Defensive attribution hypothesis

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The defensive attribution hypothesis (or defensive attribution bias) is a social psychological term from the attributional approach referring to a set of beliefs about who is culpable in a given situation. More responsibility will be attributed to the harm-doer as the outcome becomes more severe, and as personal or situational similarity to the victim increases.

Foundational studies

The basis of the defensive attribution bias was developed in studies conducted by scientists[1] hypothesized that as the consequences of an accident increase, so does the likelihood that an individual will assign blame to the harm-doer (as opposed to calling it an "accident"), and presented experimental evidence to support this hypothesis.[which?] They assume, when consequences are mild, that it is easy to feel sympathy for both parties to the incident and not assign blame. But, as the severity of the consequences increase, it can be frightening to believe that such misfortune could happen to anyone at random. Attributing responsibility helps to manage this emotional reaction.[2]

Shaver (1970) recognized that Hatfield and Walster had identified an important concept but did not fully apply it to her own study. They had stated that the defensive attribution bias would occur in response to concerns by the witness that the event could also happen to them. Thus, the similarity of the witness to the victim – in terms of situation or personality – is required for the defensive attributional bias to be activated. This is related to the empathy response, which is also more likely to be activated if the witness sees similarities between themselves and the person involved.


  1. Elaine Hatfield, Elaine Walster, G. W. Walster and Kelly Shaver. Hatfield and Walster (1966)
  2. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).