The Double Edged Sword of Attribution Biases

Publicado em : 01/04/2016

Autor : Kate Horton*

Research in social psychology has often shown that individuals are prone to making intergroup biases, valuing their own group above other groups. In a study of attribution behavior amongst police officers we found that; i) officers showed a tendency to make group-favoring attributions when confronted with stakeholder critique, and; ii) these attributions had important effects on personal, group-level and inter-group outcomes.

In 2010 I began to work on the Composite project (, an EU-funded project that focused on organizational change in police forces across Europe. As part of this project, we interviewed 148 police officers in 9 European countries about their experiences within the profession and, in particular, their relationships with external stakeholders, especially citizens and the media. When we asked officers about their responses to stakeholder critique, interesting patterns emerged in the way they responded.  Officers displayed classic tendencies for ingroup serving and outgroup derogating responses – attributing negative (ingroup) officer behavior to situational factors – outside their control, while attributing (outgroup) stakeholder critique to the ignorance and perniciousness of citizen and media stakeholders. Common explanations for the critique included the ‘excessive demands’ (on the police) and the ‘high number of operations’, which they laid to blame for many of the negative police actions. At the same time, the stakeholders were typically perceived as ‘manipulative,’ ‘unprofessional’, and intent on harming the police at every opportunity.

Of course, such self and group-serving biases are critical in allowing individuals to maintain positive esteem and protect themselves from external threat and criticism. Indeed, in the case of the police officers in our sample, such attribution biases were somewhat ‘functional’ in allowing officers to maintain a positive identity. However, we found that such explanations of external critique were also associated with a number of less favorable outcomes. For starters by dismissing critique out of hand, officers showed little inclination to learn from the (valid) criticism of external groups or ameliorate any prevailing deficiencies. Collective learning and development within the profession necessarily suffered as a result. Moreover, stakeholder relations were visibly strained by common rhetoric, which cast citizens and the media in ‘outgroup’ terms. Such dynamics are hardly beneficial for a profession whose very existence depends on its acceptance as a legitimate societal institution.

This study has interesting implications for police managers – in particular in relation to the delicate balance between maintaining officer morale and managing stakeholder relations more effectively. Yet, we believe the findings hold broader relevance for workers, organizations and society more generally. As individuals and groups, we are all prone to such intergroup biases, valuing similar ‘ingroup’ members more highly than unfamiliar / dissimilar ‘outgroup’ members. Yet by yielding to such biases, we fail to challenge our ingrained assumptions or learn from alternative perspectives. In addition, we perpetuate prevailing intergroup divisions that divide us from other groups within our organization and from external stakeholders. By doing so, we miss the opportunity to embrace more inclusive and multifaceted work and organizational identities.  

The Composite project was funded by the European Commission as part of its FP7 program. 
This article is based on a shortened paper that appeared in the Academy of Management Proceedings (2015), DOI: 10.5465/AMBPP.2015.91. 

*Kate Horton is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco Brazil, and a Research Associate at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands