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PLoS One. 2016 Feb 5;11(2):e0148581. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0148581. eCollection 2016.

Performance Feedback Processing Is Positively Biased As Predicted by Attribution Theory.

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Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany.
Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, and Psychosomatics, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.
Neuroscience Center Zurich, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.
Center for Translational Developmental Neuroscience, Child Study Center, Yale University, New Haven, CT, United States of America.
Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Humboldt-Universitaet zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany.


A considerable literature on attribution theory has shown that healthy individuals exhibit a positivity bias when inferring the causes of evaluative feedback on their performance. They tend to attribute positive feedback internally (e.g., to their own abilities) but negative feedback externally (e.g., to environmental factors). However, all empirical demonstrations of this bias suffer from at least one of the three following drawbacks: First, participants directly judge explicit causes for their performance. Second, participants have to imagine events instead of experiencing them. Third, participants assess their performance only after receiving feedback and thus differences in baseline assessments cannot be excluded. It is therefore unclear whether the classically reported positivity bias generalizes to setups without these drawbacks. Here, we aimed at establishing the relevance of attributions for decision-making by showing an attribution-related positivity bias in a decision-making task. We developed a novel task, which allowed us to test how participants changed their evaluations in response to positive and negative feedback about performance. Specifically, we used videos of actors expressing different facial emotional expressions. Participants were first asked to evaluate the actors' credibility in expressing a particular emotion. After this initial rating, participants performed an emotion recognition task and did--or did not--receive feedback on their veridical performance. Finally, participants re-rated the actors' credibility, which provided a measure of how they changed their evaluations after feedback. Attribution theory predicts that participants change their evaluations of the actors' credibility toward the positive after receiving positive performance feedback and toward the negative after negative performance feedback. Our results were in line with this prediction. A control condition without feedback showed that correct or incorrect performance alone could not explain the observed positivity bias. Furthermore, participants' behavior in our task was linked to the most widely used measure of attribution style. In sum, our findings suggest that positive and negative performance feedback influences the evaluation of task-related stimuli, as predicted by attribution theory. Therefore, our study points to the relevance of attribution theory for feedback processing in decision-making and provides a novel outlook for decision-making biases.

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