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The defensive attribution hypothesis (or bias, theory, or simply defensive attribution) is a social psychological term from the attributional approach referring to a set of beliefs used as a shield against the fear that one will be the victim or cause of a serious mishap.
Commonly, defensive attributions are made when someone witnesses or learns of mishaps involving other people. These attributions of blame will depend upon any similarities between the witness and the person(s) involved in the mishap. More responsibility will be attributed as personal or situational similarity decreases. Assigning responsibility allows the observer to believe that the mishap was controllable and thus preventable.
A defensive attribution may also be used to protect the person's self-esteem if, despite everything, the mishap does occur, because blame can be assigned to the "other" (person or situation). The use of defensive attributions is considered a cognitive bias because an individual will change their beliefs about a situation based upon their motivations or desires rather than the factual characteristics of the situation.:112
Walster (1966) hypothesized that it can be frightening to believe that a misfortune could happen to anyone at random, and attributing responsibility to the person(s) involved helps to manage this emotional reaction.
Shaver (1970) recognized that the similarity of the witness to the person(s) involved in the misfortune - in terms of situation, age, gender, personality, etc. - changes the amount of blame one is ready to ascribe. This is related to the empathy response, which is more likely to be activated if the witness sees similarities between themselves and the person(s) involved. Shaver was able to demonstrate this response by describing events to test subjects; varying the situations and people described to either match or be significantly different from the subjects: as similarity with witnesses increased, attributions of responsibility decreased.
In 1981 Jerry Burger published a meta-analysis of 22 peer-reviewed studies on the defensive attribution hypothesis, in which he found strong evidence to support Shaver's hypothesized negative relationship between similarity and responsibility.
Researchers examining sexual assault have consistently found that male participants blamed rapists less than female participants did, and that male participants blamed the rape victims more than female participants did. These findings support Shaver's similarity-responsibility hypothesis: male participants, who are personally similar to (male) rapists, blame rapists less than female participants who are dissimilar to rapists. On the other hand, female participants, who are personally similar to (female) rape victims, blame the victims less than male participants.