Hostile Attribution Bias

Hostile Attribution Bias Definition

The hostile attribution bias (HAB) is the tendency to interpret the behavior of others, across situations, as threatening, aggressive, or both. People who exhibit the HAB think that ambiguous behavior of others is hostile and often directed toward them, while those who do not exhibit the HAB interpret the behavior in a nonhostile, nonthreatening way. Furthermore, people who make the HAB often respond to the other person’s behavior in an aggressive manner because they perceive it as a personal threat. When they respond aggressively, this action is often viewed as inappropriate because the other person’s original behavior was not intended to be aggressive. For example, imagine that Jose accidentally bumps his shopping cart into Melissa’s cart in a busy grocery store. Then Melissa mistakenly assumes that Jose aggressively bumped her cart to get ahead of her in the aisle. If Melissa then intentionally hits Jose’s cart, she has reacted in an aggressive manner that was inappropriate to the situation.

Hostile Attribution BiasAn important point is that individuals who show the HAB often misperceive the intent of the other individual’s behavior as aggressive or harmful to themselves or another person, wrongly believing that the person meant to cause harm in performing the action. This biased judgment of the other’s intent represents a disruption in normal cognitive processing of events. Nicki Crick and Kenneth Dodge developed the social information processing model, which describes the steps that are experienced when people cognitively process information in social interactions. Crick and Dodge have also conducted several studies that have identified how aggressive children show different patterns of information processing than nonaggressive children. Once these cognitive patterns are developed, they are considered to be relatively stable through adulthood.

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Hostile Attribution Bias and Social Information Processing

According to the social information processing model and other cognitive theories, children process and act on information from the social environment through sequential steps, including (a) absorption of social stimuli (encoding of social cues), (b) assignment of meaning to the stimuli (interpretation), (c) determination of goals, (d) accessing of possible responses, (e) selection of a response, and (f) performance of a behavioral act. Progression through these steps usually occurs rapidly.

Aggressive children have been found to experience disruptions at most of the stages, particularly at the encoding, interpretation, and response generation stages. They tend to focus their attention on threatening social cues (such as potentially angry facial expressions of the person talking to them), interpret that information in a hostile manner, and generate aggressive responses. An important theoretical concept that affects how people encode, interpret, and utilize information is schemas.

Hostile Attribution Bias and Aggressive Schemas

Processing social information is cognitively demanding; therefore, humans use schemas—mental frameworks of beliefs about people, events, and objects—to rapidly understand stimuli. Schemas are automatically activated (brought to mind) when the schema is available in memory and information relevant to that schema is encountered. Schemas direct people’s attention to particular information and guide their interpretation of it, even to the extent that they may fill in missing pieces by utilizing the schema. Schemas can also act like a filter; people tend to pay attention to information that is consistent with their schemas and ignore inconsistent information.

People who exhibit the HAB appear to have more elaborate and complex aggressive information in their schemas for various events and concepts than do nonaggressive people. For example, in contrast to a nonaggressive person, an aggressive person’s schema for bars might include that they are places where people get into fights, which may cause the person to perceive more threats and act aggressively in bars.

Because they have many stored memories of hostile situations, people who exhibit the HAB may also more easily bring to mind and apply hostility-related schemas to social situations. Consistent with the way that schemas function, a person with hostility-related schemas would initially attend to more hostile social cues and fail to pay attention to nonhostile cues. The schema would also be used to interpret ambiguous cues. To illustrate, a person with a hostile schema for bars will enter a bar with this schema easily accessible. Once the schema is activated, that person will tend to notice individuals who act in a potentially hostile way, pay more attention to hostile than nonhostile cues, and interpret ambiguous behavior (such as the poke of an elbow in a crowd) as hostile.

Schemas frequently have self-confirming effects. Crick and Dodge defined reactive aggression as occurring when ambiguous social information is misinterpreted as more threatening than it is and the person tends to respond aggressively to it, often to defend him- or herself or to retaliate against perceived provocation. Reactive aggression therefore incorporates the HAB process, as individuals displaying a HAB generate aggressive responses to the other’s behavior and respond aggressively. This response, in turn, is perceived by others as aggressive and can result in a hostile reaction. Ultimately, the person with a HAB experiences a confirmation of their original, but distorted, belief, and the hostile schema is strengthened.

Development of Aggressive Schemas

Hostile schemas form through repeated exposure to and experiences with aggressive responses to interpersonal conflict. Children who are aggressive, or who experience hostile situations frequently in their daily lives, are expected to have more well-established and accessible hostility-related schemas. Such children may include those who are exposed to community and/or marital violence, watch violent television, and play violent video games. Research has shown that children who frequently experience violent situations, even who play violent video games, show the HAB. Adults who have aggressive personalities and who experience physical pain have also been found to perceive ambiguously hostile information as more aggressive than did aggressive and nonaggressive individuals who did not experience pain. Therefore, certain violent or uncomfortable situations may induce the HAB, especially in people with aggressive personalities.

Hostile Attribution Bias Implications

The reduction of exposure to and positive experiences with aggressive resolutions of conflict should reduce the HAB and aggressive responses that result from this biased processing. Therefore, reduction in aggressive children’s access to violent media and to witnessing reinforcing or positive outcomes to aggression should reduce the accessibility of hostile event schemas, or at least reduce the likelihood of acting upon them. Interventions that help people to control their anger during conflict and to think of nonaggressive solutions have been shown to be effective in reducing aggressive responses in children who display reactive aggression.


  1. Anderson, K. B., Anderson, C. A., Dill, K. E., & Deuser, W. E. (1988). The interactive relations between trait hostility, pain and aggressive thoughts. Aggressive Behavior, 24, 161-171.
  2. Crick, N. R., & Dodge, K. A. (1996). Social information-processing mechanisms in reactive and proactive aggression. Child Development, 67, 993-1002.