The Fundamental Attribution Error: Social Inference of Service Outcomes

Elizabeth Cowley, University of New South Wales
[ to cite ]:
Elizabeth Cowley (2002) ,"The Fundamental Attribution Error: Social Inference of Service Outcomes", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 327-328.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 327-328


Elizabeth Cowley, University of New South Wales

Consumers often find themselves observing the behavior of others in service settings, as so many of these settings are shared and include a waiting period. Evidence from social psychology indicates that when observing the behavior of others, we spontaneously infer the cause of the behavior. Although we could infer the cause to be the result of either the situation surrounding the event or the disposition of the person involved, we tend to attribute dispositionally. This tendency to overlook situational factors when explaining another person’s behavior is called the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). Since consumers may use their interpretation of an observed encounter between a service provider and another consumer when forming expectations and evaluating their own encounter, it is important to understand the attributional process of consumers in a shared service setting.

The objectives of the research presented here are: 1] to establish whether consumers make the FAE during the social inference process when observing a service encounter of another consumer, 2] to ascertain whether the error is made more frequently when observing the behavior of a service provider or a consumer, 3] to identify when the inferences are made spontaneously, and 4] to determine whether there are individual differences in the tendency to infer dispositionally.

Krull, Loy, Lin, Wang, Chen and Zhao (1999) have proposed a model for the social inference process. In the model there are three stages, behavioral interpretation, initial inference and revision. Importantly, all three stages are affected by individual difference variables, and cognitive and motivational factors, which are accessible during the inference generation process. This allows for the moderation of the process by both person and situation variables.

The person variable used here is idiocentric versus allocentric orientation, which reflects the collectivist-individualist dimension (Hofstede 1980) at a psychological level. Idiocentric people have been shown to be more likely to make dispositional inferences (Duff and Newman 1997). The situation variable used here is whether the actor being observed is a consumer or a service provider. When the observer is dependent on the actor, their need to predict the actor’s behaviour increases, resulting in a stronger dispositional bias (Gilbert and Malone 1995; Miller, Norman and Wright 1978). As consumers observe the service outcomes of other consumers they may use the information to predict the outcome of their own encounter. This outcome dependence may result in a greater suseptibility to the FAE toward service providers.

The hypotheses to be tested in the study are that people dispositionally attribute when observing service providers more often than when observing consumers. Also, that there will be an interaction between idiocentricsm and the situation, such that highly idiocentric people will be most likely to attribute dispositionally when observing the behavior of a service provider. Finally, that the dispositional inference will be spontaneous when observing an encounter focusing on a service provider. Spontaneous attributions occur in the early stages of the social inference process. If an attribution is spontaneous it should occur regardless of the encoding instruction (Bargh 1989; 1990). Spontaneous attributions should also be retrieved from memory more quickly when primed with a dispositional prime compared to a situational prime.

A 3 x 2 x 2 x 2 mixed design was used for the study. The between subject factors were encoding instruction (impression formation, memorize, read and pay attention), and orientation (high idiocentric, low idiocentric). The within subject factors were recognition prime (trait prime, situation prime), and actor (consumer, service provider). Subjects saw 14 statements describing service encounters. After a filler task, response times were recorded during a recognition task. Each statement was preceded with either a trait or situation prime. The speed with which a subject responds to a target statement is used as an indication of whether a spontaneous inference was generated at encoding, as primes corresponding with the inference should facilitate recognition. Next, subjects were then asked direct questions about whether the situation or the disposition of the individual involved in the encounter was responsible for the service outcome. Finally, subjects were asked to complete to the Idiocentricism Measure (Triandis, Bontempo, Villareal, Asai and Lucca 1988). The score was used in a median split to form two groups: high idiocentrics and low idiocentrics.

The data revealed that both high and low idiocentric participants were more likely to infer that the personality traits of the service providers were responsible for the service outcomes than the situation. Both groups, however, did not make the FAE when asked about the observed situations involving consumers. The pattern of results is the same across all instruction conditions.

The second hypothesis states that the dispositional inferences made when observing service providers will be spontaneous. If the inference is spontaneous, it should occur even in conditions where subjects were not asked to form an impression of the cause of the event (read and pay attention, and memorize conditions). Both high and low idiocentric subjects were quicker to respond to the recognition question with the trait prime compared to the situational prime when asked about the service provider, but not the consumer. The interaction with instruction condition was not significant. This suggests that subjects spontaneously inferred that the service provider was responsible for the outcome of the service encounter regardless of their idiocentric orientation. Apparently, a fundamental Fundamental Attribution Error.


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