When someone cuts you off in traffic, some choice words probably instantly spring to mind about the driver. You assume the person is either a bad driver, inconsiderate, rude, or worse. But what if it turns out the driver was in a hurry because his wife has just gone into labor with their first child?
Lacking such an external explanation for the driver’s behavior, most of us will make the classic “fundamental attribution error,” the idea that we are most likely to explain a person’s behavior in terms of “an attribution that’s fundamental to their character,” says Joe Moran of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center. “In effect, the situational force that caused the person’s behavior is invisible to us, and we default to interpreting behavior in terms of the person’s dispositions.”
Most research on the fundamental attribution error has been in the realm of social psychology, but Moran wanted to take a cognitive neuroscience approach to the topic. While a postdoctoral student at Harvard in Jason Mitchell’s lab, he undertook to understand the neural behavior underlying when someone makes the error. They wanted to test the hypothesis that the fundamental attribution error is the result of spontaneously thinking about others’ mental states.
CNS talked with Moran about his recent study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, which found that small regions of the brain that are responsible for how we envision the mental states of others predict when we make the fundamental attribution error.
Moran: We became interested in this topic from a cognitive neuroscience standpoint because we feel that cognitive neuroscience is well-placed to provide explanations of this phenomenon at the level of the mechanisms responsible for it happening. We know from a lot of prior research that a particular brain network – the “default mode network” – is active both when we consider the mental states of other people and when we are free to quietly rest. What if this network’s function is to help us gravitate spontaneously towards the mental states of others? After all, it makes good sense from an evolutionary standpoint for us to be both exquisitely aware of and attuned to the mental states of others.
What if the fundamental attribution error is just a byproduct of us having this fantastically adaptive system that defaults to converting observed behavior into models of the underlying mental states of the person who made that behavior? This was the question that drove our interest in performing this research.
CNS: In general, what do we know about why this fundamental attribution error occurs?
Moran: The prevailing view in psychology is that we automatically gravitate towards the dispositional explanation, and only if we have sufficient motivation or processing resources – i.e., we’re not distracted by something else – do we then correct that attribution by considering how the situation might have contributed to the behavior.
CNS: Were you surprised by any of the findings, and, if so, which ones?
Moran: Not drastically – the most surprising finding was that across the whole brain such a remarkably small set of regions, including the medial prefrontal cortex, predicted whether perceivers would later make dispositional attributions about people they read about. In this analysis, any region of the brain could have emerged, so in that sense, it was surprising that such a small set of regions emerged.
CNS: What was the significance of the activation of the medial prefrontal cortex in some subjects?
Moran: In our main analysis, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) activation predicted which participants would later make dispositional attributions: that is, when reading the exact same stories, some participants would later say that the person’s behavior was caused by their disposition, and other participants would later say that the person’s behavior was caused by the situation. Our analysis was able to say that those participants who had high activity in this brain region during this time would later provide a dispositional attribution.
In theory, we could acquire a baseline measure of MPFC activity in one participant, present them with stories like these, and predict with a relatively high degree of confidence whether they will later make a dispositional attribution before they ever actually make that response.
This is not what we did here – we did the analysis retrospectively, looking after the fact about whether there were patterns in brain activity across many different trials that reliably occurred before a dispositional versus situational attribution.
CNS: How did this work differ from past work on the subject?
Moran: Very little work in social neuroscience has addressed this problem directly. One notable exception, a 2005 paper in NeuroImage by Lasana Harris, Alex Todorov and Susan Fiske, demonstrated that MPFC was more active in conditions which typically make the fundamental attribution error more likely. They did not investigate, however, how this region, and indeed the rest of the brain, responded when people actually committed the fundamental attribution error.
Tobias Brosch et al., in SCAN this year, showed that a different brain region – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – becomes more active when we consider the situational explanation and later go with a situational attribution. Because this region is often considered to be involved in cognitive control, Brosch et al. concluded that this might be the neural substrate of the controlled thinking required to correct our initial dispositional attributions.
CNS: What are the general implications of this work?
Moran: This work serves as a reminder to consider alternative explanations for someone else’s behavior. Perhaps we can take a deep breath and try to imagine what situational forces caused someone to act like a jerk. After all, if we were in their shoes, we’d probably have a good understanding of why they acted that way. It is easy to see ourselves committing the fundamental attribution error, and others doing so in everyday life, but harder to take the time to take the perspective of others. Beyond the neuroscience data and the fact that the level of analysis in our study is the brain, I think a good take home point is that we might have a cognitive system designed to rapidly, efficiently and automatically understand others’ behavior in terms of their intentions, and that this system might lead us astray when those dispositions are in fact absent.
CNS: What are the next steps for this work?
Moran: This work serves as a first-pass chance to uncover the neural systems that bias us towards thinking of others in terms of their dispositions. Because the medial PFC was the region most closely associated with this bias, and because this region has so closely been linked to representing others’ mental states in prior work, it was simple to infer that spontaneously translating behavior into mental states could be the cause of the fundamental attribution error. However, we could do more focused work of a more causal nature.
Newer techniques in fMRI allow us to measure brain activity in real time, looking at the fluctuations across the brain as we rest. Based on those data, we can figure out when activity is naturally “high” in MPFC and naturally “low.” We can use that information to choose when to present a story. Is the fact that MPFC activity is currently “high” enough for us to bias people to more often make dispositional attributions? Do people make more situational attributions when we present a story during a phase when MPFC activity is “low”? Such data would allow us to make a stronger claim that spontaneous MPFC activation is the cause of the dispositional attributions we observed here.
Media contact: Lisa M.P. Munoz, CNS Public Information Officer,