Fundamental Attribution Error, Spectrum Bias, and Repeated Observation Sensitivity in the Context of Research Integrity

Bias is an important consideration when designing, implementing, and delivering the results of scientific research.  This essay will seek to explore three common factors that could contribute to bias as it relates to my proposed research topic involving the use of text messages as a predictive variable for behavior.  First and foremost, we will explore correspondence bias (or attribution effect) and its relationship to dispositionist bias and the fundamental attribution error.  Secondly, we examine potential sources of spectrum bias and limitations on generalizing outside of the clinical environment.  Finally, we will seek to explore bias in behavioral observation as a function of observer familiarity with participants.

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“Correspondence bias (CB) refers to a tendency of the social perceiver to infer a disposition of another person that corresponds to his or her overt behavior even when the behavior is socially constrained.”  (Miyamoto & Kitayama, 2002, p. 1239)  I would suggest that any research conducted by myself would likely be biased by the persistent North American cognitive bias that favors dispositional information.  Dispositionist bias is another name for a fundamental attribution error, although the former term considered more appropriate by some social psychologists.  (Colman, 2009, p. 217)  From a behaviorist perspective, the fundamental attribution error represents “a pervasive tendency to underestimate the importance of external situational pressures and to overestimate the importance of internal motives and dispositions in interpreting the behavior of others.”  (Colman, 2009, p. 301)

Is it is fair to say that an Asian researcher, or even a research participant of that decent, would likely have little or no such bias?  “North Americans generate more dispositional inferences in explaining a behavior of another person, Asians generate more situational inferences.”  (Miyamoto & Kitayama, 2002, p. 1240)  Despite concerns about the relevance of the fundamental attribution error, the jury is still out as to whether it represents an error, a bias, or simply a cultural trait that limits our ability to generalize results outside of North American culture.  (Harvey & McGlynn, 1982)  For example, if a child sends a text message to a peer that contains the word “bored…” and research supports the generalization that the word “bored” can be found to predict maladaptive behavior… can we attribute that behavior to an attention deficit?  Or, should we attribute that boredom to the fact that the child currently resides in a controlled environment that is less than mentally stimulating?

The definition of spectrum bias is largely self-explanatory… it “describes the effect a change in patient case mix may have on the performance of a test” or study.  (Willis, 2008, p. 390)  Case in point… people who lack the economic means to receive more time-tested treatments are more likely to respond to a request for a clinical trial.

“One form of bias potentially influencing behavioral observation procedures in clinical assessment might result from observers coming to associate characteristic behaviors with target individuals over repeated observations.”  (Redfield & Paul, 1976, p. 156)  Quite simply, tenured behavioral health technicians, despite all the benefits of having experience with children in this situation, are at a measurable disadvantage when documenting behaviors of children with whom we are familiar.  I, like many of my peers, expect “certain children to act out.”  If I expect them to act out, I watch them closer.  As a result, they get caught more often.  That bias will inevitably skew the data.

Any effective research proposal should take into account all the variables that are in motion.  We should be intimately aware of our own cultural bias as it relates to fundamental attribution error.  We should seek to identify and alleviate potential sources of spectrum bias in the good faith effort to produce research that is capable of being generalized.  And finally, we should take care to measure and track all participants of a given study, not just the “designated patients.”  Anything less could potentially compromise the integrity of our research.

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Colman, A. M. (2009). Oxford dictionary of psychology (3rd ed.). Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press.

Harvey, J. H., & McGlynn, R. P. (1982, Aug). Matching words to phenomena: The case of the fundamental attribution error. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(2), 345-346. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.43.2.345

Miyamoto, Y., & Kitayama, S. (2002, Nov). Cultural variation in correspondence bias: The critical role of attitude diagnosticity of socially constrained behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1239-1248. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.83.5.1239

Redfield, J., & Paul, G. L. (1976, Feb). Bias in behavioral observation as a function of observer familiarity with subjects and typicality of behavior. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 44(1), 156. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.44.1.156

Willis, B. H. (2008). Spectrum bias – why clinicians need to be cautious when applying diagnostic test studies. Family Practice, 25(5), 390-396. doi: 10.1093/fampra/cmn051

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