Hostile Attribution Bias | Definition & Examples

Hostile attribution bias is the tendency to interpret the ambiguous behavior of others as hostile. Under hostile attribution bias, people assume that others have negative intentions towards them and want to hurt them, even when others have no such intentions.

Example: Hostile attribution bias
You notice two people sitting across your table at a coffee shop, whispering and laughing. Because they occasionally look your way, you assume they must be laughing about you. However, that’s not the case—they simply look at you because you happen to be sitting right across them.

As a result, people who exhibit hostile attribution bias also tend to react aggressively, causing problems in their relationships with others.

What is hostile attribution bias?

Hostile attribution bias is a type of cognitive bias where individuals tend to interpret the behavior of others in various situations as threatening, aggressive, or both. More specifically, it is an attribution bias that stems from wondering about the cause of other people’s behaviors, similar to self-serving bias.

Hostile attribution bias occurs during the process of social information processing. This is a series of steps that starts with perceiving and deciphering social cues (e.g., others’ facial expressions) and ends with choosing a suitable response in social interactions (e.g., a greeting).

People who make hostile attributions assign hostile meaning to ambiguous cues and situations, while people who do not exhibit this type of bias interpret the same behavior as non-hostile or non-threatening. People who make hostile attributions often feel threatened, and they respond with aggression. Because their perception is biased (and in reality the other person means no harm), their aggressive response is usually viewed as inappropriate.

Why is hostile attribution bias a problem?

Hostile attribution bias is associated with violent behavior. Although it was initially observed in children, studies show that there is a strong association between this bias and aggressive behavior that cuts across age, gender, and other factors.

Individuals who consistently exhibit hostile attribution bias in their early years are more likely to react aggressively toward others later in life. This aggression can be in the form of physical, verbal, or more indirect violence, such as spreading rumors in order to damage someone’s reputation.

Because of the strong link between hostile attribution bias and aggression, various interventions target hostile attribution in order to prevent aggression by training individuals to correctly identify the intentions of others.

What causes hostile attribution bias?

Hostile attribution bias is caused by cognitive schemas, or frameworks that individuals use to organize knowledge about the world and interpret information. These schemas are formed through our interaction with the world.

Negative early-life experiences, such as harsh parenting or exposure to a violent role model, are encoded as schemas or patterns of behavior. These are then retrieved when the individual is faced with an unclear social situation. Because of these negative schemas, individuals assign hostile meaning to others’ intentions.

More specifically, negative schemas may lead to errors in how individuals perceive and interpret social situations, but they may also prevent them from generating a range of possible responses and choosing the most appropriate. Such errors result in hostile attribution bias.

For example, children who are teased at school or experience corporal punishment at home may interpret another child bumping into them on the school playground as intentional, even if it was accidental.

Hostile attribution bias example

Hostile attribution bias can help explain why some people have a hard time giving others the benefit of the doubt and instead lose their temper.

Example: Hostile attribution bias in the workplace
Suppose you are on a business trip with your colleagues. While waiting to meet a client at the hotel, you buy a hot cup of coffee from the vending machine. Suddenly, one of your co-workers bumps into you and spills your coffee over your shirt. Instead of coming up with different response options, such as giving them the chance to apologize, you start shouting at your colleague.

Under hostile attribution bias, you might have developed a negative schema in the course of your lifetime that causes you to think that others want to humiliate or hurt you. Because of that, you jump to the conclusion that your colleague wanted to burn you with the hot coffee intentionally, to embarrass you in front of the client. You cannot think of other possibilities, such as that they did it by accident, even though it truly was an accident.

Other types of research bias

Frequently asked questions about hostile attribution bias

How do you measure hostile attribution bias?

To measure hostile attribution bias, studies typically present participants with a hypothetical situation in which an individual is provoked by a peer whose behavior is purposely ambiguous. Participants are then asked to indicate the intent of the peer. This can be done through videos, pictures, audio, vignettes, or staged interactions (with actors).

Two important considerations when choosing the format are ecological validity (i.e., the extent to which the results are generalizable to a real-life setting) and social desirability bias (i.e., participants may not have wanted to report hostile attributions).

What is attribution in psychology?

Attribution is a term describing the inferences people make when trying to explain the causes of certain events, the behavior of others, or their own behavior. Because these inferences are based not only on objective facts but also on our mental state, emotions, and past experiences, attributions can be distorted and lead to bias.

An example of such bias is hostile attribution bias, or the tendency to attribute negative intentions to others, especially when their intentions are unclear.

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, March 31). Hostile Attribution Bias | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 9 April 2024, from


Deschenes, S. S., Dugas, M. J., & Gouin, J.-P. (2015). An investigation of the effects of worry and anger on threatening interpretations and hostile attributions of ambiguous situations. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 6(3), 230–241.

Is this article helpful?
Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.