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Accountability: A Social Check on the Fundamental Attribution Error

Philip E. Tetlock
Social Psychology Quarterly
Vol. 48, No. 3 (Sep., 1985), pp. 227-236
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3033683
Page Count: 10
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Accountability: A Social Check on the Fundamental Attribution Error
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Abstract

Previous attitude-attribution studies indicate that people are often quick to draw conclusions about the attitudes and personalities of others-even when plausible external or situational causes for behavior exist (an affect known as the overattribution effect or fundamental attribution error). This experiment explores whether accountability-pressures to justify one's causal interpretations of behavior to others-reduces or eliminates this bias. Subjects were exposed to an essay that supported or opposed affirmative action. They were informed that the essay writer had freely chosen or had been assigned the position he took. Finally, subjects either did not expect to justify their impressions of the essay writer or expected to justify their impressions either before or after exposure to the stimulus information. The results replicated previous findings when subjects did not feel accountable for their impressions of the essay writer or learned of being accountable only after viewing the stimulus information. Subjects attributed essay-consistent attitudes to the writer even when the writer had been assigned the task of advocating a particular position. Subjects were, however, significantly more sensitive to situational determinants of the essay writer's behavior when they felt accountable for their impressions prior to viewing the stimulus information. The results suggest that accountability eliminated the overattribution effect by affecting how subjects initially encoded and analyzed stimulus information.

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