyone explain it with a real-life example?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • spunky sam green style avatar for user Matthew
      Fundamental Attribution Error:
      You are driving to work and a car next to you cuts you off. You are more likely to think that that person is just a mean person (internal attribution) rather than consider their situation. Maybe they are rushing to get to the hospital because a loved one is terminally ill (external attribution).

      Actor-Observer Bias:
      I believe this is much like having an external locus of control, "I failed that test because the teacher failed at teaching me the material." The focus is not on your personal attributes, but rather some external circumstance you can place the blame on.
      (2 votes)
  • hopper jumping style avatar for user Eric
    It would be interesting to add generation as a variable in attribution biases... (in addition to culture)
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user farhy173
    Is fundamental attribution error a TYPE of a self serving bias?? or are they two separate concepts?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf orange style avatar for user Tony Wang
      I think that they are different. But you are correct in pointing out a potential relation. I think given the definitions, it is likely that a fundamental attribution error can be used to realize a self serving bias. That is to say that I can be self servingly biased by making a fundamental attribution error. For example, having the belief that John doesn't like my cupcakes because I believe that he thinks cupcakes are evil. Rather than realizing that in fact I'm just a rubbish cook. Hope this helps.
      (2 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user Sabbir Mirza
    Pertaining to the Fundamental Attribution Theory: Is this only for negative behaviors or all behaviors?
    Like do we attribute another person's good behaviors to internal factors?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • winston default style avatar for user Arieda
    How would this relate to the external/internal locus of control and the notions of self-efficacy? According to this video, it would seem that individuals in collectivist cultures would have lower levels of self-efficacy.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user shrajpurohit07
    What is the difference between self-serving bias and fundamental attribution error?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Jessica
    I'm a little confused on the fact that there seems to be a contradiction on the way Individualistic groups (for the sake of political correctness, I acknowledge that no all places in Europe/NA are labelled as such) are more likely to show the Fundamental Attribution Error, but also happen to attribute failure to external factors.

    Is it more that Individualistic individuals are more likely to attribute THEIR OWN failures to external factors? That falls more into line with what Arshya is saying. Because otherwise if an Individualistic person view things such as poverty a "failure," they wouldn't be likely to blame the poor individual themselves, according to the cultural component explanation.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] How do we understand someone's behavior? Well, we can break down behavior into two parts. One is we can look at behavior as coming from a person's own internal attributes. And secondly, we can look at behavior as being fueled by situational or external factors, such as the weather, housing, finances. Ideally, when we're trying to analyze somebody's behavior, we are a neutral judge right in the middle. Often times, behaviors are complex and involve a combination of internal and external factors. We are not always as neutral as we want to be. One of these biases happens when we judge the behavior of others. So, when we look at the behavior of others, instead of being in the middle, we actually find ourselves over here. That means that when we look at the behavior of others, we're more likely to attribute their behavior to internal factors about that person as opposed to considering the complex situational external factors that a person may face. So in fact, we over-attribute behaviors to these internal causes. And this actually has a name. We term this the "Fundamental Attribution Error". Well, how could this be a problem? It could be a problem in terms of when we see complex patients, for example, patients who can't exercise who are obese, who are struggling with poverty, and we really under-recognize the external situational problems, the social problems, the healthcare barriers they can have, and almost blame them for the problems that they face. So, it's important to recognize that this may occur. Well, what happens when we consider our own behavior? Well, it turns out that we're not mutual, even in that case. When we consider our own behavior, we actually often skew it in the other direction. We're more likely to blame our behavior on external factors. We're more like to be victims of circumstance. And while, this doesn't have a particular name, the combination of the "Fundamental Attribution Error", along side our own tendency to blame or attribute our own behaviors on external factors combined together is actually termed the "Actor-Observer Bias", where we are victims of circumstance but others when they perform a behavior, they are willful actors. There is also, however, a cultural component. We know that "Fundamental Attribution Error" tends to occur more commonly in individualistic societies. These cultures include those found in North America and Europe, cultures who place an emphasis on individual achievement and independence. Now that we've mentioned the cultural component, let's spend a little bit more time talking about culture. Let's think about success and failure because it appears cultures may have different ways that they can attribute or explain success and failure. So, let's split this up into individualistic, so again, that's Europe and North America, and the second set of cultures is collectivist, and these are cultures that put a value on community and interdependence, and these are typically found in Africa and Asia, and remember these are generalizations. So, one of the things that we find is that in attempting to explain success, individualistic cultures tend to over-attribute success to internal factors, while on the other hand, failures are more likely to be attributed to external or situational factors. It's the complete opposite with collectivist cultures, in fact, when we look at success, they tend to attribute success to external factors and failures are more likely to attributed to internal factors. I want you to be aware of one more bias. This is called the "Self-serving bias" and this bias is a way of protecting and enhancing our own self-esteem, and this bias is much more common in individualistic cultures. If we succeed, it's down to our own internal personal qualities, but if we fail, we don't have a hit on our self-esteem because it's more likely to do with things outside of our own control. So, individualistic societies tend to demonstate a great degree of this self-serving bias and mechanism to protect our own self-esteem which is particularly important in individualistic societies because of their emphasis on individual achievement and success.