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Trait ascription bias is the tendency for people to view themselves as relatively variable in terms of personality, behavior and mood while viewing others as much more predictable in their personal traits across different situations.[1] More specifically, it is a tendency to describe one's own behaviour in terms of situational factors while preferring to describe another's behaviour by ascribing fixed dispositions to their personality. This may occur because peoples' own internal states are more readily observable and available to them than those of others.

This attributional bias intuitively plays a role in the formation and maintenance of stereotypes and prejudice, combined with the negativity effect. However, trait ascription and trait-based models of personality remain contentious in modern psychology and social science research. Trait ascription bias refers to the situational and dispositional evaluation and description of personality traits on a personal level. A similar bias on the group level is called the outgroup homogeneity bias.


Trait ascription and the cognitive bias associated with it have been a topic of active research for more than three decades.[2][3] Like many other cognitive biases, trait ascription bias is supported by a substantial body of experimental research and has been explained in terms of numerous theoretical frameworks originating in various disciplines. Among these frameworks are attribution theory (related to how people determine causes of observed events), theories of personality description such as the five factor model,[4] and work regarding the circumstances under which personality assessments are valid.[5] Seminal work includes Turner,[6] Jones,[7] Kammer,[1] and Funder.[8] Incorrectly ascribing traits to other persons based on limited information or observations intuitively plays a role in the formation and perpetuation of some social phenomena such as stereotypes and prejudice. As such, methods to mitigate the effect of trait ascription bias on personality assessments outside of the lab are also of interest to social scientists. Although trait-oriented theories of personality description, and indeed the very notion of universal, enduring traits themselves, have a natural appeal,[4][9] some researchers are critical of their existence outside of the laboratory and present results which imply trait ascription, and consequently trait ascription bias, are simply residue of the methodologies historically used to "detect" them.[6][10] Criticism is based either on the non-existence of personality traits (contrary to five factor descriptions), or suggest divergent interpretations of results and alternative mechanisms of ascription, limiting the scope of existing work.


The empirical evidence supporting trait ascription and the psychological mechanisms underpinning it comes from a diverse body of research in psychology and the social sciences.

The actor and the observer

Jones and Nisbett[7] were among the first to argue that people are biased in how they tend to ascribe traits and dispositions to others that they would not ascribe to themselves. Motivated by the classic example of the student explaining poor performance to a supervisor (in which the supervisor might superficially believe the student's explanations but really thinks the performance is due to "enduring qualities": lack of ability, laziness, ineptitude, etc.) their actor–observer asymmetry argument forms the basis of discourse[1][8][11] on trait ascription bias.

Kammer et al.

In a 1982 study involving fifty-six undergraduate psychology students from the University of Bielefeld, Kammer et al. demonstrated that subjects rated their own variability on each of 20 trait terms to be considerably higher than their peers.[1] Building on the earlier work of Jones and Nisbett,[7] which suggests people describe the behaviour of others in terms of fixed dispositions while viewing their own behaviour as the dynamic product of complex situational factors, Kammer hypothesized that one's own behaviours are judged to be less consistent (i.e. not as predictable) but of higher intensities (with regard to particular traits) than the behaviour of others. The experiment had each student describe themselves as well as a same-sex friend using two identical lists of trait-descriptive terms. For example, for the trait of dominance the student was first asked "In general, how dominant are you?" and then "How much do you vary from one situation to another in how dominant you are?"[1] Kammer's results strongly supported his hypothesis.

The "trait" of ascribing traits

David C. Funder's work[8] on the "trait" of ascribing personality traits investigates the psychology of individuals who tend not to grant others the variability (i.e. lack of predictability) they grant themselves, instead preferring to ascribe traits and infer dispositional explanations of behaviour. It had been generally established[7] that people ascribe more traits to others than to themselves, known as the actor–observer asymmetry in attribution,[7] but Funder's hypothesis was that some individuals are more inclined to make dispositional trait attributions than others, regardless of who they are describing.[8] In the experiment, sixty-three undergraduates filled out a series of questionnaires which asked them to describe themselves, their best friend, and an acquaintance. For each of twenty pairs of polar opposite trait terms (e.g. "friendly—unfriendly") subjects either ranked the person on a discrete scale or chose "depends on the situation", allowing the subject to "not make a dispositional ascription."[8] Based on third-party Q-Sort personality descriptions of the subjects, certain negative personality traits were correlated with those subjects who tended to ascribe dispositions to others, while traits such as "charming", "interesting", and "sympathetic" were associated[12] with those who preferred not to ascribe traits. This result is consistent with the type of personality commonly associated with promoting stereotypes and prejudice.

Theoretical basis

While trait ascription bias has been described by empirical results from various disciplines, most notably psychology and social psychology, explaining the mechanism of the bias remains a contentious issue in the theory of personality description literature.[4][13]

The availability heuristic

Main article: Availability heuristic

Tversky and Kahneman describe a cognitive heuristic that suggests people make judgments (including about other people's personalities[14]) on the basis of how easily examples of their (other people's) behaviour come to mind.[15][16] This would appear to be consistent[vague] with the arguments of Jones and Nisbett[7] and the results observed by others[1][8] which found that people ascribe fewer traits to friends than to acquaintances, and fewer still traits to themselves than to friends, implying ease of recall might be a factor.

Attribution theory

Main article: Attribution (psychology)

Attribution plays a role in how people understand and judge the causes of the behaviour of others,[2] which in turn affects how they ascribe traits to others. Attributional theory[17] is concerned with how people subsequently judge behavioural causes, which also bears relevance to trait ascription and related biases. In particular, attribution (and attributional) theory can help explain the mechanism by which individuals defer to ascribing dispositional traits vs. situational variability to observers.[18]

Big Five personality traits

Main article: Big Five personality traits

The big five personality traits (or five factor model) arguably[4][13] provides a robust set of traits by which personalities can be accurately described. It supports the notion that there are cross-cultural, enduring traits which manifest in behaviour and can, if correctly ascribed to individuals, provide an actor with predictive power over an observer.


Trait ascription bias, regardless of the theoretical mechanisms underpinning it, intuitively plays a role in various social phenomenon observed in the wild. Stereotyping, attitudes of prejudice and the negativity effect, among others, involve ascribing dispositions (traits) to other people on the basis of little information, no information or simply "gut instincts", which amounts to trait ascription bias. As such, some researchers[19] are interested in mitigating cognitive biases to reduce their effects on society.


Trait ascription bias has received criticism on a number of fronts.[6][13] In particular, some have argued that trait ascription, and the notion of traits, are merely artefacts of methodology and that results contrary to conventional wisdom can be achieved with simple changes to the experimental designs used.[1][8][13] Furthermore, the theoretical bases for trait ascription bias are criticized[13] for failing to recognize constraints and "questionable conceptual" assumptions.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Kammer, D. (1982). "Differences in trait ascriptions to self and friend: Unconfounding intensity from variability". Psychological Reports. 51 (1): 99–102. doi:10.2466/pr0.1982.51.1.99. S2CID 144154634.
  2. ^ a b Solomon, Sheldon (1978). "Measuring Dispositional and Situational Attributions". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 4 (4): 589–594. doi:10.1177/014616727800400419. S2CID 145579667.
  3. ^ Pronin, E; Ross, L (2006). "Temporal Differences in Trait Self-Ascription: When the Self Is Seen as an Other". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 90 (2): 197–209. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.90.2.197. PMID 16536646.
  4. ^ a b c d Costa, Paul T.; McCrae, Robert R. (1992). "Four Ways Five Factors Are Basic". Personality and Individual Differences. 13 (6): 653–665. doi:10.1016/0191-8869(92)90236-i.
  5. ^ Bem, Daryl J.; Allen, Andrea (1974). "On Predicting Some of the People Some of the Time". Psychological Review. 81 (6): 506–520. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/h0037130.
  6. ^ a b c Turner, Robert G. (1978). "Effects of Differential Request Procedures and Self-Consciousness on Trait Attributions". Journal of Research in Personality. 12 (4): 431–438. doi:10.1016/0092-6566(78)90069-7.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Jones, Edward Ellsworth; Nisbett, Richard E. (1971). The actor and the observer: divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior (PDF). pp. 79–94. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2022-10-26. Retrieved 2016-05-29. In Jones, Edward E.; Kanouse, David E.; Kelley, Harold H.; Nisbett, Richard E.; Valins, Stuart; Weiner, Bernard (1971). "Attribution: Perceiving the Causes of Behavior". American Political Science Review. 70 (2): 617–618. doi:10.2307/1959677. JSTOR 1959677. S2CID 146150858.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Funder, David C. (1980). "The "Trait" of Ascribing Traits: Individual Differences in the Tendency to Trait Ascription". Journal of Research in Personality. 14 (3): 376–385. doi:10.1016/0092-6566(80)90020-3.
  9. ^ Hirschberg, Nancy; Jennings, Susan J (1980). "Beliefs, Personality, Personal Perception: A Theory of Individual Differences". Journal of Research in Personality. 14 (2): 235–249. doi:10.1016/0092-6566(80)90031-8.
  10. ^ Vonk, Roos (1993). "The Negativity Effect in Trait Ratings and in Open-Ended Descriptions of Persons". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 19 (3): 269–278. doi:10.1177/0146167293193003. S2CID 143976518.
  11. ^ Hampson, Sarah E (1983). "Trait Ascription and Depth of Acquaintance: The Preference for Traits in Personality Descriptions and Its Relation to Target Familiarity". Journal of Research in Personality. 17 (4): 398–411. doi:10.1016/0092-6566(83)90068-5.
  12. ^ Gaertner, Samuel L.; McLaughlin, John P. (1983). "Associations and Ascriptions of Positive and Negative Characteristics". Social Psychology Quarterly. 46 (1): 23–30. doi:10.2307/3033657. JSTOR 3033657.
  13. ^ a b c d e Block, Jack (1995). "A Contrarian View of the Five-Factor Approach to Personality Description". Psychological Bulletin. 117 (2): 187–215. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.117.2.187. PMID 7724687.
  14. ^ Schwarz, Norbert; Bless, Herbert; Strack, Fritz; Klumpp, Gisela; Rittenauer-Schatka, Helga; Simons, Annette (1991). "Ease of Retrieval as Information: Another Look at the Availability Heuristic". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 61 (2): 195–202. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.61.2.195.
  15. ^ Tversky, Amos; Kahneman, Daniel (1973). "Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability". Cognitive Psychology. 5 (1): 207–233. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(73)90033-9.
  16. ^ Kahneman, Daniel; Tversky, Amos (January 1982). "The psychology of preferences". Scientific American. 246 (1): 160–173. Bibcode:1982SciAm.246a.160K. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0182-160.
  17. ^ Kelley, Harold H.; Michela, John L. (1980). "Attribution Theory and Research". Annual Review of Psychology. 31: 457–501. doi:10.1146/ PMID 20809783.
  18. ^ Kenrick, Douglas T.; Funder, David C. (1988). "Profiting From Controversy: Lessons From the Person-Situation Debate". American Psychologist. 43 (1): 23–34. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.43.1.23. PMID 3279875.
  19. ^ Ariely, Dan (2009). Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 9780007319923.

Further reading