For this week, we are asked to relate and explain from our experience how we have made an initial attribution error regarding an individual, only to find that our initial assessment was erroneous. Then, considering that vignette, analyze using social psychology, how and why I made an attribution error.
A course that I developed, and refined over design from inception, and improved over a decade such that the content, when evaluated on the national physician licensing exam, typically scored in the top fifteen percent. This course was assigned to a newly appointed faculty member. I was charged by my dean to meet and work with the new faculty member to ensure the course be ready for delivery within 60 days.
I gave lectures, exams, and all laboratory materials to the new faculty member. We very briefly met, and I transferred electronically all the media, and we agreed to meet regularly to follow up. I received little follow-up; I could rarely find this person in the office, and when I did, the faculty member seemed to have little time for discussion.
I sent repeated emails asking the new faculty member to meet, and discuss the course in question. The new faculty member would come in late, and leave early, and did not seem eager to meet. A fatal attribution error (FAE) by me, was that I assumed this was due to personality defects. I later learned, that this new faculty member had a previous cerebral hemorrhagic stroke, and was still caring for their children and going to physical rehabilitation.
My FAE was principally due to my internal assessment. Given the effort in the history of the course in question, I had many emotions. Having little conversation with the new faculty member, I relied on erroneous schemata. My assumption was, that this individual was unwilling to ensure the continued success of the course. I learned subsequently, the struggles this faculty member faced and realized my assessment was erroneous. Once this person was teaching the course, we interacted more frequently and worked cooperatively.
According to Aronson et al. (2019), our initial impressions of individuals are formed within less than one second (p. 91). I initially relied on dispositional attribution and had no awareness of the faculty members situation. Dispositional or internal attribution is a common method in which we apply schemata, and stereotypes to quickly assess an individual (p. 99). After about a week of my negative attribution towards this faculty member, I found myself considering what situation may have determined my initial impressions, leading to my FAE. Such reassessments have been described, and initial attributions reevaluated within a similar time-frame (Burger 1991, p. 186).
In my particular case, I decided I would find a way to sit down with this individual and discuss my concerns. In doing so, I learned of the incredible struggles the new faculty member faced, following a debilitating hemorrhagic stroke requiring physical rehabilitation. This led to a change in career emphasis from practicing surgeon to medical educator, all while being a single parent to two needy elementary school children. Given the situation, my assessment in attribution of this individual completely changed. This experience clearly demonstrates the need to consider situational attribution, despite the tendency to rely on dispositional assessments. The lesson here was clear. While I used a default position on initial assessment, understanding the situation would have been more productive (Aronson et al 2019, p. 101).
Compounding my initial FAE was my emotional involvement with this course that I had developed. Coleman (2012) points out that the degree of emotional involvement, influences schema on FAE (p. 79). This contributed to my initial FAE. Once I understood the situation, I was able to dismiss my emotional involvement, and my disposition changed. We worked together despite the time constraints. I was able to adapt to the needs, and situation of the new faculty member and the course was ready on time.
In summary, FAE’s are most often rapid and dispositional, relying on shortcuts like schemata, and stereotypes. This implies that FAE’s are most often a failure to consider situational attribution. Emotional involvement and proximity to the initiating attribution are also influential. Emotion tends to reinforce disposition, where time from the initial attributional event tends to decrease its perceived accuracy.
Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., Akert, R. M., & Sommers, S. R. (Eds.) (2019). Social Psychology (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Burger, J. M. (1991). Changes in attributions over time: The ephemeral fundamental attribution error. Social Cognition, 9(2), 182–193. https://doi-org.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/10.1521/soco.19184.108.40.206
Coleman, M. D. (2013). Emotion and the ultimate attribution error. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 32(1), 71–81. https://doi-org.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/10.1007/s12144-013-9164-7