Protestants, Catholics, and the fundamental attribution error

Daniel Ansted


The fundamental attribution error, also known as correspondence bias or the attribution effect, is a cognitive bias that unduly favors personality or internally based explanations of behavior over situational or externally based explanations. For example, if someone does poorly on a test you might consider the following explanations: that the person is not intelligent, that she or he did not study adequately, or some other factor based on individual responsibility. However, if you are this person who received a poor grade you are more likely to cite situational or external factors such as the difficulty of the test or lack of sleep. Much work has been done to explain this phenomenon and to figure out ways to reduce this error; however, until now little research has been conducted on the role religious ideas might play in this bias.

Researchers from Arizona State University, Emory University, the University of California – Irvine, and the University of Hong Kong hypothesized that Protestants would be more prone to this error than Catholics, because of Protestantism’s focus on the inward condition of the soul. To test these hypotheses they developed four studies that focused on the relationship between belief in a soul and internal attributions in Protestants and Catholics.

Study 1 sought simply to assess whether or not Protestants were more prone to the fundamental attribution error than Catholics. In addition, the researchers wanted to rule out other possible explanations for a Protestant focus on individual explanations of behavior, including: need for structure, the Protestant work ethic, and religiosity. Using methodology borrowed from Kitayama, Imada, Ishii, Takemura, and Ramaswamy (2006), they assessed Protestant and Catholic tendencies to make internal or external attributions in moral situations. Even while controlling for the other possible explanations, the results suggested that Protestants do make more internal attributions than Catholics.

Study 2 sought to replicate the findings in the first study and to figure out if belief in a soul plays a factor in the tendency for Protestants to make internal attributions. The procedure largely followed that of Study 1, but added an eight-item questionnaire that was designed to assess belief in a soul. The results again confirmed that Protestants made more internal attributions than did Catholics and that they had a greater belief in the soul than did the Catholics. In addition, statistically controlling for belief in a soul reduced the effect of being Protestant on internal attribution. Thus, the greater belief in a soul is a factor in the Protestant tendency to make internal, rather than external, attributions

Study 3 sought to provide experimental evidence that there is a cognitive association between Protestant religion and belief in a soul. To do this, the researchers asked the participants to either write a few sentences about their faith or to write a few sentences about their hobbies and then assessed their belief in a soul. Protestants who were asked to write about their faith scored higher in belief in a soul than Protestants who were not. Catholics did not show a similar effect.

Study 4 sought to directly determine whether or not belief in a soul was responsible for an increase in internal attributions. Unlike the previous studies, all of the participants were Protestant. The participants were assigned a writing task where they were randomly assigned to either write an argument for or against the existence of a soul. Protestants who were assigned to the task of arguing for the existence of the soul were more likely to make internal attributions than Protestants who were assigned the task of arguing for the non-existence of the soul. None of the research indicated any increase or decrease of external attributions.

While not emphasized in this summary, all the internal attributions made were a response to morally charged situations. The authors note that further research should test whether the same findings would be duplicated on  non-moral attribution tasks such as tests of intelligence. Another important direction for further research would be to determine East-West differences in internal attributions. For instance, could the differences in attributions between the East and West be due to differing religious cultures? While only an initial step towards determining the relationship between attribution tendencies and religious beliefs, these studies do point to an interesting new line of research in attribution research.

Click here for Li, Johnson, Cohen, Williams, Knowles, and Chen, “Fundamental(ist) Attribution Error: Protestants are Dispositionally Focused” in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology.


Kitayama, S., Imada, T., Ishii, K., Takemura, K., & Ramaswamy, J. (2006). Voluntary settlement and the spirit of independence: Evidence from Japan’s “Northern Frontier.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 369–384. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.91.3.369

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