Attribution Biases and Their Impact on Mediation

by John Ng

The author thanks Sophia Ang for her assistance with this article.

May 2008

John Ng

I. Introduction

Social scientists use the term attribution to describe the process of attaching meaning to behavior. Fritz Heider, father of attribution theory, proposes that attribution is an “effort of predicting and controlling the world by assigning transient behavior to unchanging positions”. People have a general tendency to make judgment constantly due to their need to manage themselves as well as to control their environment (Kelley, 1971). White (1959) suggests that people have a basic need to affect their environment - often beyond the fulfillment of basic survival needs. However, they often attribute meaning to their own actions and to the actions of others using different yardsticks (Adler & Towne, 1993). This create problems when parties share conflicting perspectives of the other's actions. Jones and Nisbett (1972) suggest that a person would tend to attribute meaning of their own actions to situational requirements whilst if they were observers to similar actions by another person, they would tend attribute the same actions to the other's personal disposition. These varied attributional processes, commonly observed in mediation, affect parties’ motivation communication styles and approaches to mediation. Unless the mediator is conscious of these biases and develops skills to overcome them, the mediation process could be greatly impeded. These theoretical perspectives point to the importance of attribution in social interaction because it involves making sense of behavior, events and impacts one’s interactions with people and situations.

In mediation, parties who make attributions seek to have control of the mediation process so that they can gain advantage of the situation. Although attribution theories have enriched the study of social cognitive processes and communication competence (Parks, 1985), they have not been studied in the context of mediation. Yet, these are powerful communication processes which affect parties’ perception of reality in mediation.

The purpose of this paper is to present an overview of several issues in the attribution literature that pertains to the study of mediation. This paper will be divided into four sections. First, we will briefly explain Heider’s causal analysis. Second, we will discuss three perception biases, based on theoretical developments of Heider’s model done by other social scientists and show how they affect parties in mediation .

These three perception biases are (1) Fundamental Attribution Bias: parties make attributions of another person’s behavior to internal dispositions but their own behavior to external factors (Jones & Davis, 1965; Regan, 1978; Hamacheck, D.E., 1982), (2) False Consensus Bias: parties make the assumption that people are similar to us (Hamacheck, D.E., 1982) and (3) Negative Impression Bias: We overemphasize negative impressions about people being judged (Kanouse & Hanson, 1972; Hamacheck, D.E., 1982).

Some of the effects of these biases in mediation include adopting a “blaming & self-justifying” approach, becoming very intransigent in their positions, and unwilling to trust the other parties, etc. Third, we will share practical strategies to deal with each bias, based on our own mediation experience to help parties overcome these biases. Some of the strategies involve being a “teflon” facilitator, focusing on issues, reframing, and accentuating the positives, etc. Fourth, this paper will discuss the research hiatus in our current knowledge of attribution processes in the field of mediation.

II. Heider’s Attribution Theory

In his seminal book, The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, Fritz Heider (1958) discusses the theoretical foundations of his causal analysis. It is “through perception we come to recognize the world around us, a world made up of things and people and events” (Heider, 1958). He is concerned with the factors comprising perceptual experiences of people, particularly those experiences concerned with social perception, interaction, and relationships (Ehrenhaus, 1985).

He proposes that humans not only process information, that underlies the organization of social behavior but also makes causal analysis of them (Heider, 1958). His causal analysis begins with distal stimulus in the environment, which the perceiver experiences through his sensory perceptions or through a report about the stimulus through an outside party or through direct communication with the stimulus (in the case of social interaction). Consequently, the perceiver directly experiences a proximal stimulus and forms a phenomenal precept (Ehrenhaus, 1985). In social interaction, the perceiver and the others are causally linked through communication. When this linkage occurs, the constructive, inferential phase of attribution follows. This phase may also occur concurrently with the perception, upon the apprehension of the causal stimulus or subsequent to the perception, developing in a linear and rational manner. Familiarity with the precepts allows for automatic processing. This results in the continuation of organized social behavior. Heider claims that causal attribution is a fundamental human process upon which much of social perception and action rests. We shall look at four broad assumptions first before discussing the three perception biases and their ramifications for mediation.

Broadly, there are four basic assumptions in this causal analysis that affect mediation.

First, the attribution process is ubiquitous, fundamental to the organization and interpretation of social life (Ehranhaus, 1985). And mediation is no exception.

Second, the element of control. The goal of causal analysis in attribution is for control so that humans can manage themselves & their environment more effectively (Hewes & Planalp, 1982; O’Keefe & Delia, 1982; Kelley, 1971). This basic need to affect their environment impacts our behavior and our interactions with people and situations (White, 1959). This need for control is best seen in the mediation process when protagonists seek to gain influence of mediators so that they can gain advantage of the situation. They do so by projecting their perceptions of reality and in the process, biasing the mediators to their perspectives.

Third, the problem of bias. People demonstrate faults in their inference making in regular and reliable fashion (Ehranhaus, 1985). The typical person’s perception biases seem riddled with shortcomings when judged against logical standards (Major, 1980; Mischel, 1968, 1969, 1973; Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Synder & Swann, 1978a, 1978b; Tversky & Kahneman, 1971). One of these shortcomings is the utilization of different yardsticks to judge actor’s and observer’s behavior. Jones & Nisbett (1972) articulate this precisely, “there is a pervasive tendency for actors to attribute their actions to situational requirements, whereas observers tend to attribute the same actions to stable personal disposition.” As a result, protagonists in mediation often adopt a very competitive mode, which in turn makes managing conflicts very difficult and leads to escalating, debilitating fights (Tjosvold & van de Vliert, 1994).

Fourth, knowing these biases will enable mediators to become conscious of these attributional errors and then plan specific strategies to overcome them.

In the next section, we shall discuss three common perception biases that protagonists in mediation are bound to have and their implications on parties’ mediation behaviors. These are Fundamental attribution bias, False Consensus Bias, and Negative Impression Bias.

III. Perception Biases and their implications for mediation

Fundamental Attribution Bias is to make attributions of another person’s behavior to internal dispositions but our own behavior to external factors (Jones & Nisbett, 1972; Hamacheck, D.E., 1982). Further, we make these attributions very rapidly (Heider, 1958). Jones & Nisbett (1972) propose that anytime we explain someone’s actions in terms of his or her personality, motivation, or personal preferences, we are making an internal attribution. When we perceive behavior to be the result of social pressure, unusual circumstances, or physical forces beyond the individual’s control, we are making situational attributions. They argue that “there is a pervasive tendency for actors to attribute their actions to situational requirements, whereas observers tend to attribute the same actions to stable personal disposition.”.

Several explanations have been given by communication scholars and social psychologists for this bias. These factors include (1) having a self-centered orientation: this perspective infers that human persons adopt a self-protective, defensive posture and seek first to guard one’s concerns in conflicts, (2) the information available to actors and observers may differ, differing data may entail different subsequent causal attributions: different facets of the event or behavior may be salient for actors from those that are salient for observers (Ehrenhaus, 1985) and (3) the differences in the actors’ and observers’ focus of attention. The observers see the actors as the dynamic agents in a stable situational field. While the actors do not see the situational field but rather look out upon the action in the situational field in which they are situated (Ehrenhaus, 1985; Snyder, Stephen, & Rosenthal, 1976; Storms, 1973; Taylor & Fiske, 1975). When parties are observers, they are more inclined to take behaviors at face value, reflecting stable personal characteristics, while actors are “much more likely than observers to see those actions constrained by the situation.” (Jones & Nisbett, 1972).

An example of this bias of this may be seen in marital conflict involving the issue of maintenance. The wife attributes her husband’s inability to pay for the maintenance to his uncaring attitude while her own inability to share in the cost is the result of financial constraints beyond her control. This “blaming and self-justification” is destructive during the mediation process because it is emotionally arousing and pursues a competitive win-lose approach. The husband would usually respond with the same bias: attributing his wife’s comments to her unreasonable attitude for refusing and failing to understand his circumstantial quagmire. When both protagonists take this approach of attributing blame to the personality’s trait for the person’s actions and justifying their own behavior to situational factors, the conflict spirals downward. The couple would often take a dismissive stance for other possible explanations or suggestions of solutions to their problem. Thus any attempts towards a viable settlement at this stage would be premature. Instead, parties would be further entrenched in their positions and the distrust in the other party increases. Mediators may sometimes find themselves engaged in a losing battle with the respective parties attempting to convince both to see the other point of view. This is exacerbated when both parties become emotionally involved and therefore, block their willingness and ability to listen.

False Consensus Bias makes the assumption that people are similar to us (Hamacheck, D.E., 1982). This affects most areas of our lives: our perspectives, motivations, attitudes and behaviors. This impacts our approach to work, the way children should be brought up, our work style, our expectations of relationships, etc. The language is prefaced by “s/he should do this and do that.” Our way of thinking and lifestyle is perceived as normal while any deviation from our norm is perceived to be abnormal or subnormal.

In mediation, this bias is expressed when the wife insists on maintenance for the child claiming that “if she can do it, why can’t he?”. The perspective is that our way is the only right way of doing things. This unwillingness and inability to accept another person’s perspectives and behaviors create tremendous tensions and conflicts during mediation. Both parties will assume that their positions are not only the right positions but the only positions to take. The other party’s position is perceived to be wrong and unreasonable. This may also result in an oversimplification of the issues at hand. For example, the husband may assume that if he could live with $200 a month, the wife should also be able to live likewise without taking into consideration other possible factors such as a pre-existing medical problem as well as having to support their child during the weekdays.

Mediators sometime make the mistake of becoming embroiled in helping either parties justify their own positions. This increases the defensiveness of the other parties and unwittingly lead them to a hardening of their positions. Instead of problem solving, parties would sabotage by suggesting incredulous solutions for the other parties to adhere to.

Negative Impression Bias is another common perceptual bias in mediation. Attributors have a strong and reliable tendency to overemphasize negative information about the individuals being judged (Kanouse & Hanson, 1972; Hamacheck, 1982). The principle of negativity is ubiquitous: negative information is perceived to carry greater weight than positive information because it is salient, a result of standing in contrast to standards of behavior and expectations that emphasize the positive (Kanouse & Hanson, 1972; Ehrenhaus, 1985) . Attributors are more likely to have their inferences influenced by the negativity effect given perceived cultural dissimilarity (Duncan, 1976). Dissimilarity may also have its effect on parties in mediation. From our observations, this negativism is most evident when parties are in serious and deep conflict situation. Parties are almost completely biased against the other party. They see very little good in the respondents. This results in a complete lack of trust and respect in the relationship. Furthermore, these negative perceptions are then used to judge the other person’s subsequent behaviors.

An example may be seen in a case where the wife has been lied to several times and so the husband is always a liar and everything he says must be lies. This bias makes parties become very intransigent and dogmatic in their positions. Unless the bias can be overcome by appropriate communication skills, mediator will find it extremely difficult to make progress in the mediation. It is one thing to know and understand the what and under what these circumstances protagonists are likely to err in their attributions, we need to identify specific strategies to overcome them in mediation.

IV. Mediation Strategies

It is crucial for mediators to recognize these biases and work on different communication strategies to overcome these biases. Before we discuss specific strategies for each bias, two important perspectives, based on our own mediation experiences, must be acknowledged.

First, we must recognize that these biases do not occur sequentially or even incrementally. In fact, the expressions of these biases sometimes overlap and occur dynamically. As such, mediators need to be alert to these processes.

Second, the locus of causality of these biases are not easily identifiable and recognizable by the protagonists themselves. All we can observe is their actions, behaviors and their effects. In most cases, parties are not aware of these biases, much less to label them as such. The mediators’ approach is not to deal with the locus and/or reasons for the causality of these biases but rather to focus on the behavioral symptoms of these biases. This is congruent with the problem-solving nature of the mediation process, which focuses on helping parties come to agreement by dealing with relevant issues and emotions.

a. Managing Fundamental Attribution Bias

Sometimes, mediators may inadvertently commit this bias by making internal attributions to one party or/and justifying the other party’s behavior by making external attributions. This will inevitably color their perceptions of the issues. There are a few strategies that the mediator can take to avoid being caught in the quandary. The ability to remain impartial is the key. This involves (1) recognizing that parties’ causal attributions are too simplistic and understanding that there are always many sides to the story, (2) helping parties keep focus on the issue, and (3) by encouraging parties to take a more cooperative approach.

Recognizing oversimplification of the bias . The first communication strategy for mediators to keep in mind is that there are always many sides to the story. The husband’s inability to pay is probably due to many intertwining factors including being angry with the wife’s extra-marital affairs, mistrust of wife’s distribution of funds to the children, his own financial constraints, etc. This mental framework will enable mediators to explore other causal factors. One general rule of thumb to follow is that whenever mediators find themselves zeroing on a single factor, they are probably mistaken.

In order to help parties widen their context of understanding, it may be helpful to use a observer-perspective type of questions to develop a new awareness of their situation. One way of doing this is to use the refractive technique. For example to the wife who thinks the husband was being purposely stubborn for not releasing the money, mediators could say, “What if he wanted to ensure that the money is to be used for the children’s tuition, how will you respond?" However, in using this type of questions, mediators have to avoid the temptation of quasi-lecturing the parties.

Keeping focus on the issue. This is an important skill for mediators to bear in mind. Parties have the tendency to seek blame and drag the mediator into seeing their side of the story. Mediators can facilitate their discussion by helping parties keep focus and deflecting extraneous emotional issues, which can further prejudice both parties as well as the mediators. This latter skill employed is commonly known as the “teflon” technique, whereby the facilitator skilfully deflects unhelpful comments and irrelevant issues to help parties focus on the issue. When issues are ‘kitchen-sinked’ or irrelevant comments or issues brought up, mediators can do that by redirecting parties to the item at hand based on our pre-agreed mediation agenda. When parties continue to be emotional and insist on staying with the emotional issue, it would be helpful to interrupt the process and ask,"Would this be an area you want to talk about? How will this help us toward an agreement?" Another way of keeping focus on the issue is to encourage parties to be present or future-focused rather than past-focused. It is useful for mediators to gently remind parties the futility of being focused on the past in blaming each other and to encourage to focus on the possibility of the present and the future.

Encouraging parties to adopt cooperative approach . They can also encourage parties to adopt a more positive and cooperative approach rather than “blaming & self-justifying”, which will only lead to a more destructive atmosphere. Reminding couples to take a more cooperative than competitive approach is very crucial in conflict mediation. This is often done at the beginning of the session as part of the ground rules. Studies in this area have shown having cooperative goals and strategies contribute to productive conflicts (Tjosvold, 1985, 1993; Tjosvold & McNeely, 1988; Tjosvold, Wedley, & Field, 1986; van de Vliert, 1985). Mediators can empower protagonists by helping them see their common interests and inter-dependency, which are best served by becoming more cooperative rather than adopting a blaming and win-lose approach. The common interest strategy would make the mediators say something like, “I hear your difficulties with each other in the past. However, it seems evident that both of you are also very concerned about your child’s welfare. So would you like to refocus on how providing the best care for your child?” Mediators adopting the inter-dependency strategy may say, “Both of you have something that the other need despite your great differences. You (wife) need him to provide financially while you (husband) need her to take care of the children. Could we try to work out a collaborative solution?” If the blaming is highly intense, this strategy may be more effective during caucusing where the parties may be more ready to admit their dependency on the other.

b. Overcoming False Consensus Bias

There are several strategies that mediators can take to overcome this bias (1) by giving equal opportunities for parties to share their perspectives, (2) by acknowledging their perspectives without necessarily agreeing with them), through paraphrasing & summarizing their perspectives accurately so that parties feel they have been heard and (4) by expanding their range of normality through reframing and role-reversal.

Giving equal opportunities . It is important that parties are given equal opportunities to express themselves because this will communicate mediators’ impartiality. Parties should be allowed to communicate their perspectives and feelings, without interruptions and dominations by either parties. Interruptions by the other party should be kept to the minimum. If interruptions persist, mediators should gently remind parties of the ground rule of cooperative communication. On the other hand, each party should not be allowed to dominate the conversation for a prolonged period. This can be done by limiting each party’s conversation to not more than two cogent points before directing the conversation to the other party. Another antecedent technique that we have found to be effective is by allowing equal opportunity for parties to respond to issues raised.

Acknowledging their perspectives . Mediators show their support of both parties when their perspectives are acknowledged. This can be done by paraphrasing what has been heard or summarizing their perspectives. “So what I hear you saying is…” or “Allow me to summarize what you have just said…” These paraphrase and summarizations will ensure that each party’s interest is accurately represented and heard. In so doing too, each person indirectly hears the other’s point of view. However, if the paraphrase or summarization is inaccurate, one can be sure that the parties will stand to correct the mediator. This can be very beneficial because it allows mediators to correct their wrong perceptions. They may proceed to say, “Sorry I understood you wrongly, perhaps you can clarify what you mean again.” This can be very empowering because the parties get the sense that mediators are really trying to understand and empathize with them.

We have found this strategy to be effective because not only does it ensures that both parties’ understand each other’s perspectives, it also shows our responsiveness to their perspectives. When this skill is successfully executed, parties will allow us to make progress in the mediation process because responsiveness to perspectives is a precondition for progress. This will then pave the way for the parties to hear other perspectives. .

Expanding their range of normality . The problem of false consensus bias has to do with one’s perception of normality. Normality is based on the parties’ experience and perception. As the saying goes, “perception is reality”. Therefore, alternative views and behaviors are seen as abnormal or subnormal. Further, the person’s perception of normality is often measured by specificity of behaviors. For example, in mediation of aged parents, one party may feel that there is only one way to clean the father and any other way is unhygienic or uncaring. To overcome this bias, mediators must have specific strategies to widen the parties’ range of normality.

This can be done in several ways. First, by reiterating the other party’s concern or need. The mediator may say something like, “I hope you have heard what your wife is saying. She has this particular concern..” Second, by being an “angel of reality”. Sometimes, parties become very unreasonable in insisting their own ways. The mediator can serve as a reality-check. To the son who refuses to accept any other way of cleaning the dad, mediator might ask, “Perhaps you can explain to me how your way is the best way of taking care of your father?” Third, we can use the “what if” question. To the same issue of caring for the father, “What if a trained nurse suggests another way of cleaning your dad, like… would you feel?” Fourth, role reversal is also another effective technique. This is a form of reframing where the parties are encouraged to see things from another perspective. Some statements that illustrate this technique are, “If you were in your dad's shoe, how would you like your son to treat you?" or “If you were in your sister’s position…” Fifth, floating other possible perspectives or solutions to their problems. Using the above example, when the son insists that the sister must house the aging father, the mediators may suggest, “Recognizing that your young nephews (sister's children) in the home requires attention from your sister thus she cannot fully take care of your father, would you consider allowing the father to be in the home for the aged if he is willing?” When we float possibility, it might be useful to preface the suggestion by appealing to other role-models or specific examples of how similar situations have been resolved before.

c. Overcoming Negative Impression Bias

There are several approaches the mediator can take to overcome this negativism. A few these include (1) focusing on positive attributes, (2) ignoring unhelpful negative comments, and (3) draining “cesspool” of parties’ negative emotions towards each other.

Focusing on positive attributes . This can be done in several ways. Mediators can focus on the positive attributes of the protagonists. For example, in marital conflicts, when the husband is truthful about his salary and the wife acknowledges it, the mediator may affirm the husband by acknowledging, “That’s good for you (referring to the wife) that in this instance your husband is telling the truth.” Of course, to ensure impartiality, mediators should do this with both parties. Another way to focus on the positive attributes is to affirm the positive movements in the mediation process. Mediators can affirm the “baby step” agreements and progress, that both parties have made towards mediation. This will create a positive climate and give hope to protagonists during mediation. Ignoring irrelevant, negative comments . This is similar to the “teflon” approach. Not all comments and issues are pertinent to the mediation. Mediators must recognize that. The skill of the mediators is their ability to sieve through a barrage of negativism and search out the issues or the emotions that are relevant to the discussion. Hence, in most instances, mediators had to ignore many issues that are either not relevant or healthy to the mediation.

Draining the cesspool . This is an extreme approach, which must be executed carefully. Sometimes, one or both protagonists will keep rehearsing negative comments about the other party, despite constant reminder by the mediator to keep positive and to stick to the agenda. This strategy is to allow both the protagonists to have the emotional release by giving them a free rein in their comments. Mediators can say, “Well, it looks like you feel very bitter and angry about him/her, why don’t I allow you to say to him/her once and for all…” and then proceed to write their comments on a piece of paper. From our own experience, after sometime, the protagonists would have exhausted all the negative comments about the party. Then, turning to the other respondent, the mediators could say, “Well, now that s/he had said all she wanted to say, would you like to respond or say what your would like to say about him/her?” The other respondent would then be given a free rein and again the mediators would write down all their comments. We have found this emotional release to work when dealing with ultra-negative protagonists. This is because sometimes emotional release is necessary for mediation to proceed positively.

Essentially, the approach to overcoming these biases are three fold: (1) being understanding and maintaining posture of impartiality in our approach, (2) challenging protagonists’ assumptions of reality, and (3) moving from positions to interests.

The impartial nature of mediation necessitates that mediators themselves do not succumb to these biases. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Mediators must be conscious of the snares of these biases on their own perceptions.

Assumptions create reality in the minds of the parties. In developing the different strategies, the general approach is to challenge the assumptions of the protagonists to help them see that other assumptions of realities are as valid, if not more valid, than their own.

It is also imperative that mediators go beyond positions to interests (Fisher & Ury, 1991). Positions are the verbal expressions of these biases. Helping parties articulate their concerns and needs will allow us to explore different options. Unless the mediator is able to uncover and address both parties’ concerns, they will be entrenched in their positions, which would then be very unhelpful and not beneficial.

Limitations of this Paper

The most prominent limitation of this paper is the lack of a systematic empirical research. The discussion on the nature of the biases in mediation and strategies to overcome these biases is based on both personal experiences and observation of these processes in mediation. The impact of perception biases on mediation must not be ignored because of the lack of empirical data. Research of an empirical nature in this subject could authenticate the strategies used.

Secondly, other important biases have not been considered. One of these is self-fulfilling prophecy. This perception bias also has serious ramifications for parties in mediation.

Future Research

From this brief discussion, several implications for future research in this area are raised.

First, prominence should be given to the study and empirical research of attribution processes in mediation if the assumption that causal attribution is ubiquitous. Presently, no empirical research based on the attribution theory has been found. There is a dearth of information on this subject. There are several questions that await some answers from potential research: How evident are these biases and how are they manifested in mediation? How do these biases affect the mediation process, parties, and the mediator? What is the impact of these biases on mediators? Some studies have shown the effect of attribution biases on judges’ determinants of criminality and sentencing decisions (Hatvany & Strack, 1980; Oswald, 1992;). What then is the extend of these biases on mediators and their decision-making process? In our multi-cultural Singapore contexts, are certain cultural groups more inclined to different biases?

Second, mediation training should include the understanding, recognizing and overcoming of these perception biases. These and other biases should constitute an important part of the mediation training so that mediators will begin to understand these perspectives and their implications on mediation. More importantly, specific skills should be honed to help mediators overcome these biases.


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John S. K. Ng, Ph.D

John has over 25 years of management consultancy and training experience with corporations, academic institutions and non-profit organizations. A leader and trainer, John is well-versed in the art of people motivation and his warm personality has endeared him to many.

His expertise includes leadership coaching, team effectiveness, change management and interpersonal skills. He is expert in mediation and conflict management, and is a Mediation Consultant with the Subordinate Courts in Singapore.

He also serves as consultant to companies such as Singapore Airlines, American Standard and Beca Carter Hollings & Ferner. He received his Ph.D. in interpersonal communication from Northwestern University, USA. In the words of Professor Michael Roloff, Chairman, Northwestern University Communications Studies Department, John is "an effective communicator, articulate, organized and personable."

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