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Attributing Intention

An excerpt from our upcoming book Wisdom In Buddhism, due for release early 2018. This is from the chapter on Bias in Decision Making

Attributing Intention

This bias is really a subsection of attribution theory, which is beyond the scope of this book, but it is worth a mention.

Attribution theory looks into how an observer is able to use gathered social cues to arrive at causal explanations for events or judgment about another persons behaviour.

For the most part there are two tracks running that we tend to use to explain behaviour of others; internal and external. In the first, we might, for example, attribute intentionally bad behaviour to some internal flaw in the persons character. “They have a mean streak.”. In the later case we might attribute accidental bad behaviour to external causes, over which the observed individual appears to have no control or influence.

Drawing largely from JONES, E. E. (1976) How do people perceive the causes of behaviour? American Scientist, 64, 300–5. Jones identified five factors that we seem to use to determine the character, mood and intention of others.


Where we observe a behaviour or hear words that are freely chosen, without coercion or threat, we assume internal factors to be at play. Should the words or actions that are freely chosen be negative, then we assume negative intent. If the words and actions are positive in nature, then we assume positive intent.

Accidental vs Intentional behaviour

Behaviour that we perceive to be intentional is usually attribute to internal factors, while accidental behaviours are usually attributed to outside forces, beyond the control of the individual. Accidentally knocking over a glass of wine, while rising from the table would be considered accidental behaviour and be considered as an outside force. On the other hand, telling the host that the meat is over or under cooked, in front of other guests, would be considered intentional and caused by a personality flaw, such as poor manners and/or rudeness.

Social Desirability

Behaviours or words that we would consider low in social desirability we tend to attribute to the person’s personality. For example, failing to offer an aged person or an obviously pregnant woman a seat on the bus would be considered low social desirability and be judged a personality flaw - in some way delinquent, selfish or rude.

Hedonistic Relevance

Are the words or behaviours perceived to be of benefit to us or a harm to us? We are all ego-centric which means that we tend to think the world revolves around us and that we are the cause of so much action in our little world. When someone exhibits anger or an element of aggression towards us, we tend to think it’s something about us that has caused it. As my wife so eloquently reminds me, we are usually only ‘bit players’ in other peoples dramas and their apparent focus on us is likely not personal.

If the behaviour or words, directed at us, are kindly and positive, we might perceive the intention to also be kindly and positive. Should the words directed at us be rude and offensive, we might consider the intention to be rude and offensive.


When the words or actions of another appear to have a direct impact on us, we usually consider it “personal” and not just the by-product of an unfolding situation in which we are simply ‘caught up.’

There’s much more to this attribution theory business, but like I said, it’s beyond the scope of this book. Suffice it to say, that when we interact with people, listen to their words and observe their actions, we try to put our observations into some kind of social context and then judge the behaviour using the five principles noted above.

Mirror Neurons

Another theory that seems popular of late is that our brains possess ‘mirror’ neurons . These specialized neurons seem to have some importance around understanding the actions and emotional state of other people as well as our ability to learn through imitation. It’s suggested that the brain has a ‘simulation’ function and these mirror neurons seem to allow us to run a simulation of the observed behaviours of others to empathize with their mood and estimate their intentions.*

Mind you, this is very speculative and most of this research has been done with primates, other than humans, but there certainly seems to be something in our brains that helps us instantly determine if a person is genuine or false and to what degree.

The problem is, even with both of these theories taken into account, this ability is not always accurate or even correct at all, so we need to be careful around attributing intentions to peoples words, looks or actions.

Personal Anecdote

I once owned an espresso bar and there was this fellow who would wander around the neighbourhood, nattering away to himself, kicking at lamp posts and parking meters and generally sounding and acting incoherent. He would mutter about pies, pies, pies, all the time. “Nut job, and likely a little dangerous,” is what any casual observer might think.

On the one or two occasions he came in, I ushered him out (kindly, but affirmatively) fearing for my physical safety and that of my patrons. He never expressed that he wanted anything other than to be bothersome. You could see the look of gratitude on the faces of my customers and almost hear the sighs of relief.

Then one day, a friend of his came into the shop and wanted to introduce him to me. Inwardly, I was reluctant and it must have shown. His friend told me that the fellow wandering around suffers from ‘Tourettes Syndrome’ a neurological condition that involves, among other things, nervous ticks, uncontrollable spasms, involuntary utterances and repetitive words - at least in this particular fellow. Being anxious only tended to make it worse for the afflicted individual. His name was Daniel.

He brought Daniel in and you could sense that he felt relieved that I wasn’t going to escort him out. You see, his condition was not his fault and it turned out not to be dangerous to others. When allowed to sit down, order a coffee and relax, almost all his obvious outward signs of distress faded away. Then, when someone else came into the café you could see him get agitated again, but then calm down. When he and I spoke, he began a lot of his sentences by repeating ‘pie, pie, pie’ before getting to the topic.

Occasionally Daniel suffered minor seizures, in which he would just stop whatever he was doing and stare into space for a few minutes. I don’t know if it was from the Tourettes Syndrome or some other, non-disclosed ailment, such as epilepsy. When this first happened, I called 911 and they arrived just after he recovered. Both he and they said it likely wasn’t necessary to call them for this particular symptom, but if it lasted more than a ten minutes, I might want to call.

Over the months that followed, Daniel and I became well acquainted and even friendly. While he never became what I’d call a ‘regular’ customer, he would make an appearance at least once a week at various times and for various intervals. Other patrons became comfortable with his ticks and spasms and would occasionally exchange a few words with him.

The take away here is that I incorrectly attributed intentions that were not at all present in Daniel and I need to be careful about that.


* Molenberghs P, Cunnington R, Mattingley J (July 2009). "Is the mirror neuron system involved in imitation? A short review and meta-analysis". Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

#Buddhism #wisdom #WisdominBuddhism #Intention #AttributingIntention

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