Defensive Attribution – Definition, Examples, and Corrections

Social psychologists have demonstrated that people make tons of attribution errors. These types of errors have to do with how we explain our own and other people’s behavior. Essentially, the problem is that when we think about the causes of our own behavior we tend to take into account all of the external factors that might have caused our behavior. However, when we think about what caused other people’s behavior we tend to forget about external factors and think only about internal causes. Our tendency to do this is called the fundamental attribution error (FAE). In addition to the FAE there are other errors that we tend to make.

Car Accident Attribution Errors

Defensive Attribution Definition

The defensive attribution is our tendency to attribute a cause to events. We find it uncomfortable to think that events happen by chance or by accident. If things happen by chance, then bad things could happen to us at any time. So, we make an attribution error. This nifty little trick of our mind defends us from discomfort, hence the name.

Defensive Attribution Examples

There are many examples of times when people might make this attribution error. Typically, we think about the defesive attribution error coming up when bad events happen. This might be especially true when we witness or are close to negative events.

Car Accidents

Imagine you see a car accident on the freeway. It is likely that you will start to think about what caused the accident. You might even find yourself making a defensive attribution. Perhaps you look at the car and think that the driver must have been texting, or drunk, or even that they are just a bad driver. What you are doing is attributing the accident to some internal factor of the person in the accident. If you don’t make this kind of attribution you are faced with the possibility that accidents sometimes happen by chance. Then you would have to think about how it is possible that you could get into a car accident at any time. In order to avoid this anxiety, you attribute the accident to the driver of the car.

Natural Disasters

We don’t just make defensive attributions by blaming individual people. Sometimes we search for a cause in seemingly random world events. The recent Northern California wildfires are a great example of how people desperately search for a cause of random events. Many news outlets have written articles that lay out the possible causes of these fires. The reason it is so popular to write articles like this, is that people feel better when they have a concrete cause for world events. It is much easier to accept that the fires were caused by faulty power lines than it is to think that sometimes wildfires just happen.

Defensive Attribution Research

Many researchers have looked at how the defensive attribution plays out in a psychology lab. The first person to look at this phenomenon was a psychologist, Walster, in 1966. He hypothesized that people make defensive attributions because it can be fear provoking to think that misfortune can happen randomly. Walster proposed that people make this attribution error as a way to manage their emotional reactions.

Shaver’s Hypothesis 1970

In 1970 researchers conducted a controlled study in an attempt to replicate Walster’s findings. They invited participants into a lab and looked at how likely people were to assign blame to a driver in a car accident. The researchers published three studies in one article, because they were investigating three things:

  1. Attribution of responsibility for the accident
  2. How attributions change depending on the severity of the accident
  3. How attributions change based on the probability of the accident

Defensive Attribution Research

Contrary to Walster’s findings, Shaver found that people were not very likely to attribute responsibility for car accidents to the person driving. They found that the more similar the driver seemed to the participant, the less likely they were to blame the driver for the accident. Also, the more likely an event was to happen the less likely the participants were to blame drivers. Finally, the more severe the accident the less likely they were to blame the driver. Researchers concluded that above all participants were concerned with avoiding blame for the accident. This does not disprove the defensive attribution. In fact, people might be trying to defend themselves from blame rather than randomness. However, it does indicate conflicting ideas about the defensive attribution.


In order to flesh out the conflicting findings about the defensive attribution, researcher conducted a meta-analysis. They looked at 22 studies that all had to do with how people assign blame to a driver in a car accident. Results revealed that overall people attributed more responsibility to the driver when the accident was more severe. This indicates support for the defensive attribution.

Researchers also found that attributions had to do with perceived similarities between the driver and participants. If you think that the driver or situation is similar to you, you are less likely to attribute the accident to the driver. The reason this likely happens is because people foresee that if they were in a similar situation they would not want to blamed. Therefore, they do not blame the driver. The researchers considered this a defensive attribution in its own way. Participants still looked for a cause of the event rather than thinking it was random. But, in this case the cause was not internal because participants wanted to defend themselves from possible future blame.

How to Correct the Defensive Attribution

If you are worried about falling into these defensive patterns, there are a number of ways that you can try to combat them. Many of the ways that you can reduce the likelihood you can reduce these attributions have to do with mindfulness.

Get Comfortable With Discomfort

We make defensive attributions because it is uncomfortable to think that we live in a chaotic or random world. One way to combat this is to get comfortable with that discomfort. You might start by practicing mindfulness of the body. Notice how your body responds to this type of discomfort. See if you can just be with discomfort rather than frantically trying to push it away. You might even try to breathe through it or relax your body.

Consider Chaos

When you see misfortune in the world around you, consider the possibility that there is no one to blame. You might take a moment to think about all of the random events that might have converged to make this event happen. Rather than searching for someone or something to blame, consider the possibility that it was just a random event.

Think about External Factors

As a way to specifically combat blaming people, you might reflect on all the possible external reasons something happened. It is easy to jump to blaming the driver in an accident. But before you do, take a moment to think about road conditions, possible car failures, or freak accidents. Even if you are still looking for a cause for the event, this way you won’t jump to blaming people before you know the whole story.

People tend to put their comfort above all else. We avoid emotional discomfort and we sometimes do this by searching for patterns, cause, and meaning in randomness. When we know that we have these tendencies, we can combat them.

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