The sinister attribution error: Paranoid cognition and collective distrust in groups and organizations

The sinister attribution error: Paranoid cognition and collective distrust in groups and organizations

Motivation and Emotion. June
1994, Vol. 18, Issue 2, Pages 199-230

Recent social psychological research on paranoid cognition has shown that when individuals are self-conscious or feel under evaluative scrutiny, they tend to overestimate the extent to which they are the target of others’ attention. As a result, they make overly personalistic attributions about others’ behavior. These personalistic attributions, in turn, foster a pattern of heightened distrust and suspicion regarding others’ motives and intentions. Drawing on this research, the present work investigates antecedents and consequences of paranoid cognition in groups and organizations. Results of two studies are presented. Study 1 investigates how tenure in a group or organization affects individuals’ self-consciousness and susceptibility to paranoid cognition. Study 2 replicates and extends the results of the first study using a new laboratory analog for studying paranoid cognition in small groups. Implications of the findings are discussed in terms of their contribution to theory regarding the origins and dynamics of collective distrust and suspicion.

*Reprinted in Max H. Bazerman (2005), Negotiation, decision making, and conflict resolution, International Library of Critical Writings on Business and Management Series. Volume pp. 147-162. Northampton, MA: Elgar Publishing.