Attribution Theory and the Online Community

In this new series of posts I will explore what social psychology can teach us about managing and leading online communities.

The Attribution Theory tries to answer the question how we interpret the behavior of people around us. According to this theory, we explain such behavior by attributes: either external factors, such as the current situation, or internal factors, such as intelligence, character or temperament. When assigning these attributes, there are two common mistakes that people make.

Most people are subject to Self-Serving Bias, tending to link our own successes to internal factors, and our failures to external factors (although for people that are depressed the opposite is true).

In line with this, members of an online community will consider the group’s success as their own. However, in case of failure, nobody will associate it with their own lack of contribution, but the community will be blamed for being poorly managed.

When explaining the behavior of other people, we normally overestimate the internal and underestimate the external factors. This phenomenon is called Fundamental Attribution Error, and is especially valid when we know little about the other person.

This common mistake may be very dangerous if you take an action that is disliked by the online community. Most people would not understand the external factors driving a decision that is unsatisfactory for them, they will assign you bad will and turn away from you. In order to minimize the effect of this error, you need to put a lot of effort into explaining the situation and your motivation. Also, if you allow the community to get to know you better, they will be less likely to fall victim to this mistake.



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