Bioethics Blogs

‘He was looking at me funny’: The (limited) rationality of the hostile attribution bias

Last week, an article in the Pacific Standard discussed the evolutionary origins and present-day disutility of the Hostile Attribution Bias (HAB). The HAB is exhibited when an individual automatically attributes malicious intentions to another, often in cases where that person’s behavior is ambiguous.  For example, when someone uses the colloquial phrase ‘he was looking at me funny’ as a justification for their own hostility, this is meant to imply that the utterer interpreted another person’s gaze as judgmental or even threatening; in fact, though, it may have been neither. Given that those with a propensity towards exhibiting this bias are also more likely to engage in aggressive behavior on its basis, the bias is widely seen not only to be irrational, but also detrimental. Indeed, the author of the aforementioned article says: ‘The trouble is, the more we sense hostility in others, the more aggressive we tend to be in return. And in many social contexts, hostile attribution bias is, as psychologists put it, highly “maladaptive.”’

In what way is the bias ‘highly maladaptive’? Is it wholly irrational? Arguably, reduction of this bias would have significant benefits both for individuals exhibiting reduced bias, and for wider society. A study cited in the Pacific Standard article investigated the effect of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) interventions on HAB, which they inferred from reductions in violent crime arrests. They took a large sample of young men from public schools in Chicago, most of whom were from significantly disadvantaged populations. Over the course of several months, the experimental group took part in about 13 one to two-hour-long sessions, parts of which were devoted to teaching CBT techniques.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.