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Section 14
Attributional Discrepancies & Bias in Cross-Cultural Interactions

Question 14 | Test | Table of Content

Cross-cultural interactions are often confounded by differing interpretive frameworks through which meaning is attributed. The construction of an intercultural sensitizer revealed that the consequences of culturally mediated discrepant attributions may be confusion, misunderstanding, and conflict among interactants. Sources of attributional discrepancy and bias that contribute to failure in cross-cultural interactions are described. Critical incidents from A Navajo Intercultural Sensitizer (Salzman, 1991) are analyzed in the light of these common sources of error.

Sue and Sue (1990) described barriers to effective cross-cultural counseling. These authors cited sources of conflict and misinterpretation in counseling that included class and culture-bound values; differences in verbal, emotional, and behavioral expressiveness; differences in cause-and-effect orientation; and differences in patterns of communication. The often discrepant attributional systems that culturally different clients and counselors bring to their interactions may constitute another such barrier. I propose that even with the best of intentions, cross-cultural interactions may fail because of the mechanisms underlying culturally mediated attributional differences. An understanding of these mechanisms and other potential sources of error can provide a basis for overcoming their often confounding effects.

Many studies (see Albert, 1983) have found attributional differences between samples of culturally different populations. Albert (1983) cited validation studies involving intercultural sensitizers constructed with different cultures including Thai, Greek, and African-American target populations. She found that the intercultural sensitizer was effective for imparting cultural information, for increasing the isomorphic attributions of the culturally different trainees, and for facilitating interpersonal relations between trainees and members of the target cultures. Salzman (1990), in the empirically based and cross-validated construction of A Navajo Intercultural Sensitizer, tested 56 reported critical incidents that occurred between Navajo and Anglo (a White inhabitant of the United States of non-Hispanic descent) school personnel, students, and community members. Of these incidents, 46 yielded significantly different patterns of attributions from Navajo and Anglo respondents. These incidents reflected cross-cultural interactions that failed because they produced confusion, misunderstanding, or conflict between Navajo and dominant culture people in a public school setting. Leong and Kim (1991) described the development of an Asian-American intercultural sensitizer. Similar findings with different populations indicate the central role of attribution and misattribution in cross-cultural interactions. The sources of attributional bias in cross-cultural counseling relationships need to be understood and considered if such basic counseling processes as rapport, accurate empathy, and mutual respect are to be accomplished. This article reviews the literature relating to attributional processes and explores sources of potential bias such as perception, self-esteem maintenance, linguistic differences, ethnocentrism and other sources of error that can negatively affect cross-cultural interactions.

Examples of critical incidents that produced tendencies toward discrepant cross-cultural attributions and resultant interactional problems are used throughout this article to examine the nature of these problems. Implications for counselor education and practice in a multicultural society are considered.

Culture and Attributional Processes
The relationship between subjective culture (Triandis, 1972) and attributional processes is illuminated by theoretical and empirical work conducted by social psychologists as well as by important insights from the field of linguistics. The occurrence, form, and meaning of a particular behavior in a particular situation may differ from culture to culture because of differences in norms, values, role perceptions, expectations, and historical experience. Consequently, individuals from different cultural traditions bring to cross-cultural interactions different implicit, as well as explicit, frameworks for interpreting these experiences (Albert, 1983). These differences in interpretative frameworks may lead culturally different people to view the same situation or behavior very differently. Although there is a great range of within-group variation In the attribution of cause and meaning, between-group variation may account for failed interactions because of the differential attributions likely to occur (Salzman, 1990). The silence of an individual from one culture may be interpreted by a culturally different person as Indifference or hostility when it was intended as respectful noninterference. The behavioral consequences of this discrepancy could interfere with the development of mutually respectful, cooperative, professional, and personal relationships.

Attributions are inferences about the causes of behavior. Heider (1958) indicated that humans are constantly engaged in the process of making inferences about observed behavior. We seek to explain the behaviors we observe by attributing motives to those who perform them in order to make our world predictable, understandable, and safer. Although the behaviors that are or are not performed in any interaction are important, it is the interpretations given to these behaviors that are critical (Albert & Triandis, 1979). A compliment can be interpreted as an attempt to manipulate, help can be seen as demeaning, and a gift can be seen as a bribe. These Interpretations have predictable behavioral consequences and may serve to define the nature of the interaction. Discrepant attributions have been found to result in misunderstandings, low personal attraction, rejection, and even conflict (Albert & Triandis, 1979; Salzman, 1990). It is thought that such discrepancies are more likely to occur in cross-cultural interactions because of differences in the norms, roles, values, and expectations each culture has developed in its adaptation to the rigors of life in its particular geographic, economic, and historical circumstances.

Heider (1958) saw all people as behaving like naive scientists who are constantly engaged in making inferences about events and observed behaviors by attributing causes and motives. Causal attributions, then, answer the vital "why" questions about behaviors. They serve as mediators between all the stimuli encountered in the world and the responses made to these stimuli. Humans do not respond directly to the events around us; we respond to the meanings or interpretations given to these events (Albert & Triandis, 1979). A person's very survival is often dependent on the accuracy of one's attribution of motive, cause, and meaning to a behavior or event. Nonverbal behavior that precedes a probable physical attack must be attributed accurately for an adequate response to occur. The attribution of imminent threat needs to be accurate to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy situation in which the attributer engages in behaviors that may induce the expected behavior from an individual who actually intends no harm. Cultures condition humans to make adaptive attributions. We are conditioned by culture through rewards and punishments to navigate adequately in our environments. Furthermore, we are motivated to adhere to our cultural worldview because of the important psychological functions it serves (Greenberg et al., 1992). Culturally prescribed hero systems tell humans what to be and do for individuals to achieve essential anxiety-buffering self-esteem (Becker 1962).
- Salzman, Michael; Attributional discrepancies and bias in cross-cultural interactions; Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development; Jul 1995; Vol. 23. Issue 3.

Personal Reflection Exercise #7
The preceding section contained information about attributional discrepancies and bias in cross-cultural interactions.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

How do attributions relate to culture? To select and enter your answer go to Test

Section 15
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