Social Roles And Their Effect On Perceived Intelligence Psychology Essay

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Attribution has been defined as the process by which people make judgements about themselves and other people. Fritz Heider (1958), coined the phrase ‘attribution theory’. Heider concluded that people make attributions about people’s behaviour based either on their internal disposition or on their external situations. In some cases the attributions may be correct but in others, one might be falling into an attribution ‘trap’ (Myers, 2007). According to Mezulis, Abramson, Hyde and Hankin (2004) people have a tendency to distort their own behaviour by attributing their successes to personal factors whilst attributing their failures to situational factors. This tendency is known as the Self-serving Bias. Another error in attribution, is the Fundamental Attribution Error. It is a term coined by Ross in 1977. Ross concluded that when making this error, one attributes too much to personality and too little to the influence of situations and circumstance. The Fundamental Attribution Error has been well documented in various studies.

In 1967, Jones and Harris had participants listen to pro and anti-Castro speeches. Participants were then asked to rate how pro-Castro the speech maker was. When told that the speech makers had been assigned their roles, participants still rated ‘pro-Castro’ speech makers as being pro-Castro and vice versa. In a study by Napolitan and Goethals (1979), an attractive woman was instructed to talk to participants. She either acted aloof and critical, or warm and friendly. Half of the people she spoke to were told that she had been given instructions on how to act. When the participants were asked to say whether the woman was a cold or a warm person, the extra information had no effect. Participants ignored the fact that the woman’s behaviour was situational and still attributed her behaviour to her personal disposition.

In 1977, Ross, Amabile and Steinmetz conducted and experiment where people were randomly assigned roles of Questioner (Q), Contestant (C) and Observer (O). C then answered difficult general knowledge questions set by Q. The quiz was observed by O. All three roles then had to rate the general knowledge of C and Q. The outcome was that both C’s and O’s rated the Q’s as having better general knowledge than the C’s. The Q’s rated themselves as having the same level of general knowledge as the C’s. Interestingly, the O’s rated the Q’s higher than the C’s even though they knew that the Q’s set the questions. The O’s repeatedly attributed the Q’s knowing more of the answers to internal factors than the obvious situational factor.

Subsequently, the 1977 Ross, Amabile and Steinmetz experiment has been replicated. This time, however, participants were asked to rate each other’s intelligence instead of general knowledge. The experiment also limits itself to the ratings of the Observers. The other ratings are available but have not been included here. The study aims to show that due to the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), the Observers will ignore the fact that the Questioners set the questions (situational factor) and will attribute a higher level of intelligence to the Questioner simply because of the perceived internal disposition.

The experimental hypothesis leads to the directional prediction that the Observers will rate the Questioners as more intelligent than the Contestants.


Researchers at Middlesex University set out to test the FAE by conducting an experiment with first year psychology students. In this section the details of the experiment are described.


Overall there were 191 PSY1012 students at Middlesex University who took part in a research methods class as part of a course requirement. Participants participated in groups of approximately 30 – 40.


Participants used a pen and paper to write down the ten general knowledge questions. Answers were written on the same page and marked by the Observer and Questioner using the same pen and paper. Participants used an additional piece of paper to rate the intelligence.


The experiment had a one-tailed, repeated measures design. The independent variable was the role being rated and had two levels (Contestant and Questioner). The roles of the participants were decided voluntarily. The dependent variable was the ratings of intelligence which was measured on a scale of between 1 and 100. Participants were told that the average student studying psychology at Middlesex University has an intelligence of 50 on this particular scale.


All instructions were standardized and given verbally by the Experimenter. Participants were told to arrange themselves into groups of three. They then had to assign themselves as either numbers one, two or three. They were then told that number ‘one’ was the Questioner and had to generate ten general knowledge questions. Number ‘two’ was to be the Contestant and answer the questions set by the Questioner. Number ‘three’ was to be the Observer and observe numbers ‘one’ and ‘two’. Questioner took time to generate the questions, making sure that they kept secret from the Contestant. The questions were then presented to the Contestant who attempted to answer them. The Observer and Questioner then marked the answers and gave the Contestant a score out of ten. The Experimenter then instructed the participants to privately rate each of the roles’ intelligence. The papers were collected by the Experimenter. After this, the experiment ended. When the data was analysed, only the ratings of the Observer were taken into account.


Table 1 indicates that when only the Observers’ ratings were analysed (N=67), the mean and standard deviations of the Observers’ ratings of Questioners’ intelligence were higher than that of Contestants’.

Table 1: The means, standard deviations, minimum and maximum scores for the Observers’ ratings of Intelligence for the Questioners and Contestants.

Rating of Questioner’s Intelligence

Rating of Contestant’s Intelligence










Standard Deviation






A paired samples (repeated measures) t- test showed that the Observers’ rated the Questioners’ intelligence higher than that of the Contestants’ [t(66)= 4.98, p<0.05].


The results are consistent with the experimental hypothesis: The Observers rated the Questioners as having higher intelligence than the Contestants. This is consistent with previous research of attribution (Jones and Harris, 1967; Napolitan and Goethals, 1979), and more specifically; provides more evidence to the theory of the Fundamental Attribution Error (Ross, Amabile and Steinmetz, 1977). It indicates that even though people are given indisputable facts about the situation and how intelligence is presented, they choose to ignore it and still attribute intelligence to internal factors.

There is no universally accepted explanation of the Fundamental Attribution Error but there are however, some hypotheses regarding the cause of it: Just-World hypothesis, Salience of the Actor and Lack of Effortful Adjustment. The Just-World Hypothesis was first theorized by Melvin Lerner (1977) and is the belief that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Salience of the Actor is explained by how people observe others. The person becomes the primary reference point and the situation is overlooked as just background (Smith and Miller, 1979). Lack of Effortful Adjustment involves the necessity for people to make deliberate and conscious efforts to take the situational factors into account. It is demonstrated by Gilbert (1989) when his study showed that people commit the FAE more regularly when they lacked motivation and energy.

The data of this study could be influenced by the fact that participants knew each other. Even though the ratings were anonymous, people’s preconceived ideas of their colleagues’ intelligence could have influenced the data. In replication, it could be interesting to have a repeated measures design where participants are rated by strangers as well as colleagues, and the scores then compared.

Publishing experiments like this one can lead to providing people with more ‘debiasing’ techniques. People can become more aware of the situational factors by perhaps asking themselves how they would react in the same situation or by making a deliberate attempt to look for unseen causes or factors. This could prove helpful in all areas of decision making, problem solving and interpersonal relationships.


Heider, F. (1958).The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Jones, E. E. & Harris, V. A. (1967). ‘The attribution of attitudes’.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, p.1-24.

Lerner, M. J. & Miller, D. T. (1977). ‘Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead’.Psychological Bulletin.85. p. 1030-1051.

Mezulis, A. M., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S. & Hankin, B.L. (2004). ‘Is there a universal positivity bias in attributions? A meta-analytic review of individual, developmental, and cultural differences in the self-serving attributional bias’. Psychological Bulletin. 130. p. 738.

Myers, D. G. (2007). Psychology. (8th ed). United States of America: Worth Publishers.

Napolitan, D. A. & Goethals, G. R. (1979). ‘The attribution of friendliness’. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 15. p. 724.

Ross, L. (1977). ‘The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process’. Advances in experimental social psychology. 10. p.173-220.

Ross, L. D., Amabile, T. M. & Steinmetz, J. L. (1977). ‘Social Roles, Social Controls, and Biases in Social-Perception Processes.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 35. (7). p. 485-494.

Smith, E. R., & Miller, F. D. (1979). ‘Salience and the cognitive appraisal in emotion’.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 48. p. 813-838.

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