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.*