Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fundamental Attribution Error and Age


       Researchers Jennifer Stanley and Fredda Blanchard-Fields of Georgia Institute of Technology utilized the fundamental attribution error for the basis of their study to prove their hypothesis that “older adults tend to exhibit the correspondence bias to a greater extent than young adults” (link). The fundamental attribution error, or correspondence bias (as they call it in the publication) is the tendency to attribute people’s behaviors to their personality without appropriately weighing the influence of the situation. 
      The article begins by discussing the tendency to make dispositional judgments more often as we age. Stanley and Blanchard-Fields explain that these social judgments might be a result of their reliance on what they already know and less of a desire to put forth a greater cognitive effort than young adults in regards to explaining behaviors. Another explanation they suggest is the possibility that they are simply not able to devote the cognitive energy to correct or change their initial dispositional attributions. The researchers state their hypotheses as follows:
First, replicating past research, we expected older adults would be more dispositionally biased than young adults. Second, we expected that older adults would hold greater attitude– behavior consistency beliefs than their younger counterparts. And third, we expected age differences in beliefs about 
other’s behavior to predict age differences in the correspondence bias above and beyond age differences in cognitive abilities or cognitive style.
      The research method was a culmination of information gathered from participant questionnaires about their beliefs regarding behaviors followed by a correspondence bias task two weeks later. The young adults that participated in the study were 17 to 26 year old undergrad students. The older adults were members of senior centers ranging from 60 to 84 years old. The study began with participants rating how challenging it would be to behave against their beliefs in a variety of situations. Two weeks later, the same participants were asked to take part in a unrelated study to test the correspondence bias. They were asked to read four essays and decipher the writer’s actual position on the issue presented. The essays were titled For Abortion Rights, Opposed to Abortion Rights, For Capital Punishment, and Opposed to Capital Punishment. The participants were told that the writers were instructed to write these essays regardless of their own beliefs as a testament to their ability to construct strong arguments and reasoning in regards to social issues. Participants then engaged in another questionnaire regarding the essays and the how authentic the authors point of view truly was. 
       As the researchers suggested, older adults proved to have stronger dispositional attributions than the younger participants. The body of older adults also believed that it was difficult for people to act against (or in this case--write against) their beliefs. In regards to the involvement of cognition in the correspondence bias, the researchers did not find a link between cognitive abilities and age. The essay continues by discussing the reason for age differences in beliefs. The researchers suggest that as we age we are less often put in situations in which we are required to behave against our beliefs. Young adults are more likely to change their beliefs as they are forming their own set of values. Ultimately, Stanley and Blanchard- Fields’ research proved that older adults were more biased than young adults in regards to the fundamental attribution error. 
        This study proved the researcher’s main hypothesis but I wonder what factors effect this fundamental attribution error aside from age. I would be interested to know more about why older adults thought that the authors couldn't separate the assigned writing from their actual opinions. Is it simply because the older adults felt so connected with their system of beliefs? Or are there more factors than the researchers have accounted for? There is a level of accountability that must remain intact-- regardless of the perceived situational or dispositional attributions. People should take accountability for their actions and all aspects of reasoning should be used when attempting to understand the behaviors of others. 

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