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Attribution Theory and Intercultural Communication An Analysis of Attribution Theory as a Dividing or Uniting Force Jan Whitehouse COM 4461 University of Central Florida
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Introduction The purpose of this paper is to examine attribution theory in application to intercultural communication and its particular importance with regard to intercultural understanding and avoidance of conflict. This analysis will have three main goals: first, to examine how negative attribution can adversely affect relations, second, to show how positive empathic attribution can engender positive prosocial relations between people of varying cultures, and finally, to caution against collective ethnocentric blindness to (the capacity for) error in either the negative or positive direction. The paper will address these goals under section headings, “the fractional,” “the tactical,” and “the practical,” respectively. To be clear about what is meant by attribution theory, simply put, “Attributions are our attempts to explain strangers’ behavior” (Gudykunst, 1998). Specifically, attribution is a kind of shorthand mechanism by which the human mind categorizes or assigns reasons for outcomes. Attribution theory is primarily applied to the study of individuals and interpersonal communication, but it can likewise be useful in application to ingroup/outgroup relations. Whether individually or collectively, people still tend to attribute outcomes, good or bad, based on their expectations of others. Attribution theory is a kind of offshoot of the study of stereotyping or othering. While stereotyping or othering attempt to explain who others are, attribution, usually with the same reasoning antecedents, seeks to explain the underlying causes behind what
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someone did. Paraphrasing Gudykunst (1998) as he explains the workings of attribution on an interpersonal level, the fundamental attribution error is committed when people overestimate the influence of personality traits and underestimate situational contexts that shape the observed behavior (p. 147). For example, if someone deemed “unworthy” is associated with a scandal, preexisting unfavorable judgments toward that person are “confirmed” owing to the person’s allegedly flawed character. Likewise, should that same “untrustworthy” person accomplish some worthy goal, his or her success is then, correspondingly, assigned to outside forces like luck. Such dismissals are usually accompanied with the tacit understanding that no matter what good the individual in question accomplishes, the beneficial result still does not make up for this or that offense, failing, or otherness. Furthermore, the good result is then interpreted to have happened incidentally, or even in spite of the person. These same principles can be extrapolated in application to cultures and nations. On the international and intercultural stage, outside forces and personality traits are more fittingly understood as uncontrollable and controllable scenarios. Review of the Literature
By referencing seminal studies in attribution theory, William Gudykunst in Bridging Differences: Effective intergroup communication, lists the “default settings” for attribution and examines why these tendencies can undermine effective communication on an intergroup level.
In his chapter, “An attributional approach to intergroup and international conflict”
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from Attribution Theory: Applications to achievement, health and interpersonal conflict, Hector Betancourt (1990, Graham, S., & Folkes, V.S., Eds.) uses the principles of attribution theory to explore how, by employing attribution theory in a more empathically-directed manner, cultivating excellent relationships with other cultures becomes an achievable goal.
Anne Norton (2004) provides stern counsel in 95 Theses on Politics, Culture and Method, saying that before assumptions – attributions – of any sort are made at all, that a fresh understanding of culture is warranted, in light of how permeating and inescapable culture is, providing even greater depth to Fred Jandt’s (2006) gestaltesque view of “the totality of culture” (p. 11).
In Individualism & Collectivism, Harry Triandis (1995) shows the fallacies of imposing one or the other of those lenses when making attributions. Echoing the individualist/collectivist understanding and the pitfalls of misreading each other are Ronald Scollon and Suzanne Wong Scollon, as they talk about the solidarity or lumping fallacies. They warn against even positive misattribution.
It is important to start out by noting that attributing behavior is not, in and of itself, always a wrong or bad thing. There is an inherent tendency to make judgments, however partial, tenuous – or altogether unfounded – they may be in reality, in an effort to provide a sense of equilibrium and stability. Humans naturally categorize and organize experiences of others’ behavior. The need to acquire reasonably reliable expectations of others’ behavior was and still is to a great extent, a necessary survival skill.
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Later in the paper, positive applications of attribution theory will be discussed, but first we must take stock of how a combination of being under-informed and overly reliant on attribution can create disastrous effects on budding relationships. The Fractional In interpreting the behavior of another group, one group will often personalize outcomes. For example, a Japanese economist or CEO might perceive a U.S. establishment of a tax on imports as a punitive measure against their economy, when the actual motivation may be to increase revenues (Betancourt, 1990, p. 207). Negative attributions yield the unfortunate result of damaging relationships between people before they even start. As this paper is being written, the results from the recent presidential elections in Iran are being hotly contested. Judgment as to the legitimacy of the election is being deferred, pending a final determination, but it is likely that in the event Mr. Ahmandinijad prevails over Mr. Mousavi, his victory will undoubtedly be perceived by the west (and others opposed to his rule) to have been the result of falsification, coercion or propaganda. At present, the U.S. is awaiting further, more credible, results in a delicate dance to avoid reinforcing the Middle Eastern perception of America as being heavy-handed and meddlesome. For the U.S. to prematurely cry foul over this election would very likely reignite unhelpful animosities Iranians have which date back to the U.S.’s part in the overthrow of the democraticallyelected Shah, especially in light of the recent reference to this event by the President in his speech in Cairo.
Misapplied attribution can provide fertile soil for fostering prejudice, and we see
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that when it comes to intercultural/international affairs, the wrong move can potentially cost many lives and rend asunder initially promising negotiations. People and their ingroups are never free of biases, but increased awareness of bias tendencies can prove to be helpful signposts.
William Gudykunst (1998) summarizes five biases that affect our attributional process (quoted, but presented in bullet-point format here): • We have a tendency to overestimate the influence of personal dispositions and underestimate the influence of situational factors when we make attributions about strangers’ behavior. This is called the fundamental attribution error [previously discussed above]. • There is an egocentric bias – our tendency to see our own behaviors as normal and appropriate. • We use an ego-protective bias when we tend to attribute our success to personal dispositions and our failures to situational factors. • We tend to stop searching for interpretations of behaviors once we have relevant and reasonable interpretations (premature closure) • We have a tendency to over-emphasize negative information about strangers’ behaviors (principle of negativity). (p. 147, 148) The Tactical
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Attribution theory, if positively applied, has potential to be a helpful tool in redressing mistaken assumptions and even bring about constructive, restorative discourse between cultures.
In application to international-intercultural conflicts, Hector Betancourt (1990) discusses how attributing a country’s negative action to uncontrollable causes would result in more positive and less negative feelings and a higher likelihood of cooperation with that country in a conflict situation than attributing the same action to more controllable causes. In a similar manner, attributing a positive action to controllable causes would result in more positive feelings and higher likelihood of cooperation than attributing it to less controllable causes (p. 207–211). The possible outcome-to-attribution scenarios can be a bit confusing; perhaps this table might be helpful.
Motivation/cause of an action/outcome resulting in (perceived as) uncontrollable (perceived as) negative
x/y feelings toward outgroup
positive, empathy still possible negative, empathy compromised varies according to existing empathy or animosity for the outgroup, e.g., luck, deserving, fluke, etc. reinforces positive stereotype, increases empathy or admiration, but may create unreasonable expectations for
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Betancourt (1990) goes on to talk about an attribution-empathy model, saying, “[An] empathic perspective increases pro-social behavior in two ways. First, it elicits empathic emotions, which in turn influence pro-social motivation. Second, it influences perceived controllability of attributions, which influences pro-social behavior both directly and through increased levels of empathic emotions. [Therefore,] empathy is a powerful factor in inducing cooperation and reducing conflict” (p. 211, 212).
An axiom of Gudykunst’s intercultural adaptation theory (1988), as outlined by Asante and Gudykunst in Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication (1989), states: “An increase in strangers’ attributional confidence regarding members of other group’s behavior will produce an increase in their intergroup adaptation and effectiveness” (Asante, Gudykunst, p. 26).
One can see that these interpersonal dynamics are easily transferable to intergroup interactions. Developing “attributional confidence” or empathy in a culture-to-culture exchange needs some careful thinking – not only to think before speaking/attributing, but to consider in as much depth as possible, who others are. To cultivate a genuine, empathic attributional approach may well require a drastic reworking of how interculturalists think about culture itself.
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Anne Norton (2004) insists that treating the concept of culture as a variable, as one aspect of a society to be considered along with legal, academic, or religious institutions, is intellectually wanting; she prefers to compare culture to a matrix. In her own Lutherian declaration, à la the theologian’s 95 Theses, she nails this to a postmodern door:
The old thesis ‘culture is a network of meaning’ … can be misleading. Understanding culture as meaning alone conceals the linkages between discourse and policy, between semiotics and material conditions. Culture is not a ‘dependent’ or ‘independent’ variable. Culture is not a variable at all. The practice of taking culture as a variable, occasionally offered as an exhortation to methodological rigor, is the work of ignorance. Differences…in the construction, practices, and discourses of particular cultures, are erased or elided. The syncretic character of cultures is similarly erased or elided. The difference between the cultures is presumed at the outset, concealing points of commonality and reifying a possibly unjustified distinction [emphasis added]. Research into points of intersection, exchange and circulation – trade relations, intellectual exchanges, the transmission of practices and texts, the borrowing of institutions and rituals – is foreclosed. (pp. 1-4)
Norton realizes the fundamental question, “What is culture?” must be asked, and, paraphrasing, follows by asking if there is anything outside of culture, determining that, no, nothing is outside of culture. Our endeavors to study culture are themselves
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undertakings conducted within culture (p. 5). Perhaps, as demanding as it may be to bear all this in mind, such careful attention to realizing one’s own – or a society’s own – embeddedness within culture, the unavoidable mesh of it, can help to begin the untangling of ethnocentrism.
Jandt (2007) echoes this assertion in a more fundamental fashion when he speaks about the totality of culture: “the totality of that group’s thought, experiences, and patterns of behavior and its concepts, values, and assumptions about life that guide behavior – and how those evolve with contact with other cultures” (p. 7 ). The Practical Triandis (1995) argues for a kind of elementary empathy through his focus on collectivistic and individualistic cultural differences. Triandis advises, “Collectivists need to learn that individualists are likely to stress internal causes of behavior; individualists need to understand that collectivists…are more likely to stress external causes of behavior (p. 187). His simplistic but helpful treatise is an example of the kind of either/or variable Ms. Norton decries. Norton, in her lucid understanding of the syncretism of cultures, would presumably point out that the many easily imaginable exceptions and blurring of lines are not outliers, but rather are proof of the need for perceiving culture as a multi-dimensional matrix, as shown previously. Husband and wife Linguistics professors, Ron Scollon and Suzanne Wong Scollon were (Ron is deceased) a microcosm of East meets West and as such, had unique insight into the potential pitfalls of overestimating the positive aspects of the out-group.
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By discussing related concepts such as the “solidarity fallacy” and the “lumping fallacy,” they alert even the most sensitive to assumptions, and therefore, attributions, one is liable to make. The solidarity fallacy, according to the Scollons (2001), can be drawn from an understandable but problematic conclusion, as one observer made while comparing collectivist, relationship-oriented Chinese of both sexes with American women, who are likewise, as compared with their male counterparts, considered – like the Chinese – to be relationship-oriented. The solidarity fallacy occurs when one mistakenly concludes “that because there is common ground on this single dimension, there will be commonality across all of the cultural characteristics of these two groups…ignoring the major differences between their groups” (p. 173). Expanding on that, the Scollons explain that when two or more groups are grouped together, for example, “when westerners consider all Asians to be members of the same group, without taking into consideration the major differences among these groups, this [is] the lumping fallacy. In both cases, [erroneous] positive or negative stereotyping occurs” (p. 174). They determine that, Whether stereotyping [or its causal cousin, attribution] is positive or negative in intent, it should be clear that it stands in the way of successful communication because it blinds the analyst to major areas of difference. The perennial paradoxical situation of the analyst of intercultural communication is that he or she must constantly look for areas of difference between people which
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will potentially lead to miscommunication, but at the same time he or she must constantly guard against both positive and negative stereotyping (p.174). Conclusion As the Scollons caution, important as it may be to redress wrongs, it is prudent to remember that damaged relationships, from an intercultural perspective, can result from errant judgments of positive, just as they can from negative, attributions and associated stereotyping, othering, lumping or misplaced solidarity. There can be disastrous consequences between nations and cultures when attributions are skewed too far – in either direction. Finally, where attribution is concerned, it is prudent to remember that “words [and likewise, causes for behaviors] have the capacity to contain…constellations of meaning. Those who seek to obtain a single, exact, and unvarying definition for terms [and again, behaviors]…will find themselves engaged in a futile enterprise” (Norton, 2004, p. 5).
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References Asante, M. K., Gudykunst, W. B., & Newmark, E. (1989). Handbook of international and intercultural communication. Newbury Park, Calif: Sage Publications.
Betancourt, Hector. (1990). An attributional approach to intergroup and international conflict. In Graham, S., & Folkes, V.S. (Eds.) Attribution Theory: Applications to achievement, health and interpersonal conflict. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Gudykunst, William B. (1998). Bridging differences: Effective intergroup communication. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.
Jandt, Fred E. (2006). An introduction to intercultural communication: Identities in a global community. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publications.
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Norton, Anne. (2004). 95 theses on politics, culture and method. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Scollon, Ronald, Scollon, Suzanne Wong. (2001) Intercultural communication. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.
Triandis, Harry C. (1995) Individualism and collectivism. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, a member of the Perseus Book Group.
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