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Defensive Attribution: Getting in Your Own Way


Perceptual bias is an experience that we all have.  It means that we are biased against or for something based on what we see, touch, smell, taste or hear.  It’s the lens that we automatically filter all our experiences through. Rarely do we see just the facts. Our beliefs, history and fears influence the way we see the world.

One common bias is called Defensive Attribution Bias.  This means that we tend to attribute a cause to events. We usually do this when something unfortunate happens.  It can be uncomfortable to think that events happen by chance or by accident.  If things happen by chance then bad things could happen to us at any time. Who wants to walk around with that idea? So we search for a cause, an explanation for why these misfortunes occur. If there’s a cause, then that means it’s less likely to happen to us for no reason. So we worry less.

We search for causes and sometimes that becomes blame. Imagine that you pass an accident on the freeway. It’s a bad one. You may think, “The driver was drunk.”  That would be an explanation that could protect you–if you don’t drink while driving, then it won’t happen to you. Maybe your friend’s husband divorces her. You may think that she spent too much time at work and ignore him, and for that reason he left.

Defensive Attribution can also be what’s called self-handicapping. This is when you protect your self-esteem from taking a hit by getting in your own way. Imagine that you have an important presentation at work on Tuesday.  Monday night you celebrate your friend’s birthday.  You’re out late and don’t feel well the next day. You can blame not doing a good presentation on being out late Monday night and having some hangover symptoms. In this way you have an excuse–it’s not really your work that wasn’t up to expectations. If you don’t do your best on a job application, then you weren’t really rejected–it was because of the way you completed the application.

Sometimes not seeing the truth as it is or distorting facts doesn’t have negative consequences.  Sometimes it does. Searching for a cause can be damaging if the cause of problems is seen as being other people or groups of people. And self-handicapping can be a problem if you do it repeatedly and never give yourself a chance to succeed.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash
Defensive Attribution: Getting in Your Own Way

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2019). Defensive Attribution: Getting in Your Own Way. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 May 2019
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