What Is Social Psychology?

IS THE FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION ERROR A UNIVERSAL PHENOMENON?

You may be able to think of examples of the fundamental attribution error in your life. Do people in all cultures commit the fundamental attribution error? Research suggests that they do not. People from an individualistic culture, that is, a culture that focuses on individual achievement and autonomy, have the greatest tendency to commit the fundamental attribution error. Individualistic cultures, which tend to be found in western countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, promote a focus on the individual. Therefore, a person’s disposition is thought to be the primary explanation for her behavior. In contrast, people from a collectivistic culture, that is, a culture that focuses on communal relationships with others, such as family, friends, and community (Figure), are less likely to commit the fundamental attribution error (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Triandis, 2001).

Three photographs show three groups of people: a family preparing a meal, a group of men sitting on a porch, and a group of women playing mahjong.
People from collectivistic cultures, such as some Asian cultures, are more likely to emphasize relationships with others than to focus primarily on the individual. Activities such as (a) preparing a meal, (b) hanging out, and (c) playing a game engage people in a group. (credit a: modification of work by Arian Zwegers; credit b: modification of work by "conbon33"/Flickr; credit c: modification of work by Anja Disseldorp)

Why do you think this is the case? Collectivistic cultures, which tend to be found in east Asian countries and in Latin American and African countries, focus on the group more than on the individual (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001). This focus on others provides a broader perspective that takes into account both situational and cultural influences on behavior; thus, a more nuanced explanation of the causes of others’ behavior becomes more likely. Table summarizes compares individualistic and collectivist cultures.

Individualistic Culture Collectivistic Culture
Achievement oriented Relationship oriented
Focus on autonomy Focus on group autonomy
Dispositional perspective Situational perspective
Independent Interdependent
Analytic thinking style Holistic thinking style
Characteristics of Individualistic and Collectivistic Cultures