December 30, 2010

Attributional charity

The fundamental attribution error
The fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency of people to over-value factors inside the person to explain observed behaviors of others while under-valuing the influence of factors outside the person for those behaviors. Put differently, people overestimate the importance of dispositional factors and underestimate the importance of situational factors. We do this in particular when explaining behavior of other people. When we try to explain our own behavior, especially when things did not go well, we have more consideration for situational factors.

Attributional charity
In The Lucifer Effect, Phil Zimbardo (who I also mentioned in the post Bad baskets spoil good apples) explains that situational power is most salient in novel settings, when we cannot fall back on previous guidelines. Therefore, he argues, when we try to understand unusual behavior, we should start out with a situational analysis; we should look for reasons in the situation or the system in which the person functioned. Social psychologist Lee Ross says we should practice 'attributional charity', which means "we should not start by blaming the actor for the deed but rather, being charitable, we first investigate the scene for situational determinants of the act" (source).

Solution-focused professionals attribute charitably
Solution-focused professionals, in their conversations with clients, practice attributional charity a lot. Instead of blaming the person for any abnormal or dysfunctional behaviors, an attribution is sought which is friendly and protective of the person's sense of self-worth. When a client has said or done unusual things, the solution-focused professional has much eye for the circumstances in which the behavior happened. He or she may respond by saying: "You must have had a good reason for doing (/saying) that?" Another aspect of attributional charity is the way solution-focused professionals use problem externalization interventions, which create a perspective on reality in which the person has a relationship to the problem and in which the person is not the problem and the problem is not inside the person. Also, when clients describe behaviors of their own which they fear may be abnormal, solution-focused professionals, tend to normalize that behavior by saying something like: "It is normal to be angry considering what you have been through".

Level-5 leadership: a case of attributional charity
Attributional charity often seems like a wise thing to do. In Leadership and attribution styles: does modesty work?, a concept from Jim Collins' book Good to Great is described, Level-5 leadership. This leadership style was characterized by professional will and personal modesty. Collins uses the metaphor of the window and the mirror to describe how Level 5 leaders talk about failure and success. When results are poor, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility for poor results, never blaming other people, external factors or bad luck. When results are good, they look out the window, not in the mirror, to apportion credit for the success of the company to other people, external factors and good luck. This type of attribution is the opposite of what we would normally do which would be to explain bad results by looking at the situation and good results by looking at our own qualities. Level-5 leadership seems to be a good case of attributional charity.


  1. Hi Coert, this is a wonderful and easy to understand summary. May I translate your post and use it in my seminars as handout with complete credits to you?


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